Zinc and Lead Mine Swallows a 400-Year-Old City, High in the Andes

The mine at Cerro de Pasco, Peru, once funnelled silver to the Spanish crown. Today, it’s consuming the town—and poisoning children with lead.

By Tony Dajer
photographs by Tomas van Houtryve
Published 9 Nov 2017, 03:38 GMT
The historic centre of Cerro de Pasco, Peru, has been largely consumed by a quarter-mile-deep mine, now operated by a subsidiary of Volcan Compania Minera. The mine produces mostly lead and zinc.
Photograph by Tomas van Houtryve

For a woman intent on moving an entire city, fifty-six-year old Congresswoman Gloria Ramos Prudencio, barely five feet tall, looks unassuming. Her city is Cerro de Pasco, population 70,000. Perched on the treeless Peruvian altiplano at 14,200 feet, it’s one of the highest cities on the planet.   

“As a girl, walking past Bellavista, where the Americans lived, I would pester my mother, ‘Why do the gringos get the nice houses?’ ” the soft-spoken Ramos recalls. “In school my teachers called me preguntona”— she of too many questions.    

These days, her main question is how to save her hometown from a very big hole.  

Photograph by NG Maps

Latin America over the past decade has seen its mining sector triple in value to £230 billion. Peru’s economy, among the fastest growing, derives one-sixth of its gross domestic product from minerals. At Cerro de Pasco, you can see the entire history of Peruvian mining —and the costs it sometimes imposes: The mine here is literally consuming the 400-year-old town that supports it.

The open-pit mine operated by a subsidiary of Volcan Compañía Minera, a Peruvian company, is a crater, terraced like an inverted ziggurat. Over a mile long by half a mile wide by a quarter of a mile deep, it laps at the retreating town like a hungry sea. A line of abandoned houses, their steel roof tiles rusting and pockmarked, serves as a no-man’s-land between the chasm and the living city.

A mural painted on a Cerro de Pasco house by Peruvian artist Daniel Cortez Torres, also known as Decertor, alludes to the pollution problems that plague the town.
Photograph by Tomas von Houtryve, Vii, National Geographic

That barrier is not enough to protect the inhabitants, especially the children, from the mine’s toxins. Cerro de Pasco is one of the worst lead-poisoning clusters in the world.

Two hundred yards from the lip of the mine, the town’s main plaza is dominated by an oversized statue of a young man, a local boy turned Peruvian national hero. He’s about to drive a hypodermic syringe into his own arm.

Daniel Alcides Carrión was a medical student in 1885, when workers building the railroad into town were being decimated by a disease called Oroya fever. By injecting himself with tissue from a survivor’s skin lesion, Carrión proved that the fulminant fever and a chronic condition known as Peruvian wart had the same cause—a microbe that, decades after Carrión injected himself, would become treatable with antibiotics. Side panels along the statue’s base depict how he died, delirious with fever.

A shop in the base sells commemorative plastic syringes. They make strange souvenirs of a star-crossed town—but once you’ve been there, and seen what its inhabitants are up against, they seem apt.

Clothes are hung out to dry along a fence that separates the Yanacancha neighbourhood of Cerro de Pasco from the edge of the open-pit mine.
Photograph by Tomas von Houtryve, Vii, National Geographic

Glory Days

Four hundred years ago, legend has it, the rocks around campfires in Cerro de Pasco “wept silver.” For centuries, the mine here ranked among the Spanish Crown’s richest, filling galleons with silver. In 1820, the town was the first in Peru to be liberated from the Spanish. By the early 1900s it was Peru’s second-largest city; fancy carriages and European consuls graced its streets.

In 1903, the world’s highest railroad completed its 200-mile cut into the Andes. It brought in Americans of the Cerro de Pasco Corporation, which bought the mine. Copper ruled, but silver could still be found. J.P. Morgan, Henry Clay Frick, and the Vanderbilt family, among other gringo investors, made bundles. In the 1950s, copper gave way to zinc and lead, a lot of it now destined for China.

