Adelino Apaza inside one of the highest mine shafts in the world.

Entrance to La Rinconada

Gripping a metal spike in his left hand, and a large hammer in the other, Adelino Apaza bites his lower lip, squints his eyes and smashes his hammer against the spike, into the rock wall. Tucked into a three-foot-tall cave, Apaza gasps for breath as he points to a possible vein of gold ore. “This is what having gold fever is like,” he says before biting his lip again and pounding the hammer into the spike. “It takes a hold of you and you want nothing else.”
Apaza is mining for gold at 19,000 feet above sea level in one of the highest mine shafts in the world. As the hours pass, he becomes more concerned about the possibility of running out of oxygen in the tunnels. “Your head feels like it's going to explode,” Apaza says, recalling previous occasions when he almost suffocated inside the mines. “You feel like you can't stand. You hold on to the walls for dear life. You crawl and crawl, and if you don't get out, you'll die,” he says while breathing in heavy amounts of dust. “It feels easier sometimes to just lie down and die.”
As soon as Apaza takes his second whack, the ground begins to rumble to the sound of large explosions nearby. Other miners are setting off dynamite in order to extract large quantities of gold ore. With the ground shaking and small chunks of rock falling from the low ceiling, Apaza squeezes through a small hole and into the 3,000-foot-long black tunnel leading back outside. “Let’s go. We gotta get outta here now,” he says with a look of panic on his face as he looks back towards the directions of the explosions.
Apaza grabs his bags and quickly shuffles through the smoky tunnels to the entrance. Once outside, he checks his cell phones under the light of the full moon. Surrounded by freshly fallen snow, he sends a text to his wife telling her he is ok. Repeated gunfire suddenly breaks the silence and Apaza begins scrambling down the mine tailings, heading back to town as the sound of the gunshots reverberate through the icy canyon.
The town in question, La Rinconada, is a lawless city of 70,000 people located high in the Peruvian Andes. It’s a chaotic collection of corrugated tin shacks clinging precariously to the side of a mountain. Gold miners brave the snow and ice as they walk to and from the mouth of the mines.
Unlike most other gold mining operations, La Rinconada is a collection of illegal and informal mines. They exist outside government control, with no regulation or taxation. The remoteness and extreme high altitude have essentially kept the government out. Over the past few years, however, the Peruvian government has begun to push to take control of La Rinconada in order to tax and regulate the gold mining industry as well as crack down on rampant crime, prostitution and extreme environmental degradation. Local residents oppose any form of legalization or regulation of their operations, citing government corruption and the potential loss of livelihoods for tens of thousands of gold miners and their families who rely on the informal mining industry. Four out of five Peruvian presidents since 1990 have resigned over corruption charges.
Because of this culture of corruption and lack of enforcement of national environmental laws, villages and cities downstream have been experiencing extreme environmental problems. The Ramis River which begins in La Rinconada and empties into Lake Titicaca has become so toxic that fisherman are no longer able to fish from it.
“Before we used to fish for trout which lived in the river,” Hugo Ticona (add a little something about who he is) says. “Some were five kilos, they were great trout! Now you can’t fish for trout anymore because of the contamination.”
For the past 20 years Ticona has witnessed numerous farm animals in his community die from drinking contaminated water. “The more contamination we have, the more cows die, the more sheep die,” he says. Ticona quit his job last year and joined local politics in order to raise awareness about the situation for those living downstream from La Rinconada. After purchasing his farm-raised trout, Ticona mounts his scooter and revs his engine. “I feel angry because the [national] government does nothing for us,” he says shaking his head. “They promise all of these things and they never do it.” In a split second Ticona drives off into the distance, over a pothole-ridden bridge where fishermen once used to stand.
“The mills are the most destructive part,” says Atenocha Valencia, geology professor at the National University of Saint Augustin in Arequipa. “That’s where the contamination is. That’s where the toxic river starts.”
The easiest way to extract gold from gold ore (rock containing particles of gold) is to boil the ore with mercury, and then strain the gold from the the resulting mixture. Normally, multiple containers would be used to prevent the mercury from seeping into the environment. However, even though laws regarding mercury disposal exist in Peru, enforcement is nonexistent this high in the Andes. This leads to pans of mercury being tossed into the mud streets, alongside trash and human excrement.
Because of the high price of gold and the low cost of mercury disposal, gold mills can easily be constructed in La Rinconada. More than 100 family-sized milling operations now dot the hillsides surrounding the community. If the government came into town to regulate and tax these operations, many would not be able to afford to properly dispose of the mercury, and would instead close down.

Apaza pauses to inspect a rock for specs of gold.

Apaza walking home for lunch. After eating, he will spend eight hours inside the mines with little oxygen.

Taking one last breath before entering the mines.

