There’s Gold in Them Thar Hills

The hills outside Cajamarca are laced with gold. Tons of it – but don’t reach for your shovel and pan just yet, as this gold is not found in the kind of nuggets that set prospectors’ eyes ablaze. It’s ‘invisible gold,’ vast quantities of minuscule specks that require advanced and noxious mining techniques to be pried out of their earthly ore.

The Yanacocha mine, with a majority stake owned by Denver-based Newmont Mining Corporation, has quarried open pits in the countryside surrounding Cajamarca, becoming one of the most productive gold mines in the world. More than US$7 billion worth of the shiny stuff has been extracted so far. That, combined with plenty of new jobs and an influx of international engineers into Cajamarca, has meant a surge in wealth for the region – but for many locals, all that glitters is not gold.

In 2000, a large spill of toxic mercury raised doubts about Yanacocha’s priorities: gold over safety seemed to be the marching cry. The mine makes its profits by washing vast quantities of mountainside with cyanide solution, a hazardous technique that uses masses of water that local farmers also depend on. An internal environmental audit carried out by the company in 2004 verified villagers’ observations that water supplies were being contaminated and fish stocks were disappearing.

In the autumn of 2004, disillusioned campesinos (farmers) rallied against the opening of a new mine in the area of Quilish, and clashed violently with the police employed to protect the mine’s interests. After weeks of conflict, the company eventually gave in and has since reevaluated its priorities, and improved its safety and environmental record.

In an attempt to quell future mining protests, President Ollanta Humala’s administration passed the Prior Consultation Law in 2012, requiring mining companies to negotiate with local communities before initiating any new extraction projects. Nevertheless, trouble brewed that same year when Newmont’s proposed US$4.8 billion Conga gold and copper mine project set Cajamarca off again. Despite claims from Newmont that the project will create up to 7000 jobs in the region, inject US$50 billion into the local economy and not harm the region’s watersheds, locals weren’t buying it. Under the slogan ‘Conga No Va’ (roughly translated as ‘No to Conga!’), a far more serious general regional strike that lasted months brought days of daily marches and protests throughout Cajamarca, Celendín and the surrounding region, resulting in at least eight dead.

At the time of research the future of Conga remained in limbo with some residents supporting the project and many others, particularly in rural areas, passionately against it. Production at Yanacocha had dropped considerably to around 500,000 ounces a year by 2018, after peaking at 3.3 million ounces per year in 2005. Notwithstanding, Newmont has pledged to keep the mine running until at least 2027.

When Pizarro Met Atahualpa

The city of Cajamarca predates both the Spanish and the Incas (it was probably founded around 1320), but it was the face off between these two cultures – the so-called clash of civilizations in 1532 – that cemented the city in popular legend and changed the course of world history forever.

After the death of Huayna Capac in 1525, the remaining Inca Empire, which then stretched from southern Colombia to central Chile, was pragmatically divided between his sons, with Atahualpa ruling the north and Huascar the south. Obviously not everyone was in concord, as civil war soon broke out and in 1532 Atahualpa and his victorious troops marched southward toward Cuzco to take complete control of the empire. Parked at Cajamarca to rest for a few days, Atahualpa, the new Inca emperor, was camped at the natural thermal springs known today as Los Baños del Inca when he heard the news that the Spanish were nearby.

Francisco Pizarro and his force of 168 Spaniards arrived in Cajamarca on November 15, 1532, to a deserted city; most of its 2000 inhabitants were with Atahualpa at his hot-springs encampment. The Spaniards spent an anxious night, fully aware that they were severely outnumbered by the nearby Inca troops, who were estimated to be between 40,000 and 80,000. The Spaniards plotted to entice Atahualpa into the plaza and, at a prearranged signal, capture the emperor should the opportunity present itself.

Upon Atahualpa’s arrival, he ordered most of his troops to stay outside while he entered the plaza with a retinue of nobles and about 6000 men armed with slings and hand axes. He was met by the Spanish friar Vicente de Valverde, who attempted to explain his position as a man of God and presented the Inca emperor with a Bible. Reputedly, Atahualpa angrily threw the book to the ground and Valverde needed little more justification to sound the attack.

Cannons were fired and the Spanish cavalry attacked Atahualpa and his troops. The indigenous people were terrified and bewildered by the fearsome onslaught of never-before-seen cannons and horses. Their small hand axes and slings were no match for the well-armored Spaniards, who swung razor-sharp swords from the advantageous height of horseback to slaughter 7000 indigenous people and capture Atahualpa. The small band of Spaniards was now literally conquistadors (conquerors).

Atahualpa soon became aware of the Spaniards’ lust for gold and offered to fill a large room in the town once with gold and twice with silver in return for his freedom. The Spanish agreed and slowly the gold and silver began pouring into Cajamarca. Nearly a year later the ransom was complete – about 6000kg of gold and 12,000kg of silver had been melted down into gold and silver bullion. At today’s prices, this ransom would be worth almost S180 million, but the artistic value of the ornaments and implements that were melted down to create the bullion is impossible to estimate.

Atahualpa, suspecting he was still not going to be released, sent desperate messages to his followers in Quito to come to Cajamarca and rescue him. The Spaniards, panic-stricken by these messages, sentenced Atahualpa to death. On July 26, 1533, Atahualpa was led out to the center of the Cajamarca plaza to be burned at the stake. At the last hour, Atahualpa ‘accepted’ baptism and, as a reward, his sentence was changed to a quicker death by strangulation.

Most of the great stone Inca buildings in Cajamarca were torn down and the stones used in the construction of Spanish homes and churches. The great plaza where Atahualpa was captured and later killed was in roughly the same location as today’s Plaza de Armas. The Ransom Chamber, or El Cuarto del Rescate, where Atahualpa was imprisoned, is the only Inca building still standing.