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.)

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