National Geographic : 2009 Jan
• or inebriated miners. If the blast doesn t kill, the carbon monoxide fumes may. Peru has strict laws governing mine safety, but there s little oversight in La Rinconada. "Of the 200 min- ing companies here, only ve make a full set of safety equipment obligatory," says Andrés Paniura Quispe, a safety engineer who works with one of the few companies that maintains high standards but still requires miners to buy their own equipment. Miners cope with the drumbeat of death with a re exive fatalism. e local saying---"Al labor me voy, no sé si volveré"---translates as "O to work I go, I don t know if I ll make it back." A death in the mine, in fact, is considered a good omen for those le behind. Human sacri ces, practiced in the Andes for centuries, are still considered the highest form of o ering to the mountain deity. According to local beliefs, the chemical process by which the mountain absorbs a human brain brings gold ore closer to the surface, making it easier to extract. But the gods surely can t be happy with how poisoned La Rinconada s environment has become. e raw sewage and garbage on the overcrowded streets are minor nuisances com- pared with the tons of mercury released dur- ing the process of separating gold from rock. In small-scale gold mining, UNIDO estimates, two to ve grams of mercury are released into the environment for every gram of gold recovered--- a staggering statistic, given that mercury poi- soning can cause severe damage to the nervous system and all major organs. According to Peru- vian environmentalists, the mercury released at La Rinconada and the nearby mining town of Ananea is contaminating rivers and lakes down to the coast of Lake Titicaca, more than a hundred miles away. Residents around La Rinconada suffer the brunt of the destruction. Rosemery s father, Esteban Sánchez Mamani, has worked here for 20 years, though he rarely enters the mines these days because of a chronic illness that has sapped his energy and raised his blood pressure. Sánchez isn t sure what the ailment is---his lone visit to the doctor was inconclusive---but he sus- pects it originated in the polluted environment. "I know the mines have taken years away from me," says Sánchez, whose hunched frame makes him seem decades older than his 40 years. "But this is the only life we know." The family s fate now depends on the ore that Sánchez s wife, Carmen, hauls down from the mountain. Sitting on the oor of the fam- ily s stone hut, Sánchez spends most of his days pounding the rock into smaller pieces, keeping the gold-flecked shards in a blue coffee cup. Rosemery does her homework on a sack of rice, peppering a visitor with questions about life outside La Rinconada: "Do you chew coca leaves in your country? Do you own alpaca?" ough just a rst grader, she has decided that she d like to be an accountant and live in the U.S. "I want to go far from here," she says. Rosemery tags along as her father delivers two sacks of ore---the weekly haul---to the tiny mill above their home. is is part of the end- less routine, but each time Sánchez can t help In Chennai, Dilli Bai (at right) joins other sweepers who pan for flecks from neighbor- hood jewelry work- shops, prospecting at dawn, before official trash collectors arrive. Bai collects about a gram a week from the dust of the city streets. Wherever there is gold, people will seek it.