In La Rinconada, Peru, the world’s highest permanent human settlement, climate change, gold fever, a receding Andean glacier, and toxic mercury converge.
For over 500 years, “La Bella Durmiente” (Sleeping Beauty) has attracted first the Inca, then the Spanish. For decades, artisanal miners have followed a receding glacier up the valley hoping to find the mother lode.
There’s neither running water nor any sewage system. Gold is purified in residential districts by evaporating mercury into gas by blowtorch, sending the toxic vapor up chimneys from shacks, where the perpetually cold air immediately condenses it and deposits it onto neighborhood roofs and the nearby glacier. Drinking water is collected from two sources: melting water from that same glacier and rainwater—delivering mercury into the human food chain. Most miners leave La Rinconada with shattered dreams, broken bodies, or in a coffin.
Eventually, all the mercury and untreated sewage works its way down a toxic watershed, draining into Lake Titicaca, the great lake upon which 2.6 million people depend for sustenance.