A Sacred Incan Site Is Threatened by a New Airport

The World Monuments Fund (WMF) is calling on the Peruvian government to suspend construction of an airport near the Sacred Valley of the Incas, also known as the Urubamba river valley. The land chosen for the project is located in the plain outside Chinchero, one of seven districts of the Urubamba Province that is home to a dozen Indigenous cultures as well as 15th-century Inca ruins, including the personal royal estate of Emperor Topa Inca Yupanqui.

The WMF, a nonprofit dedicated to global cultural heritage preservation, warns of “irreparable damage” to the Sacred Valley if the project moves forward. In a letter to Peruvian president Francisco Sagasti Hochhausler, the organization urges officials to complete a heritage impact study to assess any possible risks to the material remains of Inca culture in Chinchero and nearby sites, including Ollantaytambo, Moray, and Maras.

Plans for a new, modern airport in Chinchero arose from the nation’s need to serve visitors to the southeastern city of Cusco and boost tourism in the region. WMF recognizes that the airport would help overcome some of the obstacles limiting international travel to Cusco, such as having to make a necessary stop in Lima, the nation’s capital. However, “there has been little attempt to account for its social costs,” WMF warns.

In addition to concerns over the historic site’s preservation, the organization notes that part of the lands for the airport was purchased from the three ayllus (family clans) in Chinchero (the Yanacona, Ayllopongo, and Rachchi Ayllo) in a deal that sidestepped input from Indigenous people. The regional government successfully argued that Chinchero was not an Indigenous town because of its close proximity to a city (Cusco) and the urbanization of its population, depriving the Yanacona of the right to negotiate the land sale within the terms set by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“The revival of the project has fueled land speculation and the unregulated growth of hotels, businesses, and infrastructure,” WMF added in a statement. “Before the first shovel hit the ground, the project had done much to disrupt the communal ownership of land that prevailed in the Andes for centuries.”

Since former president Martín Vizcarra endorsed the new airport’s construction in 2018, numerous activists have sounded alarms about the undertaking. A Change.org petition to stop the building project, authored by the group Salvemos Chinchero (“Let’s Save Chinchero”) in 2019, has garnered over 100,000 signatures to date, including that of Ulla Holmquist, Peru’s former minister of culture.

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Peruvian journalist Sonia Goldenberg said the airport would also endanger the Machu Picchu region in Cusco by quadrupling annual visitors from 1.5 million to 6 million, “which would mean a lethal burden of 22,000 visitors a day, or almost 10 times the limit set by Unesco.”

“This dubious venture would irreparably damage the heartland of the Inca civilization,” wrote Goldenberg. “Its ancient archaeological sites and rich flora and fauna would be disrupted by noise, traffic, pollution and uncontrolled urbanization.”

WMF’s latest calls for the project’s suspension come in response to a recent announcement by the country’s Ministry of Transport and Communications confirming plans to move forward with land removal this month.

“The land removal will mean the irreversible destruction of the cultural landscape of Chinchero, so we request that you postpone the start of these works until the heritage impact assessment can be evaluated by UNESCO and it is made available for all citizens of Peru and the world,” the WMF wrote in its letter to President Sagasti.

In a statement published last month, Cusco’s local government defended the project, adding that a new airport would help develop “a medium- and long-term strategy to promote the consolidation of tourism and other economic activities” in the region. A group of backers led by regional governor Jean Paul Benavente García criticized those standing in the way, describing them as “Cusco’s enemies,” and urged Cusco’s residents to speak out in order to prevent postponements.

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