Grant Winner Exposes Toxic Mining Impact on Peru’s Indigenous People

Over the past decade, the Peruvian economy has been one of Latin America’s great success story. The country’s resurgent mining industry — Peru is among the world’s top producers of copper, silver, gold and other valuable minerals — has boosted employment, reduced poverty and greatly increased the quality of life for many people.

However, there’s also a dark side to the economic success. Peru’s mining industry has had a devastating impact on the country’s indigenous communities. It’s a story that Italian photojournalist Alessandro Cinque has been chronicling in tragic detail since 2017.


For his work exposing the effect of pollution on Peru’s Quechua people — from poisoned groundwater to toxic dust that covers crops and livestock — we’re proud to award Cinque our inaugural 2020 Focus on the Story Grant. Cinque will receive $2,000 to help him continue reporting his project.

Cinque’s project, “Peru, a Toxic State,” captures the stories, struggles, and suffering of the indigenous communities as a result of the country’s mining operations.

Jurors scored Cinque’s project high for both artistic merit and impact. The grant is for a visual storyteller who has recently completed or is in the process of completing a photography project that brings attention to a critical issue, bridges a cultural gap or has the potential to spark social change.

Elizabeth Cheng Krist, a former senior photo editor at National Geographic, said that Cinque’s project is an important record of the lethal health impacts of Peru’s mining industry, as well as the contamination of water, crops and livestock.

“We see the human side of these injuries and losses in evocative black-and-white images that protect the dignity of residents,” Krist wrote. “But he sees them not only as victims—he also documents their resistance as they protest the development of new mines.”

2020 Focus on the Story Grant

There were nearly 70 submissions from all over the world for our inaugural Focus on the Story visual storytelling grant for a photographer who has recently completed or is in the process of completing a project that brings attention to a critical issue, bridges a cultural gap or  has the potential to spark social change.

Twenty finalists moved on to the second round where our jury scored them in four categories: artistic merit, impact, uniqueness and need. They also voted for the “Best Single” image among the hundreds submitted as part of the project.

California-based documentary photographer Anna Boyiazis won the Best Single image award for her photo of women learning to swim in Zanzibar. The project also tied as the First Runner-up for the grant award. The other First Runner-up was Italian photographer Karl Mancini, whose project documents gender violence and feminist movements around the world.

The third runner up was Belgian photojournalist Alain Schroeder‘s project on efforts to save orangutans in Indonesia.

Honorable mentions went to Polish photojournalist Kasia Strek for her project on the global struggle for reproductive health; Mexican photographer Cesar Rodriguez Becerra for his look at life in a democratically-organized migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico; and Puerto Rican photographer Gabi Perez-Silver for her story about her dad’s struggle with mental illness and how she coped with his death.

Special thanks to our jury, which included Timothy Hyde, a documentary photographer; Carl Juste, a photojournalist at the Miami Herald and co-founder of the Iris Photo Collective; Elizabeth Cheng Krist, a former National Geographic senior photo editor and a founding member of the Visual Thinking Collective; Sarah Leen, former director of photography at National Geographic and founder of the Visual Thinking Collective; Lucian Perkins, an independent photojournalist and filmmaker and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner; and Jamie Rose, a humanitarian photographer and co-founder of Momenta Workshops.

(Scroll down to see the work of the runners-up and honorable mentions)

Sarah Leen, former director of photography at National Geographic, wrote she is looking forward to see where Cinque takes the project.

“The images are documents of the clash between development and the people who live off the land,” Leen wrote “The photographs are often lyrical and tender in their approach and, yet, the message is tragic.”

Cinque, who is based in Lima, said the grant will help him continue his work.

“When I decided to deal with the issue of new forms of colonialism in South America by focusing on the mines in Peru, I knew that it would take a long time to develop it. Today, after years of believing in this story that I have always funded myself, I am happy to see that Focus on The Story believes it with me, helping me to support part of my work,” Cinque said. “It is important for me to continue to analyze these themes in areas that I have not yet visited, giving voice through my photos to all the people who suffer the consequences of mining extraction.”

