How would it feel to drown in mercury?

Peru: Poisonous gold

La Rinconada is not a place for tender souls: the highest gold mine in the world has attracted over 80,000 soldiers of fortune at 5,100 meters above sea level. The greed for quick wealth is now poisoning not only the atmosphere in the small Peruvian town, but also Lake Titicaca, which is not far away.
Gold mine in La Rinconada, Peru: The way into the mine leads through meter-thick ice. It has to be hacked away all the time, otherwise the entrance will freeze over again.

“HIDD YOUR HIDDEN!” Hisses Rubén, the Quechua Inca, in the belly of Monte Ananea. But he smiles, his golden incisors gleaming in the light of the miner's lamp. Which seems almost emblematic under the given circumstances. This mountain is a gold mine, the highest in the world. More than half a millennium ago, Rubén's ancestors, the subjects of the great Inca Atahualpa, were digging here in the Peruvian high Andes. However, with completely different tools. One of the five Mineros is currently depositing dynamite sticks in the niche that they previously hammered into the ore rock with a jackhammer and chisel. Then he is suspiciously handling a detonator: "Exactly two minutes until the explosion," says Rubén. "All hands under cover!

The non-Inca present - the French photographer Pascal Maitre, the Peruvian journalist Carlos Fernández Baca and I - run like frightened chickens, but in unwanted slow motion. At an altitude of 5,300 meters, the body doesn't really listen to the head. Even the slightest physical exertion puts you in acute shortness of breath, combined with a radical loss of energy. Thinking and speaking in coherent sentences are not always successful either. That's why we have aerosol cans with us. "Spray three times in your mouth and it'll be better soon," the saleswoman in the pharmacy on Lake Titicaca had promised. But this is not the time to try spraying. As fast as we can, we follow the dark tunnel back towards the exit.

The gold rush town of La Rinconada: The upper world for the underworld

"We have to find a bend", Carlos puffs with convincing logic. The blast, Rubén warned, would not only throw fragments of stone through the tunnel. But also chasing after a storm of dust and poisonous gases. Then he and his people put protective masks over their mouth and nose. Why don't we actually have any?

We reach the nearest bend just before the bang, and cover up our faces with scarves and shirt collars in good time. The dust and gas cloud brushes us with a cold breath, then heart and breath calm down again. Está loco, totally crazy, thinks Carlos. He is right. I would go even further: the madness experienced today is part of a greater madness that goes by the name of La Rinconada. And it endangers far more than just the health of three reporters in the Inca Goldberg. But that's a longer story.

In the land of the icy morning

Ten days earlier. Around half past seven in the morning, Wilber Suaña Coyal starts the engine of his covered wooden ship Enlace (“connection”), takes a load of tourists on board and leaves the port of Puno on a glittering silver waterway that leads from the city shore into the heart of the sun. Of course, this is just an illusion, conjured up on the surface of Lake Titicaca by the still low day star.

But it is perfectly in tune with the destination of our voyage: the floating islands of the Uros, that - according to Captain Wilber - “last descendants of a first human race”. I should have brought a thicker sweater. On the Peruvian Altiplano, at an altitude of 3,800 meters, the morning hours are icy, whether in winter or summer. Wilber, the Uro, is standing on the boat roof with short sleeves. His gaze drifts calmly over the garbage bobbing in front of the bow. The Bay of Puno, I read at breakfast, had to swallow 13 kilos of rubbish per resident every day. But the captain is more interested in a large field of reeds in front of which the rubbish accumulates. "Totora," he says, "we owe Uros to this reed species that we can still live like the children of first mankind."

We owe the reed Totora to Uros that we can still live like the children of first mankind.
Wilber Wilber Suaña Coya, a member of the Uros indigenous people

That is his favorite subject. A very long time ago, the Uros believe, there was a paradise valley at the site of Lake Titicaca, where people lived happily under the protection of the mountain gods, the Apus. But ungrateful, as our species is, she prepared to steal the sacred fire from the gods. As a punishment, the Apus sent man-eating pumas.

