Piece by piece, the Peruvian mining town of Cerro de Pasco is being devoured by the very reason for its existence – the quarry that it encircles. Such is the gravity of the situation that the town has to be reshaped each year to make way for the voracious pit.
Known by Spanish conquistadores as the “royal city of mines”, the centre of Cerro de Pasco has been halved by the mines that it was founded upon. The quarry, which holds zinc, lead and copper, is now 1,900 metres long and 350 metres deep.
The earth and the water around the town are also contaminated with lead. Ninety per cent of children suffer from high levels of metal traces in their blood. In response, the Peruvian authorities have approved a project to construct a new town for the local residents, but it won’t be ready for another 15 years…
Meanwhile, the mining companies that extract materials from the quarry are holding the reigns. At the end of 2008, the local council signed 11.3 hectares of land over to mining company Volcan, including part of the town centre and the main square and colonial church. Volcan had threatened that that if they didn’t get it, they’d pull out of the contract altogether, leaving 4,000 locals unemployed.
“The locals rarely complain as the majority of them are employed because of the mine”
Sander Otten is a Dutch activist who's been working with the national confederation of mine-affected communities in Peru (CONACAMI) for the past two years.
There's not much oxygen in Cerro de Pasco; the funny head you get there is a constant reminder that you're in one of the highest cities of the world [4,300 metres]. So why do 70,000 people accept such difficult living conditions? Because of the pit. The quarry is what feeds people, even if it's taking over their village and putting their lives in danger.
Each year, a number of residents have to move to allow the enlargement of the mine. An enormous amount of debris ends up piled up next to the houses, especially lead, which is what causes illnesses. Because the mining companies use 80% of tap water, residents have access to running water for just two hours per day. And yet despite all this, the locals rarely complain, as the majority of them are employed because of the mine.
Photos sent by Sander Otten.