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Risking cold for gold
Hildegard Willer
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Artisanal and informal gold mining thrives on Peru’s altiplano, despite risks.

“Hot water? I don’t think you’re going to find that here,” laughs the owner of a small pension in La Rinconada in Peru’s southern highland department of Puno.

In fact, finding lodging with a supply of cold water is a luxury here in La Rinconada, a major center for artisanal and informal gold mining.
The town of 20,000 people is 5,400 meters (17,820 feet) above sea level, located at the foot of a majestic snow-capped peak high in Peru’s southern Andes. Peruvian authorities consider it a small village. But only its infrastructure and budget are small.

“The state isn’t present here, we don’t have even a single police officer,” complained Mayor Andrés Calcina Quella.

Campesinos from surrounding towns started to move here some 50 years ago in search of gold. But the major population boom in the town was not until the 1990s when the number of formal mining jobs decreased.
But despite the booming industry, the residents lacked sewage systems and garbage collection.

“The problem of solid waste and public health is probably the biggest contamination issue we have,” said Fredi Mamani.

Organizing informal miners
Mamani, originally from Putina, four hours away, has lived here for 25 years practicing artisanal mining in La Rinconada. He is currently president of La Rinconada’s mining cooperative association that is aiming for the industry to drop its “informal” label.

Artisanal mining is defined as mining that uses less than 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres) of land concession and where miners move less than 25 metric tons of land per day using manual labor or basic equipment. The majority of artisanal miners work informally, that is, without official permission and at high-risk conditions.

Some 300 informal miners have joined cooperatives like Mamani’s and have started negotiations to join the Ananea Corporation, the only company with a government concession to operate in La Rinconada.

Informal miners are seeking a certain stability, fearful that they will be evicted, while Ananea has become tired of paying fines for the numerous accidents and environmental contamination that artisanal miners have caused within its concession land.

These miners’ production volumes illustrate the area’s potential. According to Guillermo Medina, head of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation-funded Environmental Management for Artisanal Mining project, Ananea produces 10-15 kilograms of gold each month, while the informal miners collectively produce up to 200 kilograms a month.

Medina helped organize talks between the Ananea and La Rinconada’s mining cooperatives, which are set to buy a majority stake in the company sometime this year.

The high gold volumes has attracted many young people to the town, who are willing to climb up into the thin air, withstand the cold and work in pits where one can hardly stand until they find something.

Most artisanal miners work for one of the cooperatives. They work for the boss 20 days a month and have four days to mine whatever they can. The gold is taken from the mine and ground using giant rocks. It is then mixed with mercury, forming a ball which in early June was sold for US$19 per gram.

A toxic process
The buyers then separate the gold from the mercury using gas lighters. The highly-toxic mercury evaporates into the air and returns again to the town in the form of acid rain and snow.

“We’re conscious that mining generates contamination and we have tried to minimize its impact,” Mamani explained. He said that for the state to recognize him and his fellow miners they have to present an environmental impact study. The mercury poses the greatest threat as it escapes, without a filter, into the air and soil.

On July 2, residents in several Puno provinces began large protests against what they complained was the environmental toll of informal mining in the area. They said that the important Ramis River had become polluted as a result of the activitity. Residents carried out a series of road and bridge blockades and at the height of the five-day protests, some burned a police truck.

There have not yet been any reliable studies on artisanal mining’s impact in La Rinconada. The town’s population faces the greatest health risk, but gold fever is stronger than worries about health care, and is enough to make thousands of people brave the cold and thin air.

Artisanal mining in Peru
Approximately 11 percent of Peru´s gold is produced by artisanal miners. The country produced 203 metric tons in 2006. It is estimated that there are some 80,000 artisanal miners in Peru and another 20,000 that work off this industry. This activity causes environmental damages because of the use of mercury and high deforestation.

Approximately 60 percent of the country’s artisanal miners work informally. The rest work for small companies and cooperatives. The southern highland department of Puno and the Amazon department of Madre de Dios are Peru’s artisanal mining centers, but now there are others in the north of the country in Piura and Cajamarca, where these miners often run into conflicts with local farmers.
Source: GAMA Project, CooperAcción


The town of La Rinconada in so
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