Seventeen thousand feet above sea level, at the top of the Lake Titicaca basin in Peru, the gray-black slopes sparkle with tiny flakes of gold.
Each day, 40,000 people with pickaxes and crude hydraulic drills work the shaft mines of La Rinconada. Another few thousand toil in teams sifting sand in an open pit mine at the headwaters of the lake's principal tributary.
A gold rush is on in this part of the Andes. New fortunes are made by a few, while many others toil amid mass squalor. Late-model 4x4s and half-million-dollar earthmovers navigate dirt roads past slums of corrugated metal shacks. There is little government to speak of here: Families melt snow from their roofs for water, cook with canisters of gas and light their homes with kerosene lamps. Dogs ransack piles of garbage that line the mud paths from the shacks to the mines. The cemetery is a riot of color, with plastic flowers covering fresh graves.
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