Until the mid-1950s, miners dug out ore the old-fashioned way, through tunnels. A year after Gloria Ramos was born, the mining company switched from tunnels to more efficient open-pit mining—within the city limits. In one of history’s unluckier wish-we’d-known-thens, it turned out the richest veins of lead and zinc were under the town.

“The centre of the city once had foreign consulates and historic homes,” Ramos says. “For many years, we were Peru’s second city. The tajo (pit) took all that. These days, even the neighbourhoods built in the 1960s to get away from the pit are falling into it.”

Piles of contaminated mine tailings loom over a playground in the Paragsha neighbourhood. Dust laced with lead blows off these piles and others in Cerro de Pasco.
Photograph by Tomas von Houtryve, Vii, National Geographic

For the locals, avoiding a slide into the tajo is just the half of it.

All raw cinderblock and rough-hewn pavements, the rump of today’s Cerro de Pasco lacks drinking water, because its lakes and rivers glow orange with mining run-off. Trucks supply drinking water at 25 times the cost in Lima. “My neighbourhood gets water six hours a week,” Ramos says. This year, a judge allowed Volcan to continue dumping mining waste into a pond just south of town.

There is also almost no indoor heating in Cerro de Pasco. The Andean cold drives shopgirls into parkas and fingerless gloves; you see your breath over dinner in restaurants. Kids scampering down pavements have scarlet cheeks, as if they’ve been slapped.

An Epidemic of Lead

Along the western rim of the mine, massive mounds of lead-laced tailings brood over neighbourhoods such as Paragsha and Champamarca. Dust from the mounds blows everywhere.

Since 1996, Peru’s health ministry has sampled blood-lead levels in children here twice a year. In 2007, even the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) took part. The results are always the same: more than half the children tested have high lead levels, most likely from ingesting the tailings dust.

“This place is Chernobyl,” says Paul Rodríguez, a doctor in Paragsha’s community clinic. A beefy guy with a quick, ironic smile, Rodríguez is frustrated. He knows from the surveys that the kids coming into his clinic are at risk—in four cases he’s even seen the blue line across the gums that heralds severe lead poisoning. But he can’t order up a diagnostic blood test when a child needs one.

A herder drives alpacas and llamas back towards home in Botadero de Rumiallana, in the hills above Cerro de Pasco. The town is visible beyond the large tailings pile.
Photograph by Tomas von Houtryve, Vii, National Geographic

“They give us this,” he says, holding up a government-issued form crammed with check-off boxes. “All the symptoms of lead poisoning. That’s great, except many, like headache, nausea, and vomiting, are non-specific. You need a lead level. But no lab here can run one. The surveys don’t test everyone, so you have to send your kid to Lima. No one goes. We practice medicine here like blind-man’s bluff.” 

Volcan spokesman Jorge Leoncio Murillo Nuñez says the company complies with all Peruvian environmental laws and has “carried out campaigns to inform the population about hygiene and cleaning procedures to mitigate the effects of pollution.” 

Cecilia Beraún was born in Champamarca, a half-mile south of Rodríguez’s clinic. When I met her, she was living with her two boys in a school storeroom. Thin and worn, she earned her keep by cleaning the school at 4:30 a.m. before trekking an hour down to the base of the mine to work as a shoveler. Pay there was about £1 an hour.

Wedged between the pit and the tailings mounds, Champamarca is lead city. Cecilia’s boys, ages 10 and 7, had lead levels in their blood of 14.5 and 13.7 micrograms per deciliter. The U.S. CDC considers anything over 5 dangerous.

Women with mining helmets look on as children participate in an elementary school parade in the Paragsha neighbourhood.
Photograph by Tomas von Houtryve, Vii, National Geographic

Alex, Cecilia’s neighbor, a father of three, pointed to his three-year-old son, Yober.u

“In March his level was 18.9. He’s had three seizures, we spent last New Year in the hospital. They sent him home with no medicines. My older sons weren’t born here and they are OK. I came for the work. For my son’s sake I would sell my house and leave, but no one is buying.”

