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AGiantHoleIsSwallowinga

TowninPeru
October14,2014

byArthurHolland
Michel

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ApanoramicviewofthepitinthemiddleofCerrodePasco,Peru.Photoby
theauthor.

WhenwearrivedinCerrodePasco,amediumsizecityinthehighPeruvian
sierra,itwasnight.Weinchedthroughthecrowded,twistingstreetspasta
largestatueofDanielCarrin,alegendarymedicalstudentwhostandsthere
withasyringeinhishand,injectinghimselfwiththediseasethat'snamedin
hishonor.Inthecolonialquarter,weabruptlycametoawall,painted
alternatelywithgraffitiandthewordsprivateproperty.Icouldsenseagreat
emptinessontheotherside,likewhenyou'rebytheoceanbutcannotquite
seeit.

Iclimbedarockandpeekedover.Allaroundinthedistance
thecitywasaglow.Plungingoutbeforemewasthehole,void
oflightbutforthetinyheadlightsoftruckscrawlingaroundits
sides.ThisisElTajo:thePit.

InAndeancosmology,EarthisPachamamaMotherEarthand
thismassivepolymetalmineisthelocusofaliteral
penetration.Itis1.2mileswideandasdeepastheEmpire

StateBuildingistall.Alldayandallnight,therockgrindingmachinery
producesalowmechanicalgroan,whichisamplifiedtremendouslybythe
pit'sspeakerlikeshape.Itisthesoundofthecitybeingeatenalive.

Photobytheauthor.

CerrodePascoisanenvironmentalandurbancatastrophe.Thepit,which
openedin1956,isinthemiddleofthecitynotbesideitbutinit.Asitgrows,
thousandsoffamilieshavehadtomoveintounplannedurbandevelopments,
mostofwhichlackbasicsanitation.Nowthecityisrunningoutofspace.In
2008,Peru'scongresspassedLawNo.29293,callingfortheresettlementof
theentirepopulationof67,000.Butthelawhasgoneunheeded.

Continuedbelow.

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"Iimaginethatinverydevelopedcountries,thissortofthingdoesn'texist,"
saidJhamesRomero,amechanicwhomaintainsminingmachineryhere.

Thepithasn'tgrownintwoyears,butlately,Volcan,thecompanythat
currentlyrunsit,hasresumedbuyinghousesaroundtheperipheryand
paintingthemafluorescentgreen.Asmoreofthecityincludingwhat
remainsofthecolonialquarterchangescolor,everyoneiswonderingwhat's
goingtohappennext,andnobodyIspoketoseemedparticularlyoptimistic.

CerrodePascohasalwaysbeenaminingtown.TheSpanishfoundsilver
herein1630,andthroughoutthe17th,18th,and19thcenturies,Cerrode
Pascowasanimportantsourceofcolonialrevenue.In1902,theUSCerro
dePascoCorporationboughtthecity'snumeroussmallshaftmineswith
moneyfromJ.P.Morgan,HenryClayFrick,theHearsts,andtheVanderbilts
amongotherrobberbaronsoftheGildedAgeconsolidatingthemajorityof
theminingactivityunderasingleenterprise.Whenthecompanyopenedthe
pit,itoptednottomovethepopulation,whichhadliveddirectlyontopofthe
minesandhadgrownsignificantlyduringthefirsthalfofthe20thcentury.

ThesuburbofCarhuamacaplaygroundandelementaryschoolandallsitsat
thefootofagiantheapofpoisonousrocktailings.Photobytheauthor.

CerrodePascohasalsoalwaysbeenanutterlywretchedplacetocall
home.In1831,avisitornamedAlexanderCruckshankswrotethatCerrode
Pasco"looksasifaneutraltintwerepassedoverthewholelandscape."He
added,"Thehousesaresmallanddark,andthemassofpeoplesqualidand
miserable."

Proudlocalsinsistthatthisplaceisalandofthehardy,notthemany.Itis
bracinglycold,andat14,000feetabovesealevel,itisoneofthehighest
citiesintheworld(waterinCerroboilsat186degreesFahrenheit).The
physicaleffectsofbeingthishighuparesimilartothoseofaverybad
hangover.Becauseofthemining,itisaboutasunhealthyaplacetoliveas
you'llfindanywhereontheplanet.

"ThepollutioninCerrodePascoisabsolute,"saidZennAiraDaz,70,a
longtimeresidentandhistorian.ACentersforDiseaseControland
Preventionstudyfrom2007reportedthat60percentofsoilsamplesfrom
housesinCerroandthesurroundingtownshadmorethan1,200partsper
millionofleadthreetimeswhattheUSEnvironmentalProtectionAgency
considerssafeforchildren.Asoilsamplefromaheavilyusedfootpath
clockedinat20,000partspermillion.

