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Perú has spectacular archeological treasures. Is it doing enough to keep them safe?

In Perú, recent incidents, including a fire near murals dating back to 2,000 B.C., have focused on whether the country is doing enough to safeguard its archeological treasures.
A recently rediscovered geoglyph of a sperm whale with human features in the deserts of Nazca in Perú.
A recently rediscovered geoglyph of a sperm whale with human features in the deserts of Nazca in Perú. Peru's culture ministry

LIMA, Perú – Dating to around 2,000 B.C., the mysterious murals at the Ventarrón archeological site along Perú’s northern coast are thought to be the oldest in the Americas.

But this month, just a decade after their discovery, the ancient paintings of abstract designs and a deer caught in a net were badly damaged when farmers’ fires to clear neighboring fields of sugar cane stumps ran out of control.

In this photo provided by the government news agency ANDINA, shows Huaca Ventarron after a fire destroyed this archaeological complex in Lambayeque, Peru, Monday, Nov. 13, 2017. The fire was triggered when a nearby sugar cane field was set alight, burning part of the pre-Hispanic archaeological site that had polychrome murals over 2,000 years old.Uncredited / AP

Just a few days earlier, nearly 1,000 miles further south, it had emerged that a recently rediscovered geoglyph of a sperm whale with human features, an early precursor to the famed Nazca lines, had been all but hemmed in by private property as a result of land sales that, in theory, should be illegal that close to an archeological site.

The incidents have once again shone a spotlight on Perú’s spectacular archeological treasures and the country’s apparent inability to adequately safeguard and conserve them.

Although the Andean nation is best known for its Inca heritage, that great pre-Colombian empire was in fact just the last in a series of cultures as diverse as those of the Mediterranean basin that once flourished here stretching back over eight millennia.

Those myriad peoples have left Perú dotted with an estimated 20,000 known archeological sites, ranging from the positively tiny to around 20 comparable in scale to Machu Picchu.

Sarcophaguses made of clay from the Chachapoyas culture are seen at the Karajia archeological site, in Chachapoyas, Peru, November 15, 2017.GUADALUPE PARDO / Reuters

Yet as few as 200 have any kind of protection, usually no more than one or two signs and a single guard, says Alejandro Camino, the former Perú director for the Global Heritage Fund, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that works to save archeological ruins.

He warns that Perú is failing to protect its archeological patrimony while also missing out on the badly needed opportunity for economic development that many of these sites represent for often impoverished neighboring communities.

“These two cases [Ventarrón and the whale geoglyph] are the ones that have come to light but how many others are there across Perú that we never even hear about?” asks Camino.

The Peruvian government dedicates roughly 0.32 percent of its national budget to the culture ministry, which manages the country’s archeological heritage. But the ministry, which did not respond to NBCs requests for comment, also has numerous other responsibilities, everything from tackling racism to defending the human rights of indigenous peoples and, of course, promoting contemporary Peruvian culture.

“Faced with the magnitude of the problem, it is ridiculous and unviable,” says Camino of the public resources dedicated to archeology beyond the handful of well known sites, such as Machu Picchu, that represent a cash cow for the national and local governments.

Camino acknowledges that in a country where poverty remains widespread, many view committing public funds to archeological ruins as an unaffordable luxury. But Camino also believes that view is profoundly wrong.

“Our experience has been that even a small trickle of tourists can have a significant impact on the local economy of often isolated rural communities,” he says. “Investing just a small amount, and getting the local community on board, is always money well spent.”

As well as saving important local heritage and bringing in tourist dollars, better protecting many of these sites would lessen the pressure on Machu Picchu, which is overwhelmed by the 3,000 visitors it receives each day, and the rest of the Sacred Valley of the Incas, which runs from the spectacular citadel perched across a sugar loaf mountain, to the old imperial capital of Cusco.

A view of Machu Picchu in Peru's Cusco region.JTB Photo / UIG via Getty Images

In 2008, UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, even issued public warnings about its “grave concern” that Perú was failing to protect Machu Picchu from the wear and tear of so many visitors, and that the small town of Aguascalientes, which is the gateway to the site, was turning into a tourist trap.

The government of then president Alan García implemented various measures, including banning the helicopter over flights for wealthy tourists that ruined others’ once-in-a-lifetime experience, thus managing to avoid a formal warning from UNESCO.

But issues persist, everything from land trafficking to the culturally accepted ransacking of archeological sites that has been going on for centuries and even has its own verb in Peruvian Spanish; “huaquear,” based on the Quechua term “huaca”, meaning “sacred” but which is often used to simply denote an archeological site.

Items such as ceramics, gold or silver jewelry, textiles and even mummies, have all been fetching high prices on illegal international markets since even the colonial era.

In the case of Ventarrón, experts say the murals can be largely restored, although some 15 percent is now damaged beyond repair.

As for the sperm whale geoglyph, Johny Isla, the local government archeologist who led the recent work to restore it — including painstakingly replacing the missing stones that had rolled from the 200 ft-long image down the hillside — says he is now looking at legal ways to recover the 150 acres of land around the site, just a few miles from the original Nasca lines.

“It was purchased with we don’t know what documents, through authorities that either didn’t know or didn’t care to know that this is an archeological zone,” he said. “We have talked to the owners and they say they are willing to cede some of the land. But we don’t want a favor. We want the law to be respected. You cannot own land this close to an archeological site and we want to enforce that.”

When the site is up and running, Isla adds, there will be a road to it through the desert, a perimeter fence, signposting and a viewing platform. There are other nearby geoglyphs, including of a pelican and a scorpion, that he also wants to preserve, all from around the time of Christ.

Yet committed professionals like him and Camino, it seems, still have a long road to travel before all of Perú’s vast archeological legacy is truly protected.