Machu Picchu - On the Verge of Collapse?
By Kintto Lucas
The unceasing footsteps of thousands of tourists over the ruins produce an effect similar to a small-scale earthquake, says an expert.
CUZCO, Peru, (Tierramérica).- "With so many people, one day these ruins are going to sink," Juan Taco, a tour guide, told Tierramérica at Machu Picchu, the enigmatic city that the Incas built six centuries ago in the southwestern mountains of Peru's Urubamba Valley.
Taco's concern is shared by environmentalists and anthropologists of the National University of Cuzco, who are alarmed that the excess of visitors is causing the large boulders to shift in the sacred city, rediscovered only in 1911.
In the year 2000 alone, around 100,000 people visited the archeological complex of 32,000 hectares, which furthermore holds an extraordinary range of biodiversity.
One of the most notorious incident occurred in January when the principal stone of the sundial at Machu Picchu was broken off at the corner when a mechanical arm used in filming an advertisement fell on it.
Experts and environmentalists question the governmental National Institute of Culture (INC), in charge of the ancient Incan city's administration, for allowing operations using heavy equipment at the fragile site.
"The unceasing footsteps of so many people produces an effect similar to a small-scale earthquake, shifting the rocks and making the constructions unstable," Lucio Cisneros, an engineer and geologist at the National University of Cuzco, told Tierramérica.
The INC has prohibited entry to the Temple of the Sun, the main ritual site, and to other areas of the ruins " in which the stones have been damaged or tourists have carved their names," said Machu Picchu guard, Pedro Santa Cruz.
The overabundance of tourists poses a serious threat to the delicate setting, according to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), which declared Machu Picchu a Heritage of Humanity Site in 1983, and since then has collaborated in its preservation.
After conducting a series of studies, UNESCO urged the Peruvian government to reduce the number of visits to the ancient ruins from 1,200 to 500 people per day. But the exhortation fell on deaf ears in Lima.
In July 2001, President Alejandro Toledo held a promotional meeting at Machu Picchu to which 45 tourism operators from around the world were invited, a move that seems likely only to boost the number of footsteps over the site's paths and stones.
The ground movement in the area shifts the pre-Colombian ruins one centimeter each month, which could lead to even greater movement, capable of pushing the ruins to the point of collapse, warned a June 2001 study by the Disaster Prevention Institute of Japan's Kyoto University.
"An avalanche could separate the ruins into two parts at any time," states the report.
Not only Machu Picchu, but also the entire Cuzco region is located on the Tambomachay geological fault, where seismic activity has already caused several quakes.
The Peruvian authorities, however, say that there is no rigorous data that this movement proves to be "an imminent risk."
The critics of the government's lack of action also protest the fact that the massive flow of tourists to the area creates pollution.
"Because there are no rules regulating the tours through the ruins, and because there is little oversight, many tourists throw garbage just anywhere and don't think of the consequences," said tour guide Taco.
Another potential threat to the ruins is a private company's project to build a cable car system to the ruins, located at more than 3,000 meters above sea level. For now, the project has been put on hold. If completed it could increase the number of daily visitors to 4,000.
Building a cable car "would be crazy because it would mean the destruction of Machu Picchu. But the authorities have not ruled it out because more tourists means more income for the country," said university expert Cisneros.
The project, which UNESCO also opposes, would require a base 100 meters deep, "which would destroy the anthropological remains that may be found below the sanctuary," Cisneros said.
* Kintto Lucas is an IPS correspondent.