Moments before entering the mine for a 8 hour shift.

The town in question, La Rinconada, is a lawless city of 70,000 people located high in the Peruvian Andes. It’s a chaotic collection of corrugated tin shacks clinging precariously to the side of a mountain. Gold miners brave the snow and ice as they walk to and from the mouth of the mines.
Unlike most other gold mining operations, La Rinconada is a collection of illegal and informal mines. They exist outside government control, with no regulation or taxation. The remoteness and extreme high altitude have essentially kept the government out. Over the past few years, however, the Peruvian government has begun to push to take control of La Rinconada in order to tax and regulate the gold mining industry as well as crack down on rampant crime, prostitution and extreme environmental degradation. Local residents oppose any form of legalization or regulation of their operations, citing government corruption and the potential loss of livelihoods for tens of thousands of gold miners and their families who rely on the informal mining industry. Four out of five Peruvian presidents since 1990 have resigned over corruption charges.
Because of this culture of corruption and lack of enforcement of national environmental laws, villages and cities downstream have been experiencing extreme environmental problems. The Ramis River which begins in La Rinconada and empties into Lake Titicaca has become so toxic that fisherman are no longer able to fish from it.
“Before we used to fish for trout which lived in the river,” Hugo Ticona (add a little something about who he is) says. “Some were five kilos, they were great trout! Now you can’t fish for trout anymore because of the contamination.”
For the past 20 years Ticona has witnessed numerous farm animals in his community die from drinking contaminated water. “The more contamination we have, the more cows die, the more sheep die,” he says. Ticona quit his job last year and joined local politics in order to raise awareness about the situation for those living downstream from La Rinconada. After purchasing his farm-raised trout, Ticona mounts his scooter and revs his engine. “I feel angry because the [national] government does nothing for us,” he says shaking his head. “They promise all of these things and they never do it.” In a split second Ticona drives off into the distance, over a pothole-ridden bridge where fishermen once used to stand.
“The mills are the most destructive part,” says Atenocha Valencia, geology professor at the National University of Saint Augustin in Arequipa. “That’s where the contamination is. That’s where the toxic river starts.”
The easiest way to extract gold from gold ore (rock containing particles of gold) is to boil the ore with mercury, and then strain the gold from the the resulting mixture. Normally, multiple containers would be used to prevent the mercury from seeping into the environment. However, even though laws regarding mercury disposal exist in Peru, enforcement is nonexistent this high in the Andes. This leads to pans of mercury being tossed into the mud streets, alongside trash and human excrement.
Because of the high price of gold and the low cost of mercury disposal, gold mills can easily be constructed in La Rinconada. More than 100 family-sized milling operations now dot the hillsides surrounding the community. If the government came into town to regulate and tax these operations, many would not be able to afford to properly dispose of the mercury, and would instead close down.
Scattered throughout La Rinconada, gold mills function as processing plants where gold ore is crushed, heated with mercury and is then ready for sale. “Everyone now has to take the gold to a plant, and now it’s total disorder,” Valencia says. “It’s total disorder because all the mills are using mercury. They burn it, retrieve some gold, and a lot gets lost and turns into contamination.”
Valencia and his co workers conducted geological studies in La Rinconada in the 1990s when the population was around 10,000 (Today it is over 70,000). After the September 11th attacks in New York, demand for gold skyrocketed as people around the world searched for secure assets. “When we were there, people would just extract gold in La Rinconada. Now people have destroyed the whole surrounding region in pursuit of more and more. Everything has been totally destroyed. For the people that work there, they aren’t interested in the environment, they are interested in the money.”
For Armando Guevara, law professor at the Catholic University of Peru in Lima, it is a lack of opportunity for people in the surrounding region that pushes people to overlook the environmental side effects of mercury in pursuit of income. “Social consciousness about mercury pollution in this area is really low. I think that’s a big problem,” says Guevara. He believes that miners would rather profit from the exploitation of the area than take care of their own health or the environment of the entire watershed.
Back in La Rinconada, Apaza walks home after another night inside the mines. “It doesn’t benefit the owners [of the mines] if the workers formalize,” he says of the workers attempt to unionize while adjusting his black ski mask. “The contractors would have to pay a tax, unemployment insurance, and workers benefits. We [miners] would say we want to work formally, and they’d say to us, ‘Sorry guys, but you can’t work here’.” Apaza stops walking to catch his breath. “When gold appears, everyone stops talking about workers rights,” he says with a smile.