Which in turn caused the sun to cry for 40 days. From the deluge of those tears a lake emerged that drowned all remaining life. The gods gave up and turned the pumas to stone. One human couple, however, managed to save themselves: in a canoe made of Totora reeds. From this couple the new humanity grew. “The two named Lake Titicaca,” Wilber concludes his story. “That means 'lake of stone pumas'. Since then, the home of the Uros has been here. "

Of course there are alternatives to this thesis. According to the Peruvian anthropologist Juan Palao Berastain, the true ancestors of the Uros came from the Amazon. Millennia ago they followed its tributaries to the sources in the Andes, then hiked through the plateau between the two cordillera and thus came to Lake Titicaca. This offered food and shelter - and totora for building huts, canoes, and even entire residential islands, which the Uros seemed so perfect that from then on they preferred to watch the changes in the less perfect world on the shore from a distance.

"The Uros were followed by other peoples," says Berastain, summing up the past two millennia on Lake Titicaca. “First Indian like the Kollas, Lupacas, Aymaras and Quechua-Inca. Then white people in iron armor. In the 20th century, the Uros heard of a first man on the moon. And then that satellite cameras would be able to photograph them even from space. And now they experience how people from all over the world come to Lake Titicaca to marvel at those who still live on floating islands. "

Of the 4,000 islands, 332 remained

The conquistadors counted more than 4,000 such islands in the 16th century, now there are 332. Nuevo Amanecer is one of them. It belongs to Captain Wilber's cousin Samuel Jilapa Suaño. The "New Dawn" offers space for five straw huts, four adults and several children. The extended family feeds on hunting fish and waterfowl - and tourists. With an inviting gesture, Samuel points to a display table in the middle of the island, where a few modest handicrafts await kind-hearted buyers.

We jump on "land". Trudging across a floor that feels like chewing gum and can break in if you step too hard. Why do the Uros islands swim? Because they are from Kili, explains Samuel. From roots of the totora reed. They contain oxygen. If you press them together, they become air mattresses.

The Uros probably copied this trick from the waterfowl; they build their nests the same way. And the Kili is enough for everyone. In spring, floods tear masses of reed roots from the lake floor. "We just need to collect them," says the owner of Nuevo Amanecer in a tone of total happiness. Two women plucking wild ducks for lunch give their consent.

A touch of the good old days

Are you really as happy as you make yourself out to be? I stealthily look at her bare feet in the cold morning. On the arid comfort of their sleeping huts, which is limited to coarse blankets. Her kitchen, which resembles the fireplace of prehistoric cavemen. Electricity? “We don't need to,” Samuel waves off. After all, the residents of the "New Dawn" neither watch TV nor surf the Internet. Drinking water? Comes from the same lake that they use as a septic tank. So no problem.

“We like our life the way it is,” assures the 64-year-old. “At night we like to look at the distant lights of Puno. They look nice. But their glitter doesn't draw us into town. "Wilber agrees with his cousin:" Uros belong on islands. "

Lake Titicaca is murdered

Maybe so. But once even our captain couldn't resist the really big glitter. Three years ago, he says, when we are back on the roof of his boat and following the sunny route, he left everything here - his island, the Enlace, his wife and children. To seek his luck in a gold mine in the high Andes. “I was obsessed with this idea!” After three weeks, Wilber was back, empty-handed but calm in his heart: “I rummaged through the snow like a madman. I only found the longing for my lake. Now everything is in order."

But what if there is soon no more room for reed people? The La Rinconada gold mine - the one that Wilber lured into the mountains - is a sensitive subject in Peru, as exciting as a thriller. "Lake Titicaca is being murdered," believes Gilmar Goyzueta, an ecology professor in Puno. “The murder weapon is poison. The Mineros use mercury and cyanide to remove the gold from the rock. These toxic substances contaminate the lake via the Río Ramis, which rises at La Rinconada and flows into the Titicaca. Nobody has any idea of ​​the extent of this catastrophe. "

This is also because hardly anyone wants to worry about it. Peru's economy is booming - with growth rates that can compete with those of China and India. Precious metals play a major role in this. Peru used to be considered a "beggar on a bank of gold". That is no longer true. In 2012 the country produced 165 tons of gold, almost as much as South Africa.

