Peru, A Toxic State, Alessandro Cinque's photography

Alessandro Cinque Peru, A Toxic State

The Quechua people talk to the Earth, asking for rain and a good harvest, and do a ritual dance to the goddess Pachamama. Mines often contaminate both land and cattle with toxic metals, while ancient traditions disappear. 2017

Drone view of Cerro de Pasco in the Andes, among the world’s highest and most polluted cities, where people live round an opencast mine more than a mile long. Lead has contaminated soil, rivers, animals, and residents' blood. 2020

Before mining arrived in Ayaviri, Puno region, local people sold their cheese and milk all over Peru. Due to water pollution and drought, cows’ milk declined in quantity and quality, and the produce is increasingly difficult to sell. 2021, AlessandroCinque

Residents of Ayaviri do not drink water from their rivers and lakes because they say it is polluted with mine waste. Water is supplied by trucks charging twenty-five times the price in Lima. Fields are dry, barren, and toxic. 2021, AlessandroCinque

In Espinar, Cusco region, Silvia Chilo Choque, 40, bathes her son, 13, who has cerebral palsy. In the dry season, people have to boil contaminated water from the river, adding chlorine. Because this is a long process, many are only able to shower once a week. 2021

Tailings dam in Mimosa, Huancavelica region, built to secure toxic liquid waste. This worries locals, as they have to use water from nearby rivers for drinking, cooking, washing, irrigating fields, and sustaining animals. 2021

Farmers fight a fire in a field near Espinar. The fine dust around mining towns can make crops more flammable, especially during the dry season. Lack of water hampers firefighting, and people use blankets and clothes instead. 2018 , AlessandroCinque

Grimalda De Cuno in her home in Huisa, Espinar, mourns a stillborn calf, born near the Antapaccay copper mine. Locals blame river water contaminated with heavy metals for poisoning animals. The mine’s owners, Glencore, deny their operations cause dangerous pollution. 2018, AlessandroCinque

Local people harvesting potatoes in Cusco region. There are more than 3,000 native varieties in Peru, and almost every household in the Andes grows potatoes. People living near mines are worried cultivation is endangered by pollution. 2017

Mernardo Sarabia Flores, 60, President of the Torata Alta Irrigation Commission. Southern Copper operates the Cuajone mine near this agricultural community in Moquegua region. Avocado trees, a local specialism, have been dying from lack of water, damaging the population’s income, 2021, AlessandroCinque

Artist's statement

My series is a six-year journey covering twenty thousand kilometres and thirty five mining communities, chronicling the difficult coexistence between the indigenous Quechua people, their land, and the mining industry. Through the lens of new and old mines, I explore neoliberalism and neocolonialism, showing the fracturing of the human relationship with nature and the lack of respect for human rights in the Peruvian countryside.

It all started in 2017, during a work trip to the Sacred Valley of the Incas in the Andes, when I met a fifty-three-year-old woman who told me she had fallen ill with stomach cancer because the water in her village was so contaminated. When I was ten, growing up in an Italian city with high levels of polluted water, I lost my mother to the same cancer. This gave me an immediate and deep connection with this woman’s story and, since that day, I have not stopped delving into it.
Quechua communities along Peru’s mining corridor have endured centuries of discrimination, pollution, and economic stagnation, despite the mineral wealth around them, buried within the beauty of the Andes. The country is the world’s second-biggest producer of copper, the third-biggest silver producer and a significant source of gold.
But under the scorching sun, metallic opulence coexists with abject poverty. Today, the Andes are still home to the country’s poorest indigenous communities, Quechua speakers, whose wealth was once ransacked by Spanish rulers and is now exploited by multinational corporations. The end of colonial control set the scene for a new problem: neoliberalism. Backed by the laissez-faire economic policies of the state, multinationals scouted the Andes for metals. The price has been paid in the health of indigenous Peruvians, whose water sources were either diverted for mining or polluted by it.

Many have heavy metals in their blood, causing anaemia, respiratory and cardiovascular disease, cancer, and congenital malformations. Mining has also wrecked their wealth by creating dead fields and killing livestock, the engine of the local economy.
More than this, mining has reconfigured the relationship of the people with the territory, leading to the gradual loss of Andean folklore and identity. Quechua people have a special connection with the land and devote themselves to agriculture with delicate care, demonstrated in their ritual dance to the goddess Pachamama — Madre Tierra, the Earth Mother — praying for rain and a good harvest. The presence of the mining companies not only devastates the land with toxic metals, it unbalances the relationship of the Andean peoples with Pachamama.
I have recently expanded my project to Ecuador and Bolivia, and in Peru I have started publishing a fanzine that I distribute to communities I visit. When companies start exploring new territories, indigenous people and their leaders do not know what they are up against. This fanzine aims to help restore a shared sense of belonging among people suffering the consequences of mining. It does this by raising awareness and encouraging dialogue about sustainable mining, while informing indigenous peasants about other rural communities that coexist with mining companies.

About the photographer

Born

Orvieto, Italy, 1988

Nationality

Italian

Based in

Lima, Peru

Cinque is a photojournalist who explores environmental and socio-political issues in Latin America, particularly the devastating impact of mining on indigenous Quechua communities and their lands.

During his childhood in Italy, spent largely in Florence, Cinque was inspired by his father, a wedding photographer with an admiration for the great icons of classic Magnum photography of the 1990s. 

In 2019, after studying at the International Center for Photography in New York, Cinque moved to Lima to deepen his long-term work and immerse himself in Peru’s culture and society. In the same year, he began working as a stringer for Reuters, covering the wider Andean region.
Cinque’s work has been exhibited in Italy, France, Spain, the United States, Russia and Peru.
He is a World Press Photo 2023 winner in the South America category, a winner of the Sony World Photography Awards 2023 Sustainability Prize, and Lauréat du Grand Prix for the 2023 Prix Terre Solidaire. He has been a finalist or nominee for numerous other awards.

Cinque has received grants from the National Geographic Society's Emergency Fund for Journalists (2021) and from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting Fund in the same year.

His photographs have been published widely in international media including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, 6Mois, GEO, Stern, Libération, and others. In 2022, his work appeared on the cover of National Geographic, and he became a National Geographic Explorer. 

In January 2023, he published his first fanzine, covering his work on the Quechua over the past six years.