Airport Construction Threatens Andean Environments and Cultural Monuments

Construction of a mountain airport has landed the Sacred Valley of the Incas in Peru—a world heritage site—on the World Monument Fund’s “Watch List.” In January of this year, the Peruvian government dispatched a fleet of bulldozers into the village of Chincheros in the valley to clear earth for the construction of a major international airport.

Archaeologists, environmentalists, and social activists worry that greater access to the region will lead to unrestrained tourism, putting ancient sites, traditional ways of living, and fragile environments at risk. Among the threatened is a pyramidal glacier that caps the top of Mt. Veronica, the highest mountain of the Urubamba range within the Andes.

The new airport will require large aircraft to fly low over the old town of Ollantaytambo in their descent, rattling buildings and spewing exhaust over the old Incan fort that the town is built around. Black carbon from the exhaust will not only eat away at the fragile stone architecture (and degrade air quality for the people living there), but also speed up melting of Mt Veronica’s glacier nearby. Black carbon has intense light absorbing properties and is known to accelerate the melting of glaciers it settles upon.

Mount Veronica is the highest peak of the Urubama mountain range in the Andes of Peru. (Credit: roli_b)

World Monuments Fund is a private nonprofit organization founded in 1965. Their annual monuments watch list—that the Sacred Valley has the unfortunate distinction of being listed on in 2020—flags imperiled cultural structures and traditional communities in danger of decay or disappearance.  

The Sacred Valley of the Incas is perhaps more famous for what bookends it than what is in it: Machu Picchu on one end, and the old imperial capital of Cusco on the other. But the mountain valley was once the agricultural center of the Incan Empire, and contained many sites of great religious importance to them. To this day, it is full of old Incan structures and Quechua-speaking peoples.

Small towns built amongst ruins and terraces sprinkle the 70-mile long river valley that sits between 7,000 and 9,000 feet above sea level. Mount Veronica and its glacier watch over Ollantaytambo. The mountain, and many other Urubamba peaks embracing the Sacred Valley, are also deities, or apus, to some of the communities living there.

The move to construct an airport in the valley realizes a developmental dream of the State’s, dating back to the 1970s. Currently, tourists wanting to set eyes on Machu Picchu have to hop on a jumper plane to Cusco from Lima; then hike or travel by train or bus from there. The government hopes that with this new airport, they won’t have to, and that affluent foreigners can funnel directly in from the US and other parts of Latin America.

To reach the airport, large commercial planes will fly low over the town of Ollantaytambo, which contains many Incan ruins. (Credit: Esmée Winnubst)

Not everyone is against the airport’s construction. Life can be hard in rural Peru and there are promises of 2,500 or more jobs coming with the planes. The Yanacuna, one of the three landholding communities within Chincheros sold most of their land away at a $35 million price tag for runway construction. 

Development promises upheaval of normalcy in the valley, and the economic benefits of tourism are not felt by all. “Tourism benefits, basically, big corporations, tour agencies and airlines, and very little of the money stays local,” anthropologist Deborah Poole of Johns Hopkins University, told GlacierHub. Poole has worked in, and studied, the Cusco region. 

“It does bring some money into the area, but that money is unequally distributed,” she said. 

How the state plans on regulating a torrent of new tourists into the valley when Machu Picchu already exceeds the sustainable limit of 2,500 visitors a day set by UNESCO remains to be seen.

But for Poole, the problem is more than that. “The way [tourism] is organized now it doesn’t do much for Cusco. Certainly not for peasants.” She said. In the municipality of Urubamba, for example, she noted that “there are these big hotels that cost $100 to $150 a night and they wouldn’t even let local people go in.”

Members of the community sell brightly colored traditional wares at the central market in Chincheros. (Credit: Bernard Gagnon)

In addition to the inequitable distribution of wealth, the erosion of the natural landscape, like Veronica glacier, can also lead to emotional distress among local communities. The snow and ice capped peaks surrounding the valley are sacred and their breakdown also symbolizes the deterioration of a deity.  

“The indigenous communities there have a particular relationship with the landscape, with the water,” said Poole, “and they’re not equal shareholders in this project.”

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