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Machu Picchu In Peril

July 2, 2008

The infamous Peruvian Inca citadel – Machu Picchu – may soon join UNESCO’s growing list of endangered World Heritage sites.

Yearly visits to Peru’s top tourist destination have more than doubled in the last ten years to 800,000 people. Conservationists now warn landslides, fires and creeping development threaten the site.

UNESCO officials will discuss research into the jungle-shrouded ruins this week at a World Heritage Committee meeting in Quebec City. The goal of conference organizers is to determine which of the world’s cultural treasures should be added to its list – and which of those already included there are now in danger.

UNESCO committee spokesman Roni Amelan declined to confirm that Machu Picchu would be classified as endangered. He only said, “it’s a possibility.” The Peru landmark was named a World Heritage Site in 1983.

The report said sprawling growth, including an increase in hotel and restaurant construction in the nearby mountain town of Aguas Calientes, is putting unnatural pressure on erosion-prone riverbanks. 

Peru’s government has done little to address landslide problems on the mud roadway that leads to the citadel, according to the report.  Researchers also found the village lacks adequate sanitation, and adequate fire detection in both the stone citadel and its heavily wooded surroundings.

Earlier this year, residents in the nearby city of Cuzco, an ancient Inca capital, protested government plans to extend private development near the site. They burned tires and blocked roads to make their argument.

Park officials contend Machu Picchu itself is still intact, despite room for improvement in Aguas Calientes. Archaeologist Piedad Champi, who directs conservation efforts, said just last year UNESCO praised the monuments’ preservation.

Luis Lumbreras, an independent, Lima-based archaeologist has studied Machu Picchu for more than 40 years. He believes uncontrolled tourism could still degrade the ruins.

Lumbreras said, “Machu Picchu was never made for lots of people,” and pointed out the original citadel was designed for sandals and bare feet. “If we put tourists with boots that are jumping, running, climbing the walls, etcetera, that’s the danger.”

Peru’s government has promoted Machu Picchu as one of Latin America’s premier tourist destinations.

However, a spokeswoman for the state-run National Culture Institute, which manages the park, declined to respond to UNESCO’s report.

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