The more unforgiving lottery may be the one miners and their families face just trying to survive in such a dangerous and despoiled place. Life expectancy in La Rinconada is a mere 50 years, 21 years fewer than the national average. Fatal mine accidents are common, often caused by crude explosives handled by inexperienced or inebriated miners. If the blast doesn't kill, the carbon monoxide fumes may. Peru has strict laws governing mine safety, but there's little oversight in La Rinconada. "Of the 200 mining companies here, only five make a full set of safety equipment obligatory," says Andrés Paniura Quispe, a safety engineer who works with one of the few companies that maintains high standards but still requires miners to buy their own equipment.
Miners cope with the drumbeat of death with a reflexive fatalism. The local saying—"Al labor me voy, no sé si volveré"—translates as "Off to work I go, I don't know if I'll make it back." A death in the mine, in fact, is considered a good omen for those left behind. Human sacrifices, practiced in the Andes for centuries, are still considered the highest form of offering to the mountain deity. According to local beliefs, the chemical process by which the mountain absorbs a human brain brings gold ore closer to the surface, making it easier to extract.
But the gods surely can't be happy with how poisoned La Rinconada's environment has become. The raw sewage and garbage on the overcrowded streets are minor nuisances compared with the tons of mercury released during the process of separating gold from rock. In small-scale gold mining, UNIDO estimates, two to five grams of mercury are released into the environment for every gram of gold recovered—a staggering statistic, given that mercury poisoning can cause severe damage to the nervous system and all major organs. According to Peruvian environmentalists, the mercury released at La Rinconada and the nearby mining town of Ananea is contaminating rivers and lakes down to the coast of Lake Titicaca, more than a hundred miles away.
Residents around La Rinconada suffer the brunt of the destruction. Rosemery's father, Esteban Sánchez Mamani, has worked here for 20 years, though he rarely enters the mines these days because of a chronic illness that has sapped his energy and raised his blood pressure. Sánchez isn't sure what the ailment is—his lone visit to the doctor was inconclusive—but he suspects it originated in the polluted environment. "I know the mines have taken years away from me," says Sánchez, whose hunched frame makes him seem decades older than his 40 years. "But this is the only life we know."