Lead poisoning is a sneaky beast. Even low levels sap energy, make joints ache, and impair learning; moderate levels, especially in children, permanently lower IQs. Go higher and you get convulsions, organ dysfunction, and death.

“They don’t learn well,” Cecilia said of her boys. “The Ministry of Health sent doctors for one day to examine them. All they prescribed was some vitamins—‘to make them sharper,’ they said.”

Any other advice?

Children in Cerro de Pasco are seldom far from the mine and its waste.
Photograph by Tomas von Houtryve, Vii, National Geographic

“That we should move away.”

Location, Location

Fix or flee? That is Cerro de Pasco’s daily debate. Each new lead survey prompts hand wringing and a call to action.

Across Peru studies show, not surprisingly, that the farther away people are from lead-contaminated soil, the better. In May 2012 the Peruvian Ministry of Health declared a “state of environmental emergency” in Cerro de Pasco. It pushed for more dust suppression through road paving, covering of tailings piles, and tree planting. A few scrawny saplings got planted.

“No funds for more,” explains a local health official.

Nine-year-old Leydi Gonzales (left) and sister Sonia, 8, have levels of lead in their blood that are more than three times what’s considered dangerous by the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Their three siblings have elevated levels, too.
Photograph by Tomas von Houtryve, Vii, National Geographic

This past September, townspeople marched the 150 miles from Cerro de Pasco to Lima to draw the capital’s attention to the town’s 2,070 children with blood lead levels above 10 micrograms per deciliter—twice the danger level. Soon afterwards the government announced plans for a new hospital with a heavy metals testing and treatment unit. But plans have been announced before.

In the 1980s, when the mine was still government-owned, President Alan García’s administration spent £22.6 million on a housing project 15 miles from town to try to entice mining families to move there. At 200 square feet, the houses were not very enticing. Only a smattering of people live in the forlorn neighbourhood, which is now controlled by Volcan; its logo is stencilled on every house. Neat rows of street lamps stand in grassy fields where construction stopped.

In 2008, Gloria Ramos gave up on such partial fixes. Elected congresswoman in 2006, she managed to get the Peruvian legislature to pass—by unanimous vote—Law 29293, which mandates the complete relocation of Cerro de Pasco. But the law left a crucial question undecided: who pays?

“They allocated £1.5 million to study alternative sites,” Ramos sighs. “But the ministries of Mining and Finance simply ignore committee meetings, so nothing moves.” (The Peruvian government did not respond to requests for comment.)

Green mesh placed over tailings piles near the Champamarca neighborhood is meant to reduce the amount of toxic dust blowing into streets and homes.
Photograph by Tomas von Houtryve, Vii, National Geographic

In the meantime, the government halted planning for a new water system for Cerro de Pasco—why invest in a city that’s about to disappear? And Volcan withdrew its own proposal to buy the last vestige of the historic town—now at pit’s edge—and reconstruct it farther away.

Walk around town and concrete private-property markers bearing the name of Cerro SAC—the Volcan subsidiary that now runs the mine—pop up everywhere. “The company chips away at the town by buying every third house in a neighbourhood, then boarding it up,” says Gladys Huamán Gora, director of Labor Pasco, a local watchdog group. “Prices fall, so people scramble to sell. But the mine is in no hurry; whenever people try to unite and resist, it backs off and waits.”

The structure of the labour force helps to keep the town fragmented. In Cerro de Pasco, you can’t miss the miners: rugged and compact, they swagger by in orange jumpsuits. A slogan spray-painted on a wall reads Somos machos pero no muchos—“we are macho but not many.”

Some 1,400 people work in the mine, but only 400 are union members with full-time contracts. The rest are managed by contratistas, middlemen who arrange three-month, no-obligation deals with workers from all over. The transients earn about half what a full-timer makes—the equivalent of £3.40 an hour, no benefits.