Muchofthepollutioncomesfromtailingsaheavymetalladenmixtureof
rockandearthproducedbythiskindofminingwhichareformedintogiant
(andcolorful)manmadehillsaroundthecity.Whenleftopentotheair,
tailingsleakpollutantssuchascadmium,mercury,andarsenicintotheir
surroundings.Onepileisrightbesidethehospital,andanotherencirclesthe
entiresuburbofCarhuamaca,toweringabovethehouses,theelementary
school,andadilapidatedplayground.Whenapassingcarorherdofcattle
kicksupabloomofdust,youcantastemetal.Inthe1920s,themining
corporationstarteddumpingtailingsintonearbylakes,whichremain
untreatedandopentotheairaboveandtheaquiferbelow.

TheCerrodePascohospitalislocatedacrossthestreetfromanother
tailingsmound.PhotobyMaximHolland.

InMay2012,thePeruviangovernmentdeclaredtheareaaroundthetailings
lakestobeinastateofenvironmentalemergency,andallocated$20million
forhealthprogramstomitigateleadpoisoning,whichiscommon,particularly
amongchildren.Todate,noneofthismoneyhasactuallybeenspent.

"It'sliketellingsomeone,'Youhavetuberculosis,'andthentellinghimtopiss
off,"saidDenisCristbal,a29yearoldobstetricianwho'salsothefiery
mayorofthetownnexttoQuiulacocha,oneofthepoisonedlakes.Whileher
sonsleptonherlap,shetoldmeabouthowchildrensufferfromhighratesof

cirrhosisanddevelopmentaldelays.Wewereafiveminutewalkfromthe
lake,whichshecalls"exLakeQuiulacocha."

Whenwedrovepastthewater,itwaspurple.IstoppedtomakesureIwasn't
hallucinating."Thisiswhatwecallprogress,"saidmytravelcompanion
ElizabethLino,theCerrobornwriter,artist,activist,andselfproclaimedLast
QueenofCerrodePasco.Herironiccampaigntodeclarethepitacultural
heritagesitehasgarnerednationaladmirationandnotoriety.

"ThesituationinCerrodePascodoesn'tmakemesad.Itmakesmeangry,"
LinotoldmeaswesharedaflaskofpiscoonthedrivefromLima."Thereis
nosolution.Thatholeisn'tgoingtoturnbackintoapieceofland,andthat
tailingslakeisn'tgoingtoturnbackintoanaturallake."

Adenselypopulatedsectionofthecitysurroundsalakecontaminatedby
miningresidue.Photobytheauthor.

AttheentrancetoVolcan'ssprawlingbase,agiganticsignreads,safetyis
nonnegotiable.neitherisyourlife.Butinsmallcommunitieslike
Quiulacocha,thecompanynegotiatesleaseswithmaledominated
agriculturalcollectivesthatowntheland,bypassingelectedofficialslike
Cristbal."Intheparticipatoryprocesses,"sheexplained,"we'renot
respected."(Thecompanydeclinedtospeaktome,asdidtheminers,who

walkalongthestreetsinorangejumpsuits,lookingsullen.Whenwevisiteda
miningcamp,wewerefollowedbyanunmarked,silverSUV.)

Meanwhile,thestateandnationalgovernmentshavebeenfecklessin
regulatingresourceextraction."Theminingcompaniesandthegovernment
arebedfellows,"CalmexRamos,anenvironmentalengineerandactivist,told
me.Themunicipalitiesbuildlavishstadiumsandthingslikeaproposed
"monumenttothepiscosour."("Malversiones,"Linocallsthem,asin"bad
investments.")Meanwhile,projectsliketheresettlement,oranambitiousbut
mismanaged$45millionwatersystem,havefailed.Corruptionremainsa
seriousproblem.InMay,thegovernorofPascowasarrestedafterhisaides
weretapedreceivinga$100,000bribeforapublicworkscontract.

Sotheminegrindson.After400years,itwouldbehardtoimaginelife
withoutthepit.Romero,themechanic,toldmehe'sappalledbythe
environmentaldegradation,butheandhisneighborscanearn$500amonth
workingforthemine,muchmorethantheywouldascattlefarmers.There
aremonumentstominingeverywhere,andinthesouvenirshops,everything
issomehowminingrelated(theexceptionisanearbyrockformationthat
lookslikeallama).

Butthisprideistingedwithdoom."Whathopedowehaveforthefuture?
Absolutelynone,"saidPabloMelgarejo,auniversityprofessorIhungout
withatafoodfestivalinoneofthemunicipalstadiums.Iaskedhimwhathe
feelswhenheseesthepit."It'skindofadisaster,andIthink,Hell,whereare
weheaded?Ifthisdevoursus,wherewillweendup?"

ThemorningIleft,thepitwasfilledwithathick,graycloud.Alongthe
roadwayoutoftown,someonehadpaintedinlargeblackletters,in
Spanish,longfuckinglivecerrodepasco.