UNESCO World Heritage Committee wants more monitoring of Machu Picchu

UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee requested reinforced monitoring Thursday for Peru’s Inca citadel of Machu Picchu — the country’s top tourist attraction — expressing grave concern over the governance of the site and imminent risks of landslides, fires and deforestation.

The ruins, which narrowly escaped being added to the list of endangered World Heritage sites after environmental groups petitioned the Committee, are also being damaged by illegal access to the site and uncontrolled development in Aguas Calientes, the tourist town in the narrow valley below the ruins.

The Committee met in Canada’s oldest city, Québec, this week to consider adding potential sites to its coveted list of protected natural and architectural wonders and to exclude those it now considers threatened.

To avoid Machu Picchu from being added to the list of threatened sites, the Peruvian government proposed a $132.5 million emergency plan to preserve the ruins and limit the flow of tourists, as well as take measure to prevent forest fires and landslides. The plan includes, among others things, the installation of several miles of optic fibre from the Aguas Calientes to the citadel to set up surveillance cameras, the implementation of an entry ticket control program and the restoration of numerous monuments.

Representatives from the United States, China, Kenya, Morocco, Israel and Spain recognized Peru’s efforts and its satisfactory management of the site, but maintained that reinforced monitoring should be applied.

Under UNESCO’s monitoring mechanism, established in 2007, scientists can regularly examine developments in situ, to better guide the Committee in its actions and decisions.

Yet, conservationists and environmental groups, such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, advised the Committee to consider adding Machu Picchu to its list of endangered World Heritage sites.

June 24, IUCN’s David Sheppard told Reuters that his organization wanted the ruins to be added to a list of approximately 30 endangered sites.

“A danger listing can help mobilize donors but can be seen as criticism of current protection policies,” Sheppard argued. “We haven’t heard from Peru, we’re not trying to blow a whistle. We’re trying to identify the practical responses.”

According to the IUCN, the ruins face many threats related to unregulated and expanding tourism, the uncontrolled growth of hotels and restaurants in Aguas Calientes — which is putting great pressure on the site’s erosion-prone banks — as well as potential forest fires and landslides.

The ruins were also damaged by helicopter landings near and on the site since the 1970s and during the shooting of a beer commercial in September 2000 when a camera crane toppled over, chipping off a chunk of the granite Intihuantana, the centuries-old stone sundial.

“There needs to be a much tighter tourism management plan and some of the urban planning needs to be much more tightly controlled. Global warming, which may disrupt rainfall and contribute to landslides and forest fires, are also among risks for the city,” Sheppard added.

The site’s inclusion last year to the new list of world wonders has set off an unprecedented increase in the number of visitors, totaling a record-breaking 800,158 in 2007.

And, according to Mercedes Aráoz, the Minister of Commerce and Tourism, the nomination should lead to a 12.5 percent increase this year, totalling over 900.000 national and foreign visitors to the ruins.

Inscription to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites — the ruins were added in 1983 — does not guarantee protection. Listing often brings more visibility, and more visibility attracts more tourists, which many developing countries aren’t always able to manage adequately.

In 2007, Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands were added to UNESCO’s list of endangered World Heritage sites after an unprecedented wave of tourism-related immigration brought invasive species, such as cats and goats, to the islands.

In addition to Machu Picchu, the Committee requested reinforced monitoring for three other World Heritage sites: Bordeaux, Port of the Moon (France), Timbuktu (Mali), and the Samarkand – Crossroads of Cultures (Uzbekistan).

During its meeting, the Committee also added 27 new sites to the UNESCO’s World Heritage list, which now has 878 sites in 145 countries.

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