"There are only 16 full-time government inspectors for more than 6,000 mines—and those are just the legal ones."
Even though the sacristy was dimly lit, the man from Celendín kept his sunglasses on, because he had been blinded in one eye by a police bullet. All around, scores of peasant protesters were bedded down for the night on bare mattresses. Outside, under a glittering three-quarter moon and scudding clouds, student hunger-strikers were huddled in pup tents against the evening chill. Women in the tall white straw hats, rust-colored shawls, and multiple petticoats of the northern Peruvian highlands were stirring huge cauldrons over a wood fire. One of them ladled me out a warming plateful of some unidentifiable stewed fruit. The walls and railings around us were covered with posters, most bearing the words Conga No Va! The literal translation—Conga Will Not Go Forward!—doesn’t quite capture the raw force of the sentiment, which is closer to this: Conga—a giant new gold mine, majority-owned by the Newmont Mining Corporation of Denver—Go Home!
The colonial church of San Francisco in Cajamarca, 350 miles north of Lima, had been under occupation for a month, and no set designer could have fashioned a tableau more pregnant with symbolism. Up the block, a silent phalanx of riot police with shields, helmets, visors, nightsticks, and guns. And just beyond them, the cuarto del rescate—the ransom room—a place on which the entire history of the Americas pivoted. The conquistador Francisco Pizarro came here in 1532 and took the Inca emperor, Atahualpa, as his prisoner. Have your people fill this room once with gold and twice with silver, he said, and you will be released. It was done. Pizarro ordered Atahualpa garroted regardless, and the Inca empire collapsed.
Since those distant times, the business of gold has been transformed. The days are long gone when a miner could reach into his pan and pull out a gleaming nugget. The modern gold mine is an open pit many hundreds, even thousands, of feet deep where infinitesimal flecks of the precious metal are embedded in millions of tons of rock and must be flushed out with sodium cyanide diluted in millions of gallons of water—the "heap leach" method. As these mines have grown bigger and the technological challenges more complex, few can make the necessary investment. Power is concentrated in an ever-smaller number of big corporations, such as Newmont.
Yet other things, starting with geology, have remained constant. The Peruvian Andes form part of the spine of the Americas, much of it of volcanic origin, which stretches from the rainforests of Alaska to the glaciers of Patagonia and bears, close to the surface and temptingly accessible, a wealth of gold, silver, copper, and other valuable metals. Characteristically, the places that hold these treasures have five things in common: they are beautiful, they are remote, they are environmentally fragile, they are the ancestral home of indigenous peoples, and they have a tendency to produce violent conflict.
The protests against Conga had simmered for years. Unlike many people faced with the prospect of a mega-mine, the cajamarquinos had actually lived next door to one for the better part of two decades, and so had some idea of what to expect from another. Yanacocha, in which Newmont also holds a majority stake, lies about 20 miles north of town. It is the largest gold mine in South America; in 2011 it produced an astonishing 1.3 million ounces, worth about $2 billion.
I went out early one morning to see Yanacocha with a local farmer named Gomer Vargas, a wisp of a man with sculpted features that suggested his distant Asian ancestry. Dressed all in black and wearing sandals, one might have taken him for a foot soldier in the Vietcong.
We drove up twisting dirt roads, traditional Peruvian harp music playing on the car radio, through a checkerboard landscape dotted with scrubby patches of grazing land and plots of wheat and pigeon peas. We passed a couple of For Sale signs in one forlorn hamlet. Vargas blamed the mine’s consumption of water. "Cattle raising has suffered," he said. "Down in Cajamarca, people only have running water for two hours a day."