As Apaza finishes his story, he bumps into a man with a scraggly beard and tattered, mud covered clothes. The man yells in Quechua and pulls on Apaza’s arm, begging for attention. Apaza pulls his arm away and continues walking through the crowded, trash covered streets. “He got lost in the mine for two weeks,” Apaza says as he looks back at the homeless man commonly known as Chinche. “He didn’t have much food or water. He got lost inside the mines and that’s how he came out.”
Apaza walks down the main street of La Rinconada past tan-shack cantinas blasting music. At every venue, men in thick mining suits knock back glass after glass of beer. “It’s a psychological effect,” says Apaza of the blasting music. “It’s to lure the miners in”. He steps into Te Macho (Macho Tea), a well-lit cantina with pictures of scantily clad women and one photo of the Brooklyn Bridge.
The last town under full government control before reaching La Rinconada is Putina. Located three hours away and at a significantly lower elevation, Putina is where most miners go when in need of medical help. La Rinconada contains a hospital, but as Apaza says, “The hospital doesn’t work. It’s just so [the government] can say there is one.”
At the hospital in Putina, Doctor Juan Fernandez Ojeda says he sees three to four dead bodies a week arrive from La Rinconada. “We see a lot of dead bodies from assaults, from assassinations,” he says. “It happens because people go to cantinas and intoxicate themselves, and criminals are there.” According to Ojeda, 70 percent of Putina’s male population aged 18 to 50 move to La Rinconada for work.
Ojeda says most of the deaths occur from stabbings and assassinations over transactions regarding gold. But an even higher number of people attend the hospital with numerous diseases ranging from elevated levels of red blood cells (due to extended periods of time living at high elevation) to lung problems, gastrointestinal diseases and sexually transmitted disease. Physical and mental scars from domestic violence are also rampant.
According to Dr. Ojeda, any red blood cell count greater than 18 grams/deciliter (g/dl) is considered dangerous. Ojeda says every patient that he has treated from La Rinconada has a permanent red blood cell count of 25 g/dl or higher. To lower these amounts, many miners undergo phlebotomy – have blood removed from their bodies -- to bring their levels down below 18 g/dl. “No one has done an investigation about the lack of oxygen [in La Rinconada],” Ojeda says of the long term medical effects of living in the highest inhabited place on earth. “The higher you go, the less oxygen you have and how does that influence the body’s organisms? What does it mean for babies that are born at such extreme elevations?”
Ojeda also says the degradation of the environment in La Rinconada has lead to lung problems and gastrointestinal diseases. According to Ojeda, residents of La Rinconada experience severe to fatal symptoms of diarrhea given the high level of mercury and and cyanide contamination in the food and water. “The problems are caused really from the environment itself,” Ojeda says. “Everything is contaminated.”
Prolonged exposure to mercury has lead to severe mental illnesses as well, according to Ojeda and numerous global medical associations.
Apaza orders a small camomile tea from a teenage waitress and sinks into the cushy seats, still clutching his facemask and his hard hat. For Apaza, the hardest part of La Rinconada has been his inability to change his habits. In one week, Apaza can make up to $900 dollars. In 2016, the average weekly income in Peru was $115 USD. But it isn’t the rampant crime in La Rinconada that prevents him from saving. It’s his own self-control. “[After expenses] you have $150 dollars left to go get beers, and then you spend the whole night there. You spend everything you have!”
Hugo Ramos, another miner who frequents Te Macho explains that it wasn’t the altitude, cold weather or crime that has made his life difficult since moving to La Rinconada. Once again, it was the alcohol. Like many in La Rinconada, he grew up in an indigenous Aymara home and only began speaking Spanish when he was six years old. After finishing high school in 2009, he wanted to go to college but lacked the resources. A neighbor told Ramos to try his luck in the mines of La Rinconada, so he packed his bags and moved in search of a better life.
“The thing that hit me the hardest was the way people are here,” Ramos says. “They drink a lot. And little by little it affected the way I am. The culture here forces you to drink. And when you are susceptible to those influences, when someone invites you to go out, you go with them. You go with them and then you start drinking.” Nearly 10 years later, Ramos is still battling alcoholism and working in La Rinconada. His wife and two children live in Juliaca, a large city over five hours away near the shores of Lake Titicaca.
Like most miners in La Rinconada, Ramos says that nothing is more difficult than the vicious cycle of intense work followed by intense drinking with fellow miners. “I was trying to save money and then just wasting it, wasting just as much as I had made. You make 100 soles ($31), then you waste 100 soles. That’s what all the miners do. There are some people that come out ahead, but I was never able to save money.”

Gold ore being shoveled into piles where it is then crushed by the mills (towards the left of the photo).

The high use of mercury has caused extreme physical and mental damage to workers as well as contributing to the pollution of the watershed.

The quickly shrinking glacier is used as a source of water for the people living below.

Apaza (far left) stops for water after a long night inside the mine.

Back inside the mines for another shift. 

Nearly every street in La Rinconada contains a toxic mixture of mercury and mud.

Back to Top