Rit’i K’uchu, La Rinconada (Ananea), el lugar que no debería de existir y que se llama irónicamente La Bella Durmiente de Nieve
In 1998 I returned to La Rinconada in Puno, where in previous years we tried to organize a miners union together with the National Federation of Miners of Peru, and a Social Photography Workshop (TAFOS). A sort of last station in someone’s life, a lawless place, without a way out. The wildest place I have ever seen in a time without wars. People living there desperately are mostly homeless youths wanted for justice. All have in common that the last thing they have left to lose is life itself.
It is considered the highest town in the world, located at 5,000 m.a.s.l. At the time, thirty thousand people lived in La Rinconada (today there are seventy thousand). Houses are made of corrugated metal sheets, they lack potable water or a drainage system; sewage waste runs through an open gutter between roads without asphalt. To this day there is no sanitary service, solid waste mixes with human waste and accumulates in and on the outskirts of the town. The smell is sickening.
Temperatures rise slightly above 0ºC, but go down to 25ºC at night. They are only protected by thin corrugated metal sheets, without heating. They keep warm with liquor; there are also prostitutes -usually under age- and their faith is that abundant gold will be found in the mines, located a few hundred meters above the town.
At the mines, tunnels drilled in the ice of Ananea Glaciers are not the average height of a person.
To complete the disastrous life for miners and marketers, together with their wives and children, everything is contaminated with mercury, the air, dirt and walls. Many families burn amalgam containing mercury with gold in their kitchens, where the cooled mercury drips on food, clothes and beds.
The Ananea Glacier reaches 6,000 m.a.s.l. Many tunnels penetrate the foothills, through the ice, until rock is reached containing a high concentration of gold. The Incas had already worked in this area, located at the foot of the Andes Mountains.
While glaciers are melting, the movement of water grinds the rock, releasing gold that has caused so much fever in the jungle of Madre de Dios, where the rivers from Ananea end. Therefore, La Rinconada gives rise to alluvial mining in the Departments of Puno and also Madre de Dios, where nearly 10% of the gold produced in Peru is extracted. This is done through extractive methods that are harmful for humans and the environment. However, only a few earn some money.
The concession with the State maintains Corporación Minera Ananea S.A. active, who exploits a small part of the mining site. Around 250 contractors, organized in three cooperatives, rent from the mining company, the right to exploit hundred of tunnels. Approximately 4,000 miners work for them permanently. Additionally, a countless number of temporary workers to do small jobs, such as adolescents who push wheelbarrows in the tunnels, where one cannot advance in a standing position.
Few workers receive a salary for 28 days work, as contracts are verbal (cachorreo) meaning their work is compensated with the right to exploit tunnels for one or two days belonging to their contractor, on their own account. Depending on the grade of the mineral from the seam, it can be a large amount. There have been cases where a worker has extracted the equivalent of Soles 5,000 in gold in one day, although the majority earns little or nothing.
The Pallaqueras (women who collect the remains after miners remove stones) and their children work outside the mines. They rummage in the tailings looking for small stones discarded that sometimes contain a small amount of gold. Finally, they crush the rocks in large stone mills (quimbaletes), to break the stones and amalgamate the gold with mercury.
The day the mountain collapsed
The day I arrived in La Rinconada, while looking for a place to stay overnight, the Miners Association (a sort of workers union) warned me of a huge accident that was about to occur. Every week there are fatal accidents to regret, but this time a whole wall of the mountain was about to collapse. Drilling in the tunnels has been extreme without anyone controlling the impacts. Now one can hear how the rock is detaching from the mountain, ready for a huge avalanche.
The snow begins to come down at nighttime. Everyone is expectant of what is going to happen. Suddenly a huge explosion shakes us. Next, a cloud of dust covers the Pampa where tens of thousands of tons of rocks are scattered, leaving the tunnels exposed.
The contractors of the tunnels have become paralyzed, as the seams they pursued with so much work are now scattered on the Pampa, like public tailings. Soon, the pallaqueras and anyone with a hammer and lantern take over the Pampa locking for remains left by the miners. Never mind if rocks were still falling, killing two women. The gold fever was stronger than the instinct of survival.