A Giant Hole Is Swallowing a Town in Peru
Cerro de Pasco is an environmental and urban catastrophe thanks to the massive polymetal mine that sits in the middle of town.
A panoramic view of the pit in the middle of Cerro de Pasco, Peru. Photo by the author.
When we arrived in Cerro de Pasco, a medium-size city in the high Peruvian sierra, it was night. We inched through the crowded, twisting streets past a large statue of Daniel Carrión, a legendary medical student who stands there with a syringe in his hand, injecting himself with the disease that's named in his honor. In the colonial quarter, we abruptly came to a wall, painted alternately with graffiti and the words private property. I could sense a great emptiness on the other side, like when you're by the ocean but cannot quite see it.
I climbed a rock and peeked over. All around in the distance the city was aglow. Plunging out before me was the hole, void of light but for the tiny headlights of trucks crawling around its sides. This is El Tajo: the Pit.
In Andean cosmology, Earth is Pachamama-Mother Earth-and this massive polymetal mine is the locus of a literal penetration. It is 1.2 miles wide and as deep as the Empire State Building is tall. All day and all night, the rock-grinding machinery produces a low mechanical groan, which is amplified tremendously by the pit's speaker-like shape. It is the sound of the city being eaten alive.
Photo by the author.
Cerro de Pasco is an environmental and urban catastrophe. The pit, which opened in 1956, is in the middle of the city-not beside it but in it. As it grows, thousands of families have had to move into unplanned urban developments, most of which lack basic sanitation. Now the city is running out of space. In 2008, Peru's congress passed Law No. 29293, calling for the resettlement of the entire population of 67,000. But the law has gone unheeded.
"I imagine that in very developed countries, this sort of thing doesn't exist," said Jhames Romero, a mechanic who maintains mining machinery here.
The pit hasn't grown in two years, but lately, Volcan, the company that currently runs it, has resumed buying houses around the periphery and painting them a fluorescent green. As more of the city-including what remains of the colonial quarter-changes color, everyone is wondering what's going to happen next, and nobody I spoke to seemed particularly optimistic.
Cerro de Pasco has always been a mining town. The Spanish found silver here in 1630, and throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, Cerro de Pasco was an important source of colonial revenue. In 1902, the US Cerro de Pasco Corporation bought the city's numerous small shaft mines with money from J.P. Morgan, Henry Clay Frick, the Hearsts, and the Vanderbilts-among other robber barons of the Gilded Age-consolidating the majority of the mining activity under a single enterprise. When the company opened the pit, it opted not to move the population, which had lived directly on top of the mines and had grown significantly during the first half of the 20th century.
The suburb of Carhuamaca-playground and elementary school and all-sits at the foot of a giant heap of poisonous rock tailings. Photo by the author.
Cerro de Pasco has also always been an utterly wretched place to call home. In 1831, a visitor named Alexander Cruckshanks wrote that Cerro de Pasco "looks as if a neutral tint were passed over the whole landscape." He added, "The houses are small and dark, and the mass of people squalid and miserable."
Proud locals insist that this place is a land of the hardy, not the many. It is bracingly cold, and at 14,000 feet above sea level, it is one of the highest cities in the world (water in Cerro boils at 186 degrees Fahrenheit). The physical effects of being this high up are similar to those of a very bad hangover. Because of the mining, it is about as unhealthy a place to live as you'll find anywhere on the planet.
"The pollution in Cerro de Pasco is absolute," said Zenón Aira Díaz, 70, a longtime resident and historian. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study from 2007 reported that 60 percent of soil samples from houses in Cerro and the surrounding towns had more than 1,200 parts per million of lead-three times what the US Environmental Protection Agency considers safe for children. A soil sample from a heavily used footpath clocked in at 20,000 parts per million.
Much of the pollution comes from tailings-a heavy-metal-laden mixture of rock and earth produced by this kind of mining-which are formed into giant (and colorful) man-made hills around the city. When left open to the air, tailings leak pollutants such as cadmium, mercury, and arsenic into their surroundings. One pile is right beside the hospital, and another encircles the entire suburb of Carhuamaca, towering above the houses, the elementary school, and a dilapidated playground. When a passing car or herd of cattle kicks up a bloom of dust, you can taste metal. In the 1920s, the mining corporation started dumping tailings into nearby lakes, which remain untreated and open to the air above and the aquifer below.
The Cerro de Pasco hospital is located across the street from another tailings mound. Photo by Maxim Holland.
In May 2012, the Peruvian government declared the area around the tailings lakes to be in a state of environmental emergency, and allocated $20 million for health programs to mitigate lead poisoning, which is common, particularly among children. To date, none of this money has actually been spent.
"It's like telling someone, 'You have tuberculosis,' and then telling him to piss off," said Denis Cristóbal, a 29-year-old obstetrician who's also the fiery mayor of the town next to Quiulacocha, one of the poisoned lakes. While her son slept on her lap, she told me about how children suffer from high rates of cirrhosis and developmental delays. We were a five-minute walk from the lake, which she calls "ex-Lake Quiulacocha."
When we drove past the water, it was purple. I stopped to make sure I wasn't hallucinating. "This is what we call progress," said my travel companion Elizabeth Lino, the Cerro-born writer, artist, activist, and self-proclaimed Last Queen of Cerro de Pasco. Her ironic campaign to declare the pit a cultural heritage site has garnered national admiration and notoriety.
"The situation in Cerro de Pasco doesn't make me sad. It makes me angry," Lino told me as we shared a flask of pisco on the drive from Lima. "There is no solution. That hole isn't going to turn back into a piece of land, and that tailings lake isn't going to turn back into a natural lake."
A densely populated section of the city surrounds a lake contaminated by mining residue. Photo by the author.
At the entrance to Volcan's sprawling base, a gigantic sign reads, safety is non-negotiable. neither is your life. But in small communities like Quiulacocha, the company negotiates leases with male-dominated agricultural collectives that own the land, bypassing elected officials like Cristóbal. "In the participatory processes," she explained, "we're not respected." (The company declined to speak to me, as did the miners, who walk along the streets in orange jumpsuits, looking sullen. When we visited a mining camp, we were followed by an unmarked, silver SUV.)
Meanwhile, the state and national governments have been feckless in regulating resource extraction. "The mining companies and the government are bedfellows," Calmex Ramos, an environmental engineer and activist, told me. The municipalities build lavish stadiums and things like a proposed "monument to the pisco sour." ("Malversiones," Lino calls them, as in "bad investments.") Meanwhile, projects like the resettlement, or an ambitious but mismanaged $45 million water system, have failed. Corruption remains a serious problem. In May, the governor of Pasco was arrested after his aides were taped receiving a $100,000 bribe for a public-works contract.
So the mine grinds on. After 400 years, it would be hard to imagine life without the pit. Romero, the mechanic, told me he's appalled by the environmental degradation, but he and his neighbors can earn $500 a month working for the mine, much more than they would as cattle farmers. There are monuments to mining everywhere, and in the souvenir shops, everything is somehow mining-related (the exception is a nearby rock formation that looks like a llama).
But this pride is tinged with doom. "What hope do we have for the future? Absolutely none," said Pablo Melgarejo, a university professor I hung out with at a food festival in one of the municipal stadiums. I asked him what he feels when he sees the pit. "It's kind of a disaster, and I think, Hell, where are we headed? If this devours us, where will we end up?"
The morning I left, the pit was filled with a thick, gray cloud. Along the roadway out of town, someone had painted in large black letters, in Spanish, long fucking live cerro de pasco.
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