What the Spanish looter Francisco Pizarro began on 16 May 1532, when he and a band of fellow plunderers came ashore on the northwestern coast of what is now Peru, the government of the day in that country is about to complete. Pizarro devastated the Inca empire and much of its culture and enslaved the indigenous population, a condition from which they have never escaped. The Peruvian government has given the go-ahead for a second international airport in the Cusco area, the gateway to the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu.
Such self-harm seems incomprehensible, but tourism to Machu Picchu accounts for much of Peru’s foreign income flows. More tourists more easily accessing the Unesco World Heritage Site is something that would appear to trump the concerns of Quechua-speaking descendants of the Incas who live in the area, archaeologists and environmentalists. This week, The Guardian newspaper reported that “bulldozers are already scraping clear millions of tonnes of earth in Chinchero, a picturesque Inca town about 3 800m above sea level that is the gateway to the Sacred Valley”.
Chinchero is closer than the city of Cusco to Machu Picchu. Most visitors stay in Cusco and get to Machu Picchu by a combination of road and rail (some hop off the railway and take varying lengths of the Inca Trail, walking up to Machu Picchu). The effect of another airport will be considerable on tourist numbers and the environment, given that Cusco airport has only one runway, a factor that reduced the numbers of incoming and outbound air travel.
But now, with a flight pathway to the proposed airport that passes over the fortress/temple complex of Ollantaytambo, planes will be able to indulge in continual degradation of that and other nearby sites. As in water torture, where the victim is worn down by one slow drip at a time, so too will the massive, steep terraces that front and guard Ollantaytambo succumb over time.
It’s easy to imagine the glint in Pizzaro’s mind’s eye when he contemplated what bounty might await him. He had made exploratory journeys in 1524 and 1526. By 1528 he had encountered Inca settlements and realised the wealth of the Inca Empire, which stretched over not only modern-day Peru but also by today’s maps southern Colombia and central Chile. Pizarro dashed back to Spain to raise money and men and returned to Panama, leaving there in late 1530 to set off for the Inca Empire. Six months after that fateful landfall, Pizarro captured the Inca emperor, Atahualpa, whom he later killed by stealth and treachery.
Death by humans
Nearly 500 years later, those in power in Peru appear about to condemn the most important site of Peruvian heritage to a long, slow death by jet emissions and the sheer weight of human feet tramping through it. It’s important to declare here that I have contributed to the degrading of the site by being there myself. On that visit our guide, an archaeologist and indigenous Quechua-speaker, without fail referred to “my people” when recounting Machu Picchu’s history and that of those who lived or were called there for religious, educational or practical purposes.
Moth rain falling, mist swirling around Huayna Picchu (Young Peak), the mountain that forms the backdrop to the ruins, we were taken back in time but more significantly in sensibility to a pre-Spanish era. The pillaging of Peru that followed Pizarro’s arrival – one small step for a conquistador, one huge fall for humankind – is even more wrenching to contemplate at Machu Picchu, a retreat of ritual and learning that ought to be sacrosanct.
So why go? Not “because it’s there” (the old quip about why climb Mount Everest). To mourn for or honour Inca culture and civilisation? They would be better preserved by not going. And therein lies the rub: Machu Picchu is on so many must-see lists: the bucket list, the 50 or 100 or 500 “things to see before” charts. It will be easier to get to, soon. It will subside and erode, eventually, entirely through human agency.
Language and publishing being what they are, the defenders of indigenous Inca peoples tended in the 19th century to come from the ranks of the colonists. But what a remarkable person was Clorinda Matto de Turner, who was born in Cusco in 1852 and died in exile in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1909. Her gradual immersion in Incan language and culture led to her adding a T to her birth surname Mato, to lend it Incan flavour; the Turner came from her husband.
Notably, she was a feminist whose printing press was smashed and home burnt down in riots in Lima in 1895, after which she left Peru. Influenced and supported by the Peruvian intellectual Manuel González Prada, she earned the mantle of “defender of the Indians”.
That was very much what she achieved in her 1899 novel Aves sin nido (Birds Without a Nest; alternatively, Torn From the Nest; in full subtitle A Novel: A Story of Indian Life and Priestly Oppression in Peru). Never before had the subject of the living conditions and repression of descendants of the Inca been touched on in Peruvian letters. Here are some lines from her groundbreaking book:
“I love the native race with a tender love, and so I have observed its customs closely … and, as well, the abjection into which this race is plunged by small-town despots, who, while their names may change, never fail to live up to the epithet of tyrants. They are no other than, in general, the priests, governors, caciques [leaders of indigenous groups] and mayors.”