Machu Picchu Is in Unnecessary Danger

The ancient citadel Machu Picchu, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, already attracts up to 5,600 foreign visitors daily. A new airport could quadruple that number. Credit Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times
The ancient citadel Machu Picchu, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, already attracts up to 5,600 foreign visitors daily. A new airport could quadruple that number. Credit Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times

The Andean village Chinchero, which sits above the Urubamba Valley, is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful landscapes. Majestic terraces made by the Incas stretch out into the vast plateau. Fields of quinoa, amaranth, potato and corn plants form a tapestry of shades — green, red and gold. Sweeping views of snow-laden peaks known as Apus, the name given to the spirits of the mountains in Inca mythology, dominate the horizon.

But President Martín Vizcarra is determined to destroy this sacred place. Bulldozers began clearing ground for an international airport in Chinchero in January. This dubious venture would irreparably damage the heartland of the Inca civilization. Its ancient archaeological sites and rich flora and fauna would be disrupted by noise, traffic, pollution and uncontrolled urbanization.

It is puzzling why anyone would choose to build a multimillion-dollar “international” airport in this idyllic spot high up in the clouds. At nearly 12,400 feet, 1,500 feet higher than Cusco’s airport some 20 miles away, it would be one of the world’s highest commercial airports. The mountains surrounding Chinchero, not to mention the fog, crosswinds and hailstorms common at these altitudes, can make landing and takeoff perilous.

A flood of articles in science and travel magazines have condemned the project. Nearly 200 Peruvian and international archaeologists, historians and anthropologists have sent Mr. Vizcarra letters urging him to cancel the project. Even the former minister of culture, Ulla Holmquist, signed the Change.org petition against it.

The global outcry is not surprising; the ancient citadel Machu Picchu, which is in the Cusco region, was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007. It is a rare surviving example of extraordinary Inca landscape architecture. It was built six centuries ago and later abandoned. Then, an American explorer, Hiram Bingham, rediscovered it still intact in 1911. The site draws up to 5,600 foreign visitors daily, more than double the 2,500 recommended by Unesco. The new airport could quadruple tourists, to 6 million from 1.5 million a year, which would mean a lethal burden of 22,000 visitors a day, or almost 10 times the limit set by Unesco.

Unesco can no longer remain impervious to a rising chorus of worldwide outrage. It should add Machu Picchu to the World Heritage in Danger List until Peru fulfills its commitment to preserve the greatest pre-conquest relic of the Americas.

The idea to build an airport in Chinchero goes back to 1980, when a prominent senator and landowner from Cusco with vast territories nearby convinced President Fernando Belaúnde of the need. Mr. Belaúnde was almost killed during an observation flight in 1981. According to the pilot, Col. Jorge Manrique, the project was scrapped after the near miss. But the aspiration for an airport in Chinchero stuck. President Vizcarra endorsed the foolish project in 2018 as a way to garner support in southern Peru, where he has low approval ratings.

The country has spectacular archaeological sites — particularly on the northern coast — magnificent landscapes in the Andes mountain ridge and vast unexplored natural reserves in the Amazon. Instead of another airport, Peru should develop sustainable tourism practices and invest in infrastructure to make these areas more accessible.

Peru is a cradle of ancient civilizations, along with Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, India, Guatemala and Mexico. But it seems that Peruvians are driven to ruin in one generation what the Spanish conquistadores could not destroy in 300 years of colonial rule. Just three blocks away from the main square of Cusco, in what was once the capital of the Empire of the Sun, a monstrous seven-story hotel was built, in flagrant violation of the city’s cultural heritage ordinance, in front of the local offices of the Ministry of Culture. After protests, the construction was halted in 2015 but the builders had already destroyed precious Inca stone walls. Despite threats to deprive Cusco of its World Heritage Site designation, the half-finished hotel still stands and its owners have yet to pay a fine.

The airport’s construction could deplete the watershed of Lake Piuray, a critical source of water for Cusco. It would also divide Chinchero in two, leaving the school and the health center on the side where few people live.

Traditional communities have not been consulted about the impact the airport would have on their livelihood. They haven’t had the opportunity to voice their concerns. Before the agrarian reform of the early 1970s, which granted land rights to Indigenous people, rural populations in the Andes remained exploited by a privileged minority who owned the land. But the country has not yet come to terms with its Indigenous roots. Still, today its Indigenous people’s rights are being violated for the financial gain of a corrupt few.

Rocío Cjuiro, a young woman from the Willa Willa community of Chinchero, cried as she looked at the huge crater that will eventually house the airport in the sacred Pachamama, or mother earth in the Quechua language. “My whole world is being destroyed,” she said.

Venality feeds this plunderous mentality. But while Mexico, Guatemala and virtually all of Latin America, including neighboring Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia, are also countries corroded by endemic corruption, they do a much better job preserving their historical landmarks and treasures. Peruvians are proud of their food and soccer team, and yet they disrespect their past. The country must adopt strict and firm state policies to protect and preserve its archaeological legacy for future generations.

Sonia Goldenberg is a journalist and documentary filmmaker.

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