The Cusco region attracts more than four million visitors annually—including one out of every three foreign visitors to Peru, on their way to visit Machu Picchu. The iconic royal retreat is the best-known tangible remnant of the Inca Empire, which arose out of the Andean Plateau near Cusco and grew to encompass most of the Andean highlands and the Pacific coast of South America. The Urubamba river valley, also known as the Sacred Valley of the Incas, unfolds between Cusco and Machu Picchu. Within flanking mountain peaks it envelops a fertile agricultural landscape, punctuated by small villages of Quechua-speaking communities, and dotted with the surviving remains of great Inca family estates.
Attracting more visitors to Cusco and further boosting its tourism industry has been a long-time regional development goal. Since it was first proposed in the 1970s, the vision of a new, modern airport that would welcome international flights from as far afield as Europe and North America has tantalized many in the regional capital. A new airport in the Sacred Valley would overcome the limitations presented by Cusco’s current airport and would make it possible for international tourists to visit the region without a necessary stop in Lima, the national capital. But while the material benefits of the new airport have been frequently touted, there has been little attempt to account for its social costs.
Following several false starts, the project is now underway. The chosen location: an area of land in the plain outside Chinchero, an Andean market town of 10,000 that sustains an indigenous culture, amid fifteenth-century Inca ruins, including Inca ruler Topa Inca Yupanqui’s personal royal estate, and a sixteenth century colonial church. One part of the lands for the airport was bought from Chinchero’s three peasants’ communities (Yanacona, Ayllopongo and Rachchi Ayllo) by the regional government between 2012 and 2013 and transferred in 2013 to the Peruvian Ministry of Transportation and Communications—a deal in which established safeguards that would ensure informed decision-making by indigenous people were sidestepped. The revival of the project has fueled land speculation and the unregulated growth of hotels, businesses, and infrastructure. 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. And along with the loss of communal land comes the inevitable fraying of the close connection between landscape and local identity that has long characterized life in Chinchero and other communities in the Sacred Valley.
But advocates’ concerns do not stop there. Archaeologists, historians, anthropologists, and other experts have raised the alarm about the physical impact of the undertaking on the material remains of Inca culture on the Chinchero plateau, but also on other sites nearby, such as Ollantaytambo, Moray and Maras. An online petition calling for a radical rethinking of the project has collected more than 80,000 signatures.
By including the Sacred Valley on the 2020 World Monuments Watch, WMF adds its voice to the many concerns raised about the Chinchero airport, and about the just distribution of the rewards of tourism-based development around global heritage destinations. Through the Watch we intend to continue the search for inclusive and equitable solutions to the development of the Sacred Valley.