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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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