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Gleaners in Los Andes

Women risk their lives for a few gold crumbs outside the Peruvian mines of La Rinconada

A “Pallaquera” (a woman who collects stones thrown from the mines looking for gold) at work in La Rinconada, Ananea, Peru. Photo by Albert González Farran.
A “Pallaquera” (a woman who collects stones thrown from the mines looking for gold) at work in La Rinconada, Ananea, Peru. Photo by Albert González Farran.

French filmmaker Agnès Varda died on March 29 at her home in Paris. He was 90 years old and, from her filmography, what captivated me the most was the documentary Las glaneurs te la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I, in the English version). Released in 2000, the film is a formidable tribute to all those garbage collectors, those who work in the dirt looking for something useful among what people throw, those who pick up the crumbs from the wildest exploitations. It is the last step of our society. Originally, a gleaner was who, with the farmer’s permission, collected the grain that remained after the harvest. It was a hard and tenacious work that the rural tradition has left us. Now, the meaning has widened and we see gleaners all over the world and in different ways.

I saw some very special ones in La Rinconada, a remote village in Los Andes in Peru, at an altitude of 6,000 meters. There, they are called pallaqueras, from the Peruvian word that refers to those people who work outside the mines, where the extraction machines dump the rubble. At hundreds of meters of dangerous unevenness, pallaqueras rush to look for stones with some crumbs of gold.

The position of a pallaquera, like a gleaner, is one of extreme humility. On her knees or even lying on the ground, she gets dirty from head to feet and exposes herself to the imminent danger of being buried by an avalanche of rocks. Under the inclemency of the weather, with the hands destroyed by the cold, the humidity and the hardness of the mineral, they spend the day “gleaning” what the miners reject. And sometimes they have some pretty surprises in the form of gold. They drink a lot of alcohol and smoke daily packets to warm up and chew coca leaves to better withstand the low pressures and lack of oxygen.

Pallaqueras are nearly all women. Many, old women. And in La Rinconada there is still a great gender unbalance. While women risk their lives for a few miserable grams of gold, men are the only ones officially hired by the companies and authorized to enter the mines to earn a good pinch if the extraction has been lucky. Some male miners have accumulated great fortunes. And many, especially the younger ones, waste a good part of the benefits right there on alcohol and prostitutes. La Rinconada, before the “gold rush”, was a quiet village that has turned into a serious urban, social and environmental chaos.

Pallaqueras, however, are well organized. Their task has been professionalized so much that there is already a hierarchy among them: above all, there is the responsible for selecting those who can work in their area, there are those who carry a whistle to alert her colleagues if there is an imminent spill of mineral, there are those who cook, and the one who builds the latrines, and that one in charge of first aid… Pallaqueras are a proof of resilience of a social stratum of mining that started in a very precarious way and now it is not only accepted, but even respected by the big mining companies and by the Peruvian society in general.

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