The most glaring example of the Peruvian gold rush is La Rinconada. Until the turn of the millennium, the place on the Ananea Mountain was just a camp where a couple of die-hard Inca ransacked the scree for gold rocks. La Rinconada is now the highest town in the world, with an estimated population of 80,000.

The reason for the demographic explosion was not the discovery of a new gold vein. The Incas have known for ages that treasure lies dormant in the bowels of the Ananea. "Sun sweat" was what they once called the glitter emanating from the mountain. The conquistadors laid “royal mines” on Ananea. A 16th century traveler claims to have seen a lump of gold as big as a horse's head and weighing over 50 kilos. But at some point the golden abundance was over. The mines were buried under an ice avalanche. It came from the glacier that still crowns Ananea to this day. After that there was calm on the mountain. The only digging was in the plain at the foot of the mountain. Underground mining was not worth it. The costs were too high and gold prices too low for a long time.

This changed with US President George W. Bush. His war in Iraq cost hundreds of billions of dollars. The subprime crisis followed, which expanded into the global financial and economic crisis. And as usual, capital withdrew from the weak dollar into gold. Its value, calculated in US currency, has almost quadrupled since 2000. This suddenly made underground mining in La Rinconada profitable.

A full bath costs 70 cents

It's four hours by off-road vehicle from Puno to the highest city in the world. Fortunately, Carlos Fernández Baca is with us. As the regional correspondent for the Peruvian daily "El Comercio", he often reports from La Rinco nada - mostly on topics such as mine accidents, glacier avalanches and robberies.

Our ride is a step-by-step immersion in the world of gold diggers. The first stage destination is Juliaca, Peru's largest city on Lake Titicaca with 230,000 inhabitants. It has no charm for travelers. Not so for the prospectors. Those who get rich in La Rinconada show it off in Juliaca. The “city of the winds”, as it is also called due to its unprotected location, seems to consist of shops, bars and discos on the one hand - and the construction sites of rapidly growing apartment buildings for the new rich from El Dorado on the other. “Gold digger weddings are particularly worth seeing,” says Carlos. "The typical present to the bride and groom is an off-road vehicle plus 100 crates of beer."

An hour later we pass the small town of Putina, famous for its hot thermal springs. These also serve as a sanctuary for mine workers. “In La Rinconada,” explains Carlos, “there is no hot water. During the night, temperatures drop to minus 20 degrees. Many Mineros don't even undress to sleep, let alone wash. Those who can afford the transport go to Putina once a week. A full bath at 40 degrees costs 2.5 soles. ”That is 70 cents.

A bit of color in the daily life of gold diggers

The overland road, which from Putina cuts almost in a straight line through the green pastureland of the Altiplano, ends in a series of adventurous hairpin bends. The journey continues several hundred meters higher on a stone-and-dust slope. This initially winds through a chaos of thrown up mounds of earth and ponds, the orange colored edges of which indicate cyanide.

This is the prairie of Ananea. She looks like a sadist has tried his hand at landscaping. A murdered nature whose corpse was forgotten to sew up after the autopsy. Here, the "aluvial method" is used to mine. This means that gold mining takes place in watercourses. The gold dust is washed out of the sand with the help of mercury and cyanides. The source streams used for this flow into Lake Titicaca.

Our goal finally appears on the scene. And for a moment the view is bewitching. The slope runs towards a huge snow mountain. At its foot, dots flash in the sun like the artificial ice stars of a luxurious ski resort. But the distant magic quickly drowns in the disgust of near vision. Thousands upon thousands of garbage bags cover the plain around us. Many of them are torn open. Vultures, crows and even seagulls peck in the waste. In between there are cute-looking alpacas that are after the last tufts of grass. A bizarre picture that looks more repulsive with every additional detail.

When you reach the mining town, the “ice stars” turn out to be tin huts. How can people live in such boxes? In the cold and stink, probably even knowing that the water they drink from snow and ice contains mercury. Carlos warns against jumping to conclusions: “These people do not see themselves as victims. You are here voluntarily. Because they know informal mining offers them real opportunities. In fact, there is much less poverty in the Puno province than in other regions of Peru. Thanks to La Rinconada. "

Since the city's road network is not suitable for car traffic, we continue our expedition on foot. The piles of huts, mostly sticking to the slopes, are divided into two large districts: The lower town, also called Cerro Lunar, lies on the banks of a lake that has been dried up by poison and dirt. The administrative buildings of the mining company Corporación Minera Ananea are located in the vicinity. In it, says Carlos, over 100 mine owners have come together.

