Workers return from the mines for lunch along a pathway etched into a cliff, past a mountain of garbage, at the La Rinconada gold mine complex in Peru. (James Whitlow Delano)

Wet snow immediately melts as it touches the ground, contributing to the muddy squalor at La Rinconada mine. (James Whitlow Delano)

It’s human nature to chase after our dreams, whatever they may be. For some, it’s to become a famous entertainer or a sports figure, a politician or an artist. Some ambitions are grand, others might be more humble. At the very least, most of us want to live contented, stress-free lives. For many people, that boils down to the pursuit of wealth, or at least the means to scrape by every day with a little bit of dignity. It’s an age-old story from which nobody seems exempt — surely not the people mining for gold who photographer James Whitlow Delano encountered in La Rinconada, Peru, “the world’s highest permanent settlement.”

High up in the Andes, La Rinconada is a place where people go to seek whatever fortune they can muster in the gold mines nestled there. Delano describes it as a place with no running water or sewage system, populated by about 30,000 to 50,000 inhabitants. It is a place, Delano says, where “for over 500 years, La Bella Durmiente (Sleeping Beauty) has attracted first the Inca, then the Spanish. For decades, artisanal miners, mostly indigenous Quechua and Aymara, have followed a receding glacier up the valley hoping to find the mother lode, burrowing deep inside the mountain at over 17,700 feet.”

The work is treacherous and arduous and has its consequences. Delano says miners labor according to the “cachorreo system,” working for 30 days with no pay for the companies that hold the mining concessions. The payoff is that they then get to work one day mining for themselves. If the miners are lucky, this arrangement could net them a fortune. If they are not lucky, they earn nothing. Miners put their health at risk, too. Delano describes the mining purification process and its dire effects:

“Gold’s purified in residential districts by evaporating mercury into gas by blowtorch, purifying the gold, sending the toxic vapors up from unregulated workshops, where the perpetually cold air immediately condenses it and deposits mercury onto neighborhood roofs and onto the glacier nearby. Drinking water’s collected from two sources: melt water from that same glacier and rainwater collected from rooftops — delivering mercury into the human food chain. Most miners leave La Rinconada with shattered dreams, broken bodies or in a coffin.”

Delano’s photos from La Rinconada show us the squalid conditions the people there endure and the environmental consequences he says have converted “this heavenly Andean mountain hinterland into a living hell.”

(This work was made possible with funding by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.)

People entering La Rinconada first encounter an unregulated garbage dump in the shadow of Mount Ananea. (James Whitlow Delano)

Mine workers take a break from extracting gold from ore, while two large spinning wheels crush ore behind them. Tires are used for the water bath, and there is a pan for the mercury. Mercury attaches to gold, isolating it from the ore. Then a torch is used to vaporize the mercury, leaving behind pure gold. Mercury vapor is highly toxic and accumulates in the body. (James Whitlow Delano)

A worker laboring without any protection uses a blow torch with a flame so hot that it is invisible. It vaporizes mercury used to isolate gold from ore. (James Whitlow Delano)

Balls of purified gold are displayed at a gold dealer in La Rinconada. (James Whitlow Delano)

A miner on a motorcycle battles a springtime snow squall on his way back to the mine. It can snow 12 months out of the year, and miners work in harsh conditions 17,000 feet or higher. (James Whitlow Delano)

Workers return from the mines at lunch time. (James Whitlow Delano)

A web of hoses near Mount Ananea delivers water to the mines and the community. (James Whitlow Delano)

Miners brave snow in the back of a truck on the streets of La Rinconada, a gold-mining town in the Peruvian Andes. (James Whitlow Delano)

Men play soccer on artificial turf. Grass does not grow at 17,700 feet. (James Whitlow Delano)

A resident, bundled up against the constant Andean cold, sits in her food stall in the gold-processing area. This part of La Rinconada is most acutely contaminated with mercury, which condenses on everything after being vaporized during the gold-purification process. (James Whitlow Delano)

An effigy hangs from a pole as a warning to criminals. Mob justice and these kinds of warnings are common in communities in Peru and Bolivia. A reported 10 police officers keep the peace here. The presence of large quantities of gold and widespread alcohol consumption make crime a major issue in this Andean settlement. (James Whitlow Delano)

A miner strains under a heavy load as he makes his way down the main street in La Rinconada. There are no vehicles here, and all supplies must be carried in and up. There is no sewage system in town, so disease is a constant concern. (James Whitlow Delano)

Nelson Quimbert manages the hoses that deliver water from the glacier to La Rinconada. He has lived in La Rinconada for 12 years and prefers to work outside, not in the mines. Nelson said he rarely ventures out at night because the street he lives on is lined with bars, and fights in the street are common. (James Whitlow Delano)

La Rinconada’s main, receding, highly contaminated glacier near Mount Ananea. (James Whitlow Delano)

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