Images and Text by Alessandro Cinque

The Quechua people have a special connection with the agricultural lands they inhabit and its animals. The delicate care they devote to agriculture is about speaking to the land asking for the heavy rain and for a good harvest. Then, they will dance to the “Pachamama,” Mother Earth, with passion and great grace to express their gratitude. However, their agricultural lands are now being poisoned by the presence of heavy metals, the folkloric tradition they maintained with their environment is disappearing.

Cerro de Pasco is a mining town on the Peruvian Andean Cordillera, situated at 4300 meters above the sea level. It is the highest city in the world with a population of over 50 thousand people.

Its 80,000 inhabitants are distributed around a huge open-cast mine. Some houses are only 5 meters far from the edge of the 900 meters deep and almost 3 kilometers wide chasm created by the mine. It is the old site of the mine which is still barely working. A new mining site is building only three kilometers far from the city, Cerro De Pasco has been dealing with pollution from mining for years. Here health problems associated with heavy metal poisoning are part of life. Congenital malformation, neurodevelopment disorders, and chronic epistaxis affect children. At least 2,000 children in the Pasco region live with chronic heavy metal poisoning, according to local reports.

A man sits at the table next to his jug of contaminated water. According to a local study and according to community leaders, there is a high probability that the rivers that flow near the Las Bambas mine have been contaminated with heavy metals as a result of mineral extraction. Local communities have no choice but to use the water from those rivers to drink, cook, wash themselves and their clothes, feed their animals and irrigate their fields.

Espinar, Cusco Region. Posed portrait of Alberto Huallpa Salcedo,  30. Alberto was injured by the mine security force during the protests in 2012. Peaceful protests against the Mine – known as “ Espinar se llevanta” – were driven by Espinar’s indigenous population. Alberto is still waiting for medical assistance and his due compensation for physical damages.

Roxana, 14, is afflicted with a cerebral paralysis. She is in the Special Educational Center “Sagrada Familia” in Espinar. The center welcomes 29 children born with physical malformations and mental insufficiencies. Unlike many Peruvian cities with similar characteristics in terms of population and size, Espinar has chosen to equip itself with the Special Educational Center due to the high rate of children born with malformations. Many children living in the countryside have no way to reach the Educational center.

Grimalda De Cuno in her house is commiserating her calf which was born dead the day before. Because of polluted water containing heavy metals, many animals die for drinking from the river, or born dead. Livestock has been destroyed over the years, worsening the conditions of farmers and breeders already in poverty state. In the last 6 years, Grimalda’s family lost 21 cows, all the sheep and lamas they had.

The village of Nueva Fuerabamba was built in 2014/2015 by Las Bambas mine for the indigenous people of Fuerabamba community who has been expropriated of their land and house; they are almost 660 people. Nuova Fureabamba is conceived as modern and functional city but farmers are not use to the new lifestyle. Many families are living inside the same house sleeping on the floor and not using furniture available for them. Animals graze along the streets. According to Gregorio Roja Paniura, the Representative of the Community of Nuove Fuerabamba, around 8 people died because of depression in last 2/3 years. No urban plan or analysis of the territory rule the construction of Nuova Fuerabamba. The cemetery has been located quite far from the center of the city and has been built on stone. It makes hard to dig the graves. Inhabitants of Nuova Fuerabamba feel it as an abuse.

Cocachacra District, Mollendo – Tia Maria mining project. Farmers are protesting against the opening of a new mine, throwing stones. Police responds with tear gas. The protests of locals have been going on for more than 40 days, making impossible for trucks to access the company PetrolPeru to transport fuel among the country. Inhabitants wish to safeguard their lands – Valle de Tambo, green and prosperous area of Perù – from contamination.