A city without a name

The upper town does not have a name of its own. It grew out of the gold rush and is still growing. That is why there is not enough space, everything takes place in a very small space. There is a crowd on the half-frozen mud paths, where stalls for groceries, textiles and all kinds of odds and ends are lined up. There are cheap restaurants and pubs, unheated brothels and “society ladies” advertise services under nightmarish hygienic conditions.

The most conspicuous stores belong to gold buyers. They are small, square rooms with only three walls. The fourth wall, the one facing the street, consists of iron shutters that are pulled down when the shop closes. During the day, customers have access to a counter, which usually only has a pair of two-shell scales. Gold buyers are considered to be the highest-earning local dealers. However, they are also the most common victims of robbery.

La Rinconada's upper town is the world of the “informal” gold diggers. Whereby informal in no way means illegal. "In principle, this means that an informal is outside the law, but is not liable to prosecution," writes the German journalist Hildegard Willer, who lives in Peru.“Countless traders, businesspeople, small farmers ... and also gold miners who look for gold on their own, do not declare their income with the tax and do not otherwise worry about government regulations are informal. The awareness of wrongdoing of an informal gold prospector is usually zero. "

Not that La Rinconada is a lawless place. Only he has his own law. A sign reads “No entry for thieves under the death penalty”. It's stuck to a dummy human dangling from a power pole as if it had been lynched. Burglaries are common in her neighborhood, during the day when most of the men are underground, complains a passer-by in traditional Inca clothing with a small black hat. What about the police? The lady laughs briefly and walks under the "corpse" of the thief that has been tied up. One understands: the police have nothing to say in La Rinconada. Occasionally she is chased out of the city by angry gold diggers.

The dummy of a person as a warning: "Entry for thieves prohibited under the death penalty."

There are armed guards at the entrance to the Corporación Minera Ananea. We introduce ourselves as “journalists from Europe” and ask for an information meeting. 20 minutes later, a massive representative of the management welcomes us with “Bienvenidos!” To immediately make the opposite clear: enter the tunnels? Forbidden! Taking photos? Forbidden! Interviews with miners? Sadly impossible! “These measures are for your own safety!” Then he leaves the room and leaves us to an engineer who is also responsible for press relations.

Edwin Romero turns out to be extremely amiable. Maybe he didn't understand his superior's order correctly. In any case, he invites us to take a walk around the mine area. He could well imagine Cerro Lunar as a tourist attraction, says our new friend, with whom we are on the spot: “It's all interesting for Europeans, isn't it?” Very much, I agree. "And it would also be suitable as a film set," continues Edwin. Yes, that too. The tin huts, the mountains of rubbish, the dead lake in the valley - surely a couple of scenes for “The Hunger Games” could be filmed here.

At a tunnel entrance we can admire the thick layer of ice that had to be pierced to get into the mountain. The white engineers of the mining company would do Monte Ananea too La bela durmiente del oro call, Edwin chats on. Gold Sleeping Beauty? He grins sly: “This mountain has slept for centuries. Now we've woken him up. "

The rest of the festival: women search in the overburden of the mines for gold that the mineros may have overlooked.

Not far from us, Inca women toil on a scree slope. They are called Pallaqueras in Mineros jargon. “Most of them are widows,” Carlos knows. "Or women with children abandoned by their husbands," Edwin adds. On all fours, the women rummage in the debris of the resurrected Ananea. Carlos: “Some actually still find gold in this heap of rubble.” Edwin: “Others find death.” His outstretched arm points to the summit. Up there, almost 6,000 meters above sea level, the glacier that destroyed the royal mines of the Spaniards is still enthroned. A pane of it breaks off every few months. Then tons of ice fall down, sometimes on that scree slope there. "Last January," says Edwin, "four Pallaqueras were buried under such an avalanche."

