In Peru, A Troubled City On Top Of The World Tries To Rise Out Of Purgatory

Once a simple gold-mining camp, La Rinconada is considered the world's highest city. But its 30,000 inhabitants live amid ice melt and endless piles debris. Can Peru finally clean it up?

La Rinconada's trash still piles up high
La Rinconada's trash still piles up high
Frédéric Faux

LA RINCONADA — Wrapped in his parka, sergeant Heriberto takes his hand out of his pocket so he can read the daily police record. “First, there was this blast in a mine gallery that killed a man, and then this miner who was stabbed as he was going out of a bar, and eventually this man was arrested with 90 smuggled dynamite sticks.”

Just another day in the Peruvian town of La Rinconada, the old gold-mining camp that is considered the highest city in the world.

Here, at the foot of the Ananea glacier, every activity is linked to the precious metal, which is mined without permission. Night and day, helmeted men come and go in the mines, as on an assembly line. Mercury vapors continually waft from the foundries and then cool down and are deposited on the whole neighborhood.

We are 870 miles from Lima, on the Bolivian border, and as in the old West, the only real law is the law of the jungle. “Traditionally, people from the Altiplano — the Andean Plateau — have been powerful rebels,” the sergeant notes. “But it’s even worse with these illegal miners. When we want to intervene, they challenge us and we have to retreat.”

The police precinct opened less than two years ago, and there isn’t even so much as a plaque to mark it. The 30 men who work there stay just six months at a time, one year at most. After “everlasting nights at -20°C (-4°F)” and “the lack of oxygen,” returning to the bottom of the mountain often comes as a relief. Because living in La Rinconada is still a real ordeal.

Mud, garbage and poverty

The first shock comes when the minibus enters the Ananea plateau, a two-hour ride far from Juliaca, the regional capital. Explosives, bulldozers and diggers are all over the Altipano’s thousands of acres. The dirt road travels through an obstacle course created by lunar craters and lakes so polluted they’ve taken on a psychedelic color. We are at an altitude of about 15,748 feet. The road then climbs up again through a veritable ocean of garbage until we reach La Rinconada. The central square is surrounded by muddy streets where hawkers compete for their places with truck drivers. The brick houses of the center city soon give way to tin shacks that continue up to the base of the glacier, under the threatening white columns of ice.

By midday, when the thaw transforms the streets into a cesspool, the smell is unbearable. Edgar Calcina, the 35-year-old deputy mayor, seems apologetic at the sight and smells of his city. He is one of the few people actually born here.

“One of our main problems is that there is no landfill or sewage. … It all pours into the streets,” he says. It is a grotesque situation for a city under a glacier, but La Rinconada also lacks water. Tank trucks come from Julliaca to meet consumption demands. And to supply the mines, wells are dug into the ice to capture meltwater, which then travels through a series of aerial pipes.

It's unclear how many people live in this relative purgatory, though estimates range from 30,000 to 40,000. No one really knows for sure. Mining in La Rinconada suddenly grew in the 2000’s thanks to the rising price of gold and the arrival of power here. But the population is always changing. In La Rinconada’s main school, pupils stay a few months or a year and then disappear.

“Parents built most of the classrooms because the state completely forgot us,” says teacher Freddy Mamani. “Though it’s not easy, we try to give them a good education. We let them leave school 30 minutes earlier because of the cold and the drunkard hanging around. … We want them to be home before nighttime.”

But the families settling here — and the schools cropping up all over to support them — indicate that La Rinconada is poised to become a real city. Next to the brothels and the beer joints there are now Internet cafes, doctor’s offices and a market where you can find everything from tropical fruits to flat-screen TVs. Edgar Calcina promises to launch the construction of a real police precinct, a health center and a landfill soon. “Engineers, doctors, teachers now live in la Rinconada, so we’re trying to restore a little bit of order in this city.”

The three cooperatives and dozens of subcontractors who are mining here, sometimes with state-of-the-art machines, have also been asked to formalize their operations with the government beginning in April 2014. This effort to bring the city up to standards won’t change the miners’ daily life, but the Peruvian government eagerly awaits taxes from the mining companies, which could be significant. La Rinconada’s gold production is expected to reach as much as 10 tons a year.

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How Low Trust In Government Fuels Violence Against Politicians

The deadly stabbing of UK MP David Amess confirms this researcher's ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad.

Tribute to slain UK MP David Amess in Leigh-on-Sea on Oct. 15

James Weinberg

The killing of British Conservative MP David Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on October 15, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councillor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.

This is to say nothing of the 2018 attack on the Palace of Westminster that left police officer Keith Palmer dead and MPs in a state of shock.

Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.

