The Daughters of Awichita
Now exporting more illegally-produced gold than cocaine, Peru is one of the worlds largest gold exporters and also its dirtiest. Though there are many who profit from this gold rush, hidden in the snowy Andean mountains exists a population of women that are slaves to its feigned bounty: the Daughters of Awichita. About five hours away from Lake Titicaca, there is a population of about 70,000 people who live on the gold they extract from the edges of a snowy mountain. At 5,400 meters above sea level, it is said that its the highest city in the world. The pollution is brutal. There is no water or sewage system, the violence is out of control, there is childhood prostitution. Women, known as pallaqueras, are not allowed to enter the mine. The local belief is that the mountain, known as Awichita, is a jealous Sleeping Beauty, and any female presence within can make her take away all the gold. But their economic need is huge. So, the women wait outside the mine and search the waste from which the men have extracted minerals. During 12-hour-long trips, they search for tiny pieces of gold. On a good day, they make as much as $8. The conditions are terrible: day and night they work along the unstable hills of waste, in severe weather and without security. Many of the women are widows or single mothers. These women miners are the last link in the mining chain and they do the job that nobody else wants to do. They feel nobody cares for them. They are worried about the future and fear that they will be even worse in years to come. They live in La Rinconada because it is the only place where they can find work and are locked permanently into a state of poverty. This is the great paradox. Per is one fastest growing countries in South America, yet a large part of their population lives in extreme poverty and hunger. La Rinconada, Peru. 2014
Soledad Sancca, 47, has worked as a pallaquera in La Rinconada for six years. She doesnt like the work but says that it was the only available alternative for raising her four children after her husband abandoned them.
The pallaqueras work on slopes elevated by the remains of the waste material. The slopes are very unstable and difficult to access and the danger of landslides and avalanches is always present. Here, various pallaqueras work at nearly 5,400 metres above sea level; during their rest, they can see Lake Rinconada beneath their feet.
A nurse from the only health center in La Rinconada carefully inspects the left eye of Francisca Vilca, 60, who had an accident while undertaking work as a pallaquera.
Finding gold is not easy. The women load sacks onto their backs, which can contain up to 20 kilograms of rock. More often that not, the rocks dont contain sparks of gold. Sometimes covering their hands with rudimentary gloves, the women pick the remains of the stone in search of those that hold the precious gold.
Life in La Rinconada is deeply defined for men and women. Men earn a living in the interior of the mines and women outside of it. The mistreatment of women is very high due to substance abuse and lack of education. However, both survive as best they can in a society in which they feel invisible.
A pallaquera leans on a bus window. Many women decide to leave La Rinconada because of its extreme conditions. However, many return because they need money for their family.
As the sun disappears, the pallaqueras from the morning shift return to their houses through inhospitable terrain. Their houses are built into the foot of the mountain are constructed from sheets of steel.
The son of Norka Mamani cries after being born. Many babies are born in La Rinconada. However, exposed to the low temperatures and the chronic malnutrition of the area, many of them do not survive.
Although its prohibited, there are pallaqueras that work the night shift, with temperatures that vary between 11 and 30 degrees below zero. They are those that are not associated with nor belong to any cooperative. Not all of the waste material from the mine contains stones that can hold the precious gold. The pallaqueras know this. Despite the darkness, they know with precision which loads of material they should approach and which they shouldnt.
The houses of La Rinconada are crowded on the instable hills that border the mine. Electricity and water are captured illegal, the wires and pipes spilling out of control over the rooftops.
Norka Mamani covers her face from embarrassment after arriving at a health care center. Two hours later she will give birth to her third child. Many women have to walk many kilometers for medical attention as this is the only health care center in the area.