Now we would like to see the inside of the tunnel. But that even overwhelmed Edwin Romero's goodwill. “Let's go to Putina and have a hot bath,” he suggests. Why not? It sure feels good to cleanse yourself of La Rinconada. But we'll try again each of the next few days. Without success. The mine workers avoid us, the mine owners let us be monitored - until then three public holidays in a row: Suddenly there is a lack of executives in La Rinconada. Most of them get drunk in Juliaca. They only continue to dig underground.

The Mineros do not receive fixed wages here. They draw a system called cacharreo in front. It's a game of chance: the men toil for 30 days for free for the mining company. In return, they own all of the ore they can drag out of the mine on the 31st day. Without knowing how much you have earned with it. They only find out about this in the mills, where the gold is alloyed with mercury from the rock.

Whatever. Now we are on our way to a mine that is out of sight of the lower and upper town. The next shift is already crouching in front of the tunnel entrance. Furrowed Inca faces watch us in silence. One of the men brings up a laugh. He has golden front teeth.

And then comes the dynamite

Then the man - his name is Rubén - rises, gives each of his visitors a protective helmet and trudges heavy step into the mountain. We follow, first upright through the bluish shimmering ice tunnel, then bent over under a low rock ceiling. After a few minutes we come to a dimly lit cave. Puesto de vigilancia, "sentry post", is written on a sign. Luckily there was an empty table and an empty chair next to it. So go on. Hammering sounds from the depths of the mountain, sometimes drowned out by the rattle of a jackhammer. This is their construction site at the current end of the tunnel, explains one of the “informals”. When we reach the place, the Incas stop their work there. You have been waiting for our squad to arrive. Then someone pulls the dynamite sticks out of his pocket ...

So that's how we got into the belly of the Inca Mountain and into this unreasonable situation. It is also a first for Carlos Fernández Baca. He has often tried in vain to find his way into one of the tunnels at La Rinconada. What he sees now confirms his fear: “All the blasting and drilling in the mountain will be a huge problem. You have the "golden

Sleeping Beauty ”transformed into a Swiss cheese. Nobody knows how many tunnels have already been driven into the mountain. Many have already collapsed. One day the Ananea will collapse and all will be buried under itself. "

Tunnelblick: “This mountain slept for centuries. Now we've woken him up. "

On the way back out into the open, we relax for a moment in the empty sentry cave. The Incas chew dried coca leaves and tell stories of gold and luck. But also of misfortune. I think of Carlos’s dire prophecy of the mountain as a mass grave. Do not be afraid? Rubén shakes his head: “We are protected.” He points to a small pile lying on the ground in front of the tunnel wall. In the semi-darkness I thought it was rubbish. “It is a sacrifice for Pachamama. An expert did it for us, a real Uro from Lake Titicaca. "

I know who is talking about. We met old Romualdo in Puno. He is the most famous shaman in Peru. Once the protection commissioner of two Peruvian presidents, Alberto Fujimori and Alan García. Today he works for the owners of gold mines. If a new tunnel is dug in La Rinconada, Romualdo has to el pago a la tierra get: the offerings to the earth goddess Pachamama.

I asked him how that works. The most important thing, the old man emphasized, is the burning of four human fetuses: “Pachamama never rejects such a victim.” And why are there mine accidents then? “They only exist when Pachamama is angry. Then new sacrifices have to be made. ”And how does Mother Earth think that the gold miners poison Lake Titicaca? "Pachamama forgives everything!" It was an absurd conversation.

Pachamama forgives everything!
Romualdo, the most famous shaman in Peru

And here in Ananea-Berg, the bottom line of our trip is truism. For example that we humans love nature, but always kneel before the golden calf. And that, should a treasure slumber in the Titicaca, it would soon come to light - in view of the quantities of mercury and potassium cyanide discharged into the lake.

But seriously: Peru's government wants to put Lake Titicaca on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Good idea. Then why doesn't she start putting an end to the poisonous haunted house in La Rinconada? There is a new law, it is said in the Peruvian capital Lima. As a result, informal gold miners would now have to “formalize” themselves. This means that they should prove that they comply with all applicable tax, environmental and labor law regulations. Anyone who does not do this is considered a criminal and will be prosecuted accordingly.

But whether in the tunnels of La Rinconada or on the shores of Lake Titicaca: the new law has not yet been felt.

This story first appeared in Terra Mater magazine


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