Published: January 2009

Gold

Gold miner in Ghana

The Real Price of Gold

By Brook Larmer
Photograph by Randy Olson

Like many of his Inca ancestors, Juan Apaza is possessed by gold. Descending into an icy tunnel 17,000 feet up in the Peruvian Andes, the 44-year-old miner stuffs a wad of coca leaves into his mouth to brace himself for the inevitable hunger and fatigue. For 30 days each month Apaza toils, without pay, deep inside this mine dug down under a glacier above the world's highest town, La Rinconada. For 30 days he faces the dangers that have killed many of his fellow miners—explosives, toxic gases, tunnel collapses—to extract the gold that the world demands. Apaza does all this, without pay, so that he can make it to today, the 31st day, when he and his fellow miners are given a single shift, four hours or maybe a little more, to haul out and keep as much rock as their weary shoulders can bear. Under the ancient lottery system that still prevails in the high Andes, known as the cachorreo, this is what passes for a paycheck: a sack of rocks that may contain a small fortune in gold or, far more often, very little at all.

Apaza is still waiting for a stroke of luck. "Maybe today will be the big one," he says, flashing a smile that reveals a single gold tooth. To improve his odds, the miner has already made his "payment to the Earth": a bottle of pisco, the local liquor, placed near the mouth of the mine; a few coca leaves slipped under a rock; and, several months back, a rooster sacrificed by a shaman on the sacred mountaintop. Now, heading into the tunnel, he mumbles a prayer in his native Quechua language to the deity who rules the mountain and all the gold within.

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