LA RINCONADA, Peru (Reuters) - Eva Chura is one of the magpies of the mountain. Living with their families in shacks in a gold shantytown in the Andes, these women make a living gleaning gold from rubble.
They are called “pallaqueras” which roughly translates as ‘gold-pickers.’
Chura came 12 years ago from her hometown of Chupa in the Puno region to La Rinconada, a settlement of around 50,000 which is believed to be the highest in the world. Five of her eight children live with her in her corrugated zinc home.
The eldest is 13-year-old Natalie. Chura is still breastfeeding the youngest, a boy called Alizon, and takes the baby with her when she goes scavenging.
It takes Chura an hour to reach the site where the women work. When they get there, they always sit down and chew coca leaves, light two cigarettes ‘for the saints’ and drink a little anise for luck. “Sometimes there’s gold, other times no. At the moment it’s very low,” she said.
The men of La Rinconada bar all women from the mines dug beneath the rock. The men say the female spirit of the mine, which is located below a glacier called La Bella Durmiente, or The Sleeping Beauty, would be jealous and angry if women were to try to steal her riches.
So instead, the women take turns to scramble up onto piles of black scree that the men have dumped.
Teetering high above the ground, they stoop and flip over the rocks, their keen eyes scanning the lumps for a glimmer of gold. Anything promising they pocket, and take back to process and sell to black-market dealers whose stalls line La Rinconada’s main street.
“In a week sometimes I can get 1 gram or 2 grams of gold,” Chura said. Black market prices vary but on the London market that would fetch $50 or $100. “If I’m lucky it can sometimes be 20 grams, but that’s down to luck.”
The quantities each woman collects are tiny, but thousands of them are looking - some estimates say there are more than 15,000 pallaqueras in Peru.
No-one collects garbage in La Rinconada. Women and men alike risk their lives and subsist in squalor in the mountain’s thin frigid air.
Life is hard, Chura says, but she is better off gold-picking.
“I don’t count my husband, because he is no help as a father or a husband,” she said. “I’m the papa and the mama. ... We don’t want for anything. We have everything.”
She does get troubled – especially by the fact she has no support if ever anyone in the family falls sick.
“It is very sad to live with garbage and dirt, washing in the cold, with water from the mountain. But you tell yourself to get over it. The children give you strength and courage to work.”
She says those of her children who were born in La Rinconada aren’t bothered by the conditions, but when other people visit, they don’t like the smell and the garbage. “It used to be worse. The smell was stronger. Now we have grounds to play football or volleyball.”
To extract gold from the rocks the men and women use mercury, a toxin which they rinse with melted ice from the glacier. The water flows down the mountain into pools, puddles and rivers.
“The water used in mining is just dumped and all the communities downstream ... which are strictly farming areas, receive polluted water to support their livestock and crops,” said Federico Chavarry, environmental crimes prosecutor for the region. “These same waters carry heavy metals directly to Lake Titicaca.”
Titicaca is the largest lake in South America, a vital source of drinking water and fish for the surrounding population. Waste from gold-processing adds to pollution by run-off from surrounding cities and untreated sewage. In 2012 a German non-profit, the Global Nature Fund, named it the world’s most threatened lake of the year.
The fragments of gold these people produce have, at least in the past, made their way into supply chains of firms including phone makers and jewellers. In 2018 a Swiss refinery that had been taking the metal for years stopped after Peruvian prosecutors alleged the company that collected it was a front for organised crime.
Now, Chura and others in La Rinconada say the gold supply is running out in this area. “It’s not like it used to be. That’s why so many ugly things happen,” she said.
Miners have been shot dead in the tunnels; young women are trafficked into brothels; fights are common.
When police or other authorities come to town to try to enforce the law or restrict mining, they have been threatened by miners with the dynamite used to blast open the tunnels. The women join the protests too - some say the men force them to.
Now there is less gold in the mountain, the men drink a lot more, she said. “They spend more time in the bars than working.”
Chura’s daughter Natalie helps her. “She’s like a son,” she says. “But I’m afraid of the things that might happen to her.”
Photos by Nacho Doce; additional reporting by Mitra Taj; writing by Sara Ledwith; edited by Janet McBride