Martin Trinidad Saco, 70, guides his sheep over the highly contaminated bed of a dried-up lagoon near Cerro de Pasco. Trinidad Saco remembers fishing and collecting bird eggs in the lagoon when it still supported animal life.
Photograph by Tomas von Houtryve, Vii, National Geographic

A Cerro SAC spokesman, Abel Cruz, estimates that of Cerro de Pasco’s 70,000 inhabitants only 15,000 count as full-time residents. “It is hard to live at this altitude,” he says. “I spend ten days here, then four days in Lima with my family.”

Who Owns the Problem?

“Responsibility is slippery,” notes Federico Helfgott, a historian of Cerro de Pasco and adjunct professor at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Lima.

The mine’s ownership history complicates matters. The American-owned Cerro de Pasco Corporation—whose houses Ramos admired—was nationalised in 1974. Over the next 25 years, Centromin, the government entity, exuberantly mismanaged it. In 1999, Volcan bought the mine for £47 million—a low price, according to many experts.

“Some of the tailings piles belong to the pre-1974 American company, some to Centromin, and some to Volcan,” Helfgott says. “So who’s responsible for the lead poisoning? Who pays for the move?” From 2010 to 2014, Volcan racked up more environmental fines than any other mining company in Peru. Many of them were never paid.

In 2011, Volcan spun the mine off into its Cerro SAC subsidiary—in order to limit its liability, Huamán Gora alleges. “The mining industry now has options on one-seventh of Peru’s national territory,” she says. “They could turn Cerro de Pasco into a model case.”

Hilario Mallqui Palacio washes clothes in a small stream on the outskirts of Cerro de Pasco. He lives in the centre of town but has no running water there.
Photograph by Tomas von Houtryve, Vii, National Geographic

In 2010, when Volcan CEO Roberto “Bobby” Letts died a bachelor at 75, he left a personal fortune of £450 million. In 2011, Volcan made a profit of £247 million. But by 2014 its profits had fallen to under £75 million. With China retrenching, lead and zinc production at Cerro de Pasco has dropped by more than half.

This year, Cerro SAC finally inaugurated a long-delayed oxidation plant that uses cyanide to recover trace amounts of silver from mine tailings. Originally projected to generate revenue of £75 million a year, the plant opened just as world silver prices were bottoming out. The world boom in metal prices has subsided for now. But the pit and the pollution in Cerro de Pasco remain.

Moving the town, says Volcan spokesman Jorge Nuñez, is not the company’s responsibility. It “is an issue that concerns the national government, in coordination with the regional government and the local government of the city.”

“I’m Still Fighting”

“What bothers me most,” says Gloria Ramos, “is they didn’t even take advantage of the boom.” Ramos did not run for re-election in 2011; she now lives in Lima and has abandoned politics. She still visits her parents in Cerro de Pasco every few weeks.

When Tahis Carhuaricra, 7, was a baby, her blood lead concentration was more than 13 times the danger level. The poisoning left her severely disabled, unable to talk or eat regular food.
Photograph by Tomas von Houtryve, Vii, National Geographic

In newspapers and at public meetings, “the attacks kept getting worse,” she says. “I was accused of being a job-killer, of wanting to close the mine. There were personal threats.“

Just outside town, in a valley abutting the mine’s largest tailings lagoon, a man named Celso Santiago raises alpacas. His house is mud-walled, the zinc roof held down by rocks. With a face lifted off an Incan statue, he declares, “Yo soy conflictivo.”  (I’m ornery.)

“I have fought them for twenty years. They have destroyed my fields, so I fight them with this.” Producing sheafs of legal documents, he lets on that, yes, he has a few years of university under his belt.

“See that hill? After we won the first lawsuit ever against the mine, they promised to restore seven hectares. Only half got done.  At first the mine is friendly, but then they don’t do what they promise. Their broken promises made me get tough. It took two years and a lot of money, and I’m still fighting.”       

Santiago still sees Ramos’ relocation law as the solution. He squints against the high-altitude morning glare.  

“No one wants the mine to go away,” he says. “We just want it to be responsible.”


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