Cemetery of Tres Angeles, Espinar. The son praying on the tomb of his father, Felix. In Espinar in 2012, there was a huge cycle of protests –  “Espinar se Levanta” -organized by the local population against the mining activity. Police repressed the protest with violence. There were 3 dead and dozens injured. Among the victims, was Felix, an 82-year-old pacifist and head of the Alto Huancanè community.

'Finding Freedom in Water' by Anna Boyiazis -- First Runner-up (tie) and Best Single Image

Anna Boyiazis’ photo of Kijini Primary School students learning to float in the Indian Ocean off of Muyuni, Zanzibar was voted “Best Single” image. She will receive a $500 award. Her project, “Finding Freedom in Water,” finished in a tie for First Runner-up. Boyiazis’ project bears witness to women and girls learning to swim in the Zanzibar Archipelago, an ultraconservative region where such an act conflicts with patriarchal, religious norms. LEARN MORE.

'Ni Una Menos' by Karl Mancini -- First Runner-Up (tie)

Italian documentary photographer Karl Mancini’s project looks at gender violence and feminist movements in different countries, including Argentina and Brazil. In this photo, Adriana Toporovskaia, 55, is in her house in Argentina with her three daughters. Her ex-husband has threatened her life many times. She has filed 45 complaints with the police without getting any protection from them, despite repeated beatings and an attempted strangling in front of her daughters. LEARN MORE.

'Saving Orangutans' by Alain Schroeder -- Third Runner-up

Belgian photojournalist Alain Schroeder’s project documents efforts to save orangutans in Indonesia, which is under severe threat from the incessant and ongoing depletion and fragmentation of the rainforest. As palm oil and rubber plantations, logging, road construction, mining, hunting and other development continue to proliferate, orangutans are being forced out of their natural rainforest habitat. In this photo, workers act as substitute mothers for orphaned orangutans, teaching them everything they need to survive on their own. LEARN MORE.

'There is a way, but keep silent - The Price of Choice' by Kasia Strek -- Honorable Mention

Kasia Strek, a Polish photojournalist based in Paris, looked at the global struggle for reproductive health and the engagement of local activists. Her project also explores the reasons behind the high mortality rate due to unsafe and illegal abortions. In this photo, Dr. Rudzinski, the head of the gynecology department at the public hospital in Prenzlau, Germany, openly helps Polish women needing abortions. Prenzlau is only 50 kilometers from the Polish border. LEARN MORE.

'A democratically organized migrant camp in México' by Cesar Rodriguez Becerra -- Honorable Mention

Cesar Rodriguez Becerra documented life inside a migrant camp in Matamoros, Reynosa, Mexico. From his proposal: “Even in the precarious living conditions and the lack of many things, they were organizing themselves so they could live in better conditions the time that they had to be there waiting to pass to the United States.” In this photo, a young Chambelan (quinceañera dancer) observes a Quinceañera inside the camp. Volunteers offer dresses, cake and a small party to Quinceañeras (this was before the coronavirus pandemic). LEARN MORE.

Our Mind; A Weapon by Gabi Perez-Silver -- Honorable Mention

Gabi Perez-Silver, an independent photographer based in Puerto Rico, documented her father’s struggle with mental illness and how she coped with his death.  About this photo: “My father often talked about wanting to end his life. He felt trapped on Earth, in his body, but mostly in his mind—our most powerful tool and weapon. Our relationship had always been a tough pill to swallow, but I was determined to understand his ruthless battle with bipolar disorder. I took on the challenge of studying my father and his condition, by photographing his daily endeavors. I wanted to understand more about bipolarity, so I started going to therapy at 14 years old, a relatively young age. It wasn’t until I turned 24 that I built up the courage to propose the idea of photographing him and his life. It was his subtle gestures that brought the images to full fruition. It was at the moment of clicking the shutter, that both of our voices met, and the dialogue between father and daughter was found.” LEARN MORE.