Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Top of the World, Ma! (Yes, there are jobs that are worse than yours.)

There was a fascinating – and horrifying – article by ultra-intrepid journalist William Finnegan in last week’s New Yorker on the Peruvian gold-mining town of La Rinconada, and on the gold miners who labor there.

La Rinconada is no one’s idea of a tourist getaway, even for travelers who pride themselves as getting off the beaten track.

First off:

The town is seventeen thousand feet above sea level—the highest-elevation human settlement in the world.  (Source: The New Yorker – may need subscription to access the full article.)

Which means that you’ll be gasping for air when you at all exert yourself. So if you’re planning on heading there, don’t forget to pack your portable iron lung.

Dining options in town would have you howling for an Applebee’s, where at least you wouldn’t have to see alpaca-tripe soup on the menu.

And please forget any images you have as hell being a hot place.

Hell is La Rinconada, and baby, it’s cold outside. Inside, too, for that matter. (Finnegan’s hotel was unheated, so it almost goes without saying that the hovels where the miners live are unheated as well.)

And even with all the cold, the area is warming up, reminding us that things are gang agley in our fragile world: the glaciers that surround La Rinconada are melting.

All things considered, warming up is a mixed blessing, as Finnegan found out when he hit a relatively balmy day:

The sunshine—and a temperature now well above freezing—was rousing a mighty stench from the mud. I tried holding Inca Kola in my mouth to neutralize visions of bacterial apocalypse. Even its disinfectant flavor was no help. Until that afternoon, I had found it funny that La Rinconada residents (male) often seemed to make a point of urinating where someone dared to post a sign forbidding it. The same thing happened with garbage. A warning spray-painted on a building near my hotel threatened rubbish-dumpers with “massacre,” and the trash heap rising beneath it was at least ten feet high. I thought these rude communal gestures expressed the anarchic solidarity of the town. But none of it seemed amusing now.

There’s little in town by way of infrastructure.

Electricity exists in La Rinconada – which is not to say that most folks have it. But the citizens are:

…still waiting for clean water, a sewage system, garbage collection, a hospital.

On the other hand, the citizens – most of them come from somewhere else – don’t pay any taxes.

Most of the workers in La Rinconada are gold miners, and they’re not working for massive mines like those run by Rio Tinto

The mines, whatever you call them, are small, numerous, unregulated, and, as a rule, grossly unsafe. Most don’t pay salaries, let alone benefits, but run on an ancient labor system called cachorreo. This system is usually described as thirty days of unpaid work followed by a single frantic day in which workers get to keep whatever gold they can haul out for themselves. I found so many variants of the scheme, however—and so many miners passionately attached to their variant—that the traditional description of cachorreo seems to me inadequate. It’s a lottery, but, because of pilfering, it runs every day, not once a month.

Finnegan actually goes into a mine with Josmil Ilasaca, a young miner he befriends.

Actually, most miners are young. This is no country for old men, that’s for sure.

Not only are the mines themselves dangerous, but mercury, which is used in gold processing, pollutes the entire place.

Mercury poisoning can affect the central nervous system, causing tremors, excitability, insomnia, and a grim range of psychotic reactions.

Ilasaca, by the way, uses the term “artisanal miner” to describe his profession.

The word “artisanal” gives off all sorts of foodie vibes, doesn’t it? At least to those of us who know folks who make artisanal cheese, and who see the word on menus (sometimes as “artesian”) to describe everything from lovingly hand-crafted loaves of goodness to bagged bread.

I suspect it has a different meaning to someone like Josmil Ilasaca.

I can only imagine what someone like Ilasaca would make of the “gourmet kitchens” in which our friends and neighbors craft their artisanal cheese, yogurt, and bread.

People, of course, put up with the conditions of a town like La Rinconada and the brutal conditions in the mines because they a) have few choices – Peru is poor, and mineral extraction is one of the only games in town. But b) they also become artisanal miners – which, with the cachorreo system, gives them a shot at riches – for the same reason that the Forty-Niners rushed to California when they heard that there’s gold in them thar hills. You could get lucky. You could get rich.

Of course, most of them don’t, just like most high school ballers don’t make the NBA. (Or most bloggers don’t end up big, important writers. Sigh…)

Anyway, it’s always good to be reminded that those of us who live and work in safe places with heat and electricity, where we’re (for the most part) not being poisoned by mercury, and who have dining out options beyond alpaca tripe soup, are – most of us at least – pretty darned lucky.

Some of us, of course, are luckier than others.

We don’t work in Tyson chicken factories. We can shop at stores that carry fresh produce. We can jack up the thermostat – probably from our smartphone, while lounging a room away – if we’re cold.

But compared to the world’s true hell-holes, most Americans have it pretty good, materially-wise.

Just something to think about next time we’re feeling bad about how crappy our job is, or how ridiculous it is for that restaurant to have “artesian” pies on the menu.


Aside to my sister Kath on this story: If you haven’t read this article, you should know that, to propitiate the gods, people in La Rinconada offer up nip bottles. (To explain this aside: for whatever reason, the town of Wellfleet on Cape Cod is littered with nip bottles, at least along the paths where Kath takes her daily walks.)

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