Between the divisive politics of Brexit and the growing polarization of British party politics, MPs currently work in a low-trust, high-blame environment. Even before the existential angst and subsequent politicking of the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent Hansard Society audit of political engagement concluded that “opinions of the systems of governing are at their lowest point in the 15-year Audit series – worse now than in the aftermath of the MPs' expenses scandal."

The ramifications of governing in such an age of distrust are significant for the mental health and wellbeing of politicians. With colleagues, I've argued that such visceral and endemic distrust is a key stressor in political life. People are not simply wary or skeptical of politicians, they now routinely criticize their personalities and dismiss their good intentions. At its most severe, this “distrust stressor" manifests in the growing threat of physical violence faced by politicians.

Unfortunately, the distrust stressor is commonplace in the febrile climate of post-millennial UK politics. Serious cases of stalking and harassment have become a “common experience" for MPs. In the UK general election of 2017, for example, 56% of surveyed parliamentary candidates expressed concern about the levels of abuse and intimidation they had received and 31% said they had felt “fearful" during the campaign. Misuse of anonymous social media accounts has intensified these problems and created a toxic environment for elected politicians that regularly exposes them to online rape and murder threats.

Governing under threat

As part of an ongoing study of trust and governance in five democracies around the world, I recently carried out more than 50 in-depth interviews with junior and senior politicians in national legislatures, including questions on the stresses and strains of political life.

Reflecting on the ramifications of simply doing their job, one Conservative MP commented:

There have been votes that have been controversial, and you can then get a lot of abuse as a result of picking a side. My office has been vandalized, I've had stuff sent to me in the post, I've received death threats. And you do build up a very thick skin doing this job, there's no shadow of a doubt. Because one week in it, if you're not able to roll with the punches, you won't see through a whole term.

Almost 40% of interviewees were able to cite more than one instance of serious abuse or threats of physical violence. Not only are these experiences felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK, but they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile. As one MP in New Zealand told me:

I've had some pretty horrible death threats and I've had a lot of abuse, particularly through social media. But also, funnily enough, in writing and phone calls. Unfortunately it's becoming more part of our political life.

Another, this time in South Africa, said:

What [this group of constituents] were saying is that if the water supply was not fixed by a certain time, they were going to kill me. And what they did is they took a tyre and said that this tyre was going to go around my neck and they're going to light it and that was going to be my demise. Listen, when you see your life flash before your eyes… you start to question whether it's worth it.

In the UK, analysis of data from the Representative Audit of Britain (a survey of all parliamentary candidates who stood in general elections between 2015 and 2019) suggests that the harassment, abuse and intimidation of elected and aspiring politicians is also highly gendered. Women politicians, and black and minority ethnic women in particular, experience a disproportionate share of sexualized abuse online. They also receive more aggressive and sexualized threats offline.

Contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation.

It is relatively easy to understand why all this would be detrimental to politicians' professional competence and their sense of personal worth and wellbeing, but it is harder to find solutions to this crisis.

Home Secretary Priti Patel has called for increased security measures in the wake of Amess's death. This is welcome but it's an instrumental response which might not be easy to implement. Political contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation – and it is unlikely that most MPs will agree to suspend constituency surgeries or fill their offices with armed guards at a time when governor-governed relations are already so strained.

Photo of \u200bNew Zealand's parliament in Wellington

New Zealand's parliament in Wellington

Guo Lei/Xinhua/ZUMA

Compassion and education

While specific issues around MPs' security and training are grappled with, we also need a call for conscious restraint and compassion in political discourse. When some politicians themselves resort to dog-whistle populism, verbal abuse and infighting, it broadcasts an image of politics as an arena for incivility. At the same time, it perpetuates a binary worldview that crowds out the possibility of empathy and compromise.

Alongside this, we need to overhaul the media coverage of politics. Increasingly intent on personalizing the political and politicizing the personal, a 24-hour news media too often drip feeds blunt stereotypes about politicians' personalities and motives. In contrast to much news coverage of politicians, my own research with hundreds of elected MPs and councillors has shown that the majority enter politics with an extraordinary dedication to improving the lives of others that is rarely perceived or appreciated by those they govern.

A deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible.

Equally important, nations around the world must commit to fully funded and well-resourced programmes of democratic education. Politics is messy and full of contingencies, and a deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible or desirable. In turn, this breeds disappointment and lowered self-efficacy, which together disrupt the positive potential of deliberative participation.

Ultimately, there is no place for political violence, harassment or intimidation in a functioning democracy. At the very least, politicians are ordinary humans attempting to undertake an extraordinary job on behalf of everybody else. Whatever their political views, nobody who has the courage to "step into the arena", to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, deserves to fear for their life in the pursuit of public service. To say that we need to rediscover civility and respect in our politics is once again an understatement of a devastating truth.The Conversation


James Weinberg is a lecturer in Political Behavior at the University of Sheffield

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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