I have been travelling to Peru on and off for 10 years and, as luck would have it, those ten years have coincided with this country´s longest sustained period of economic stability and growth in modern times. Inflation is relatively low and PromPeru is actively promoting the country to investors. On paper, Peru is doing better and quality of life seems to be gradually improving. One important indicator – the gini coefficient (a measure of wealth inequality) – remains offensively in the high 40´s, yet below the regional average (including Chile) of above 50.  Canada for example has a Gini of 31, the US 33 and Sweden 23. 
Among many diverse factors contributing to Peru´s increased stability and growth has been a marked decline in violent anti-government activities (i.e. Shining Path), increased government stability and transparency (though this remains incredibly weak) and most notably a booming resource sector …
… And therefore to the purpose of this article.
As both a history and altitude junky, Potosí – and it’s Rich Mountain (Cero Rico) was naturally one of my most important stops on my first journey to South America. Often referenced as the birthplace of capitalism, this fascinating, yet horrific place was, by 1600, bigger and more diverse than either London or Paris. Exploring the depths of their pit of inhumanity, the colonial Spanish killed and enslaved hundreds of thousands of people – first Africans, then the Andean peoples (who survived the altitude) – for nearly 300 years, in order the export the silver of Potosí to Europe. The Spanish, who mastered brutality, were far less effective with inflation and quickly lost the massive wealth to countries such as England, France and the Netherlands who thus set out upon their marauding adventures.
Certainly this is history and, as one can all too often be reminded (particularly by those who have benefited from previous evil deeds), we can´t be held accountable for the actions of our ancestors. Perhaps, but we sure as hell can learn from this history and if we do not address the current wrongs and injustices, then we simple perpetuate the crimes of the past.
Therefore, may I introduce you to la Rinconada, Puno, Peru. The White Hell.
Officially the highest city in the world, perched somewhere between 5100 and 5500 meters above sea level (16 500 – 17 000 ft), this cesspool of misery and modern day slavery is a mining community of over 35 000 people.
Just to outline a few of the more obvious realities:
- Miners work 30 days in the mine without pay, in order to earn one-day, free use of the mine for their own purposes (as much as they can carry out)
- If that day is unsuccessful, they beg for credit against the next free day (reference indentured servitude)
- The community has no potable water, as the ground in contaminated by mercury
- The police presence is virtually nonexistent, and many people disappear or are robbed on the long return trip to Julicaca
- Average temperatures range between minus 15 and minus 25
- There are untold, or unreported numbers of women coerced into sexual services and a high percentage of desperately poor single mothers in all forms of servitude
- The gold mines of La Rinconada exist in some peculiar legal limbo between formal resource extraction and the completely informal mining sector found throughout Peru and all over this continent.
Last week we enjoyed a Sunday party with our neighbours, among whom is a great vecino and fabulous father. While avoiding too many specifics, he is involved in policing the transporting of illegal goods through Cusco’s busy airport. Of course the line of work almost automatically triggers questions about drugs and the numerous foreign travellers who now call Cusco’s penitentiary home. Interestingly, however his main concern is in fact illegal mining. It seems many travellers are now transporting large amounts of gold and other precious metals and gems around and out of the country in their hand luggage. The government has even dedicated some of its remarkably scarce resources to a single banner opposing illegal mining. Perhaps next they could work on salaries, computers, email addresses, printers and all the trappings of a modern police force. But perhaps that´s not in everyone´s interest.
Much of the identity of the Canadian Mounted Policed – a force that, up until quite recently has enjoyed significant respect and international recognition – is rooted in the Yukon Gold Rush of the 1890’s. Large cruise companies have built an effective business by telling the story of Soapy Smith and his gang who ruled the lawless frontier community of Skagway, Alaska. Just north of Skagway, over the torturous Chilkoot Pass, lay Yukon and enforced Canadian law.
Deep in my northern DNA is a respect for the fortitude of the Argonauts who escaped crushing poverty to look for gold in California and then Dawson. I have enjoyed reading stories of the Colourful Characters of the Yukon and to learn of the peculiar frontier equality won by the Good Times Girls, but now looking only a few hundred kilometers from Cusco, is a living hell that should offend citizens and shame the Peruvian government to its core (and yes, for two blogs running I have aimed to shame government here). There is nothing romantic about frozen mines and the misery of La Rinconada.
The horrors of slavery, exploitation and gross neglect in a place like la Rinconada reach back to the crimes of the all too recent colonial past. Lima was the vice-regal capital of the Spanish throne and its utter neglect for the people of these highlands is shocking.
There is much debate around mining in academic and NGO circles in Peru with some sloppy graffiti near the university declaring; No a la mina, si a la agro (no to mining, yes to agriculture) and over the years there have been serious and violent conflicts in Cusco and Puno concerning gas extraction and mining. These debates must not, cannot be in anyway related to the crime of La Rinconada. One is generally grounded in law, whereas La Rinconada is a crime against humanity.
For my part –and not to shy away from some controversy – I support, in principle, the mining sector in Peru. All the nationalist rhetoric in favor of nationalisation or a complete cessation of any resource extraction promoted by certain holier-than-thou lobbies simply misses the point. The debate is around – or should be around – good legislation, policy enforcement and most specifically how to better people´s live with good wages and economic diversification through important resource taxes and infrastructure (gas, for example represents 22% of Cusco´s economy, which surpasses tourism). Rural development is one way to avoid increased Lima-based urbanisation – with expanding slums and nearly one-third of the country´s entire population.
Therefore, with regard to mining and the Peruvian economy in general, I return to themes of transparency and corruption. With regard to La Rinconada, let´s call on the Peruvian government to really do something: clean up the land, police the streets, ensure at least minimum wages for labour, set up medical clinics and liberate women from sexual slavery. Perhaps build schools or get the children off the streets and out of the mines under the glaciers of this once pristine, but entirely inhospitable environment.
And finally, there are many of us altitude and data-nerds (thanks for the term, Conor), who would excitedly travel to the Highest City in the World – if only it were safe!
A few links:
Chilean TV – Typically sensationalist, but La Rinconada merits hyperbole (except to suggest no one knows where this city is!)