Machu Picchu and Sustainability

Solid and permanent, like the stone on which it stands, Machu Picchu is Peru’s main tourist attraction and a fantasy for people around the world. Yet, the site is surprisingly fragile and challenged by its very success and this raises the challenge for Peru of maintaining Machu Picchu so people can continue to enjoy its splendor.

Of course Machu Picchu is more than simply the tourist site with its wall, roofless buildings, and cliffs. It is also a large preserve: The Machu Picchu Historic Sanctuary. More than 36 thousand square kilometers in size, it embraces a diverse ecosystem with needs to protect animal and plant life in it as well as the tourist economy that centers on the paradise on a saddle. As a result, the issue of sustainability is a necessary and complex one.

In an article published early this year in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, entitled “Developing Sustainable Tourism through Adaptive Resource Management: A Case Study of Machu Picchu, Peru”, Lincoln Larson (a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Cornell University) and Neelam C. Poudyal (an assistant professor in the Warnell School of Forestry Resources at the University of Georgia), discussed the issues that must be considered in any sustainability plan for Machu Picchu and advocated a method of reaching such a plan.

Machu Picchu and Surroundings
Machu Picchu and Surroundings

“Sustainable” has been one of the important buzz words of development planning in recent years, though it generally is more used than carefully defined. Part of the reason for this imprecision, as Larson and Poudyal note, is that different interests focus on different values to sustain making any final notion as much a political consensus as any scientific idea of what sustainability should be.

For example, they point out that “to ecologists, sustainable development is concerned with preserving the status and function of ecosystems”  while from an economic perspective it is “‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations’ (Toman, 1992, p.3)”  (p. 918). For tourism they observe sustainability means “satisf[ying] the needs of present tourists and host regions while protecting and enhancing opportunities for the future” (p. 918).

For a sustainability plan to develop these different points of view, among others, must be brought together and balanced one with another. This is not an easy task.

Climbing Machu Picchu's Stairs
Climbing Machu Picchu’s Stairs

Making the situation worse, the authors indicate that the Management Unit of Machu Picchu is composed of different agencies and faces pressures from the large actors in the tourist industry and the local people who have come to depend on tourism at the site.

Government agencies include for Peru the Ministry of Culture, SERNANP–the National Service of Protected Areas, and MINCETUR–the Ministry of Foreign Commerce and Tourism and for the world UNESCO — the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and IUCN–the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Tourist interests include PromPeru, Peru Rail (owned by the Orient Express Hotels) a range of tour operators and travel agencies, as well as the people of the growing town of Aguas Calientes at the Machu Picchu rail stop. Vast inequalities in the distribution of income from tourism provides a background for the interactions of these parties.

Sculpture of a Condor in Aguas Calientes
Sculpture of a Condor in Aguas Calientes

While recognizing the value of current efforts to build a plan for sustainability at Machu Picchu, which include the controversial limiting of admission to the site to 2,500 people per day, Larson and Poudyal argue a more valid plan must get input and buy in from all the interested parties and not just the major players.

To do so they advocate an adaptive resource management (ARM) approach. ARM is defined as a management schema for decision making based on uncertainty and complexity that requires constant information gathering in order to calibrate decisions.  In this way the managers take an evolving system approach to the complexity of something like Machu Picchu. They argue this management form will provide a framework to negotiate among the different interest groups, develop a model for sustainability, and measurements to know whether management is attaining its goals.

All this, Larson and Poudyal hold, is necessary given the inherent fragility of the site and its ecosystem at a time of increased tourist demand.

After all, Machu Picchu still is the main tourist site of Peru. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and was recently named one of the contemporary Wonders of the World. Peruvian managers have already been negotiating these issues among interested parties in the complex politics that surround and inform the site, but it is also useful for foreign intellectuals to take interest in Machu Picchu and relate its issues to those of their management literatures and perspective.

View of Huayna Picchu
View of Huayna Picchu

Cited Reference:

Toman, M.A. (1992). The difficulty in defining sustainability. Resources, 106, 3-6.

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