In Peru, illegal gold mines three miles above sea level provide dangerous, unregulated employment for residents the town of La Rinconada. Here the weather regularly dips below freezing, and the whole area has limited plumbing and sanitation. Long-held superstitions mean women are not permitted to work in the mines. Instead they're forced to scavenge for leftover gold in the waste being removed from the site. They're known as the Daughters of Awichita, or pallaqueras, named after the god who keeps the miners protected.
Peruvian photographer Omar Lucas travelled to La Rinconada to spend time with the women. We were able to catch him on the phone to talk about it.
VICE: Hi Omar. What did people tell you about La Rinconada before you went?
Omar Lucas: I was told it was cold and rocky but people could go and make lots of money. This was a lie. People that go there often stay because they don't have other options, especially the rural population. The only people that get rich are the mining contractors.
How come the women can't work in the mines?
There is a belief that the gold will disappear if they do. Male chauvinism is widespread in Peru and this is reinforced by past belief systems. So they have to work some meters away from the entrance of the mines, where they look for gold in the waste the trucks drop off.
What's a working day like for them?
From the city to the mine is around 40 minutes to an hour. The first thing they do is make an offering to the god Awicihita. They make a hole in the rocks where they leave coca leaves, pour anise liquor, and leave a cigar burning. Then they spend their day from 6 AM until 5 PM looking for gold. Then at 6 PM you see other pallanqueras arrive.
Those are very long working days. What are some of the health risks they face?
The major sickness that affects the miners is respiratory problems like tuberculosis and women suffer from UTIs as there is no sewage systems or clean water. Women work more than 12 hours a day and they do not have any type of health insurance.
Do they get any assistance from the government?
This place is considered a slum, it does not have the legality of a city or district and the population relies mostly on mining. The government knows about it and there has been a very slow process of formalization of the industry in the last years, but that's it. The poverty is extreme.
How can they find gold in the darkness?
They learn by being there every day. For me every piece of earth or rock looked the same, but when I went with them one night near the adit they knew which truck was coming with gold. I think that they know because of the size of the rocks.
Is there any other future the women can aspire for?
Just in town, there are so many restaurants and bars. I was surprised by the amount of beer, it's everywhere—I saw giant trucks entering the town every day. There is prostitution, especially underage girls, and there is no control. I saw around 10 policemen for a town of 50,000 to 70,000 people, it's crazy.
How do you feel returning to your normal life after an assignment like this?
It definitely touched me. The camera tends to be a mask that protects you but once you take it off it really shocks you as a person. Poverty in Peru and Latin America is everywhere, even in the periphery of Lima you can find people living in toughest conditions. Being in contact with these realities really changes your life and it makes you value things in another way.
Interview by Laura Rodriguez Castro. Follow her on Twitter.