There are very few monuments in the world that are as inspiring and uplifting as Machu Picchu. This 15th century ensemble of monuments, spectacularly situated at the altitude of 2,430 metres on the Andes Mountains in Peru, recently celebrated the centenary of its discovery — an occasion to recall its significance and to press home the imperative need to vastly improve its conservation. This self-contained city was abandoned by the Incas about 450 years ago and remained unknown to the outside world till Hiram Bingham, a Yale University explorer, spotted it with the help of local people in 1911. His scientific surveys and writings brought world attention to this magnificent site that includes religious structures, urban quarters, plazas, and terraced farms. Archaeologists, handicapped by a lack of written records, have been unable precisely to state the functions of this complex. However, it is widely believed to have been a ceremonial centre and a royal retreat. Machu Picchu is a showpiece of imaginative construction techniques, which ensured the stability of its structures; intelligent hydraulic engineering principles, which effectively drained the site prone to torrential rains; and creative geotechnical engineering ideas, which protected its steep slopes from erosion.
Machu Picchu has of course been designated as a World Heritage site, celebrated as the UNESCO assessment report puts it, as “an outstanding example of man's interaction with his natural environment.” The American Society of Civil Engineers has recognised it as an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Sadly, this cultural landscape, which brings in a revenue of about $40 million a year to Peru, is not among the best protected. Attention has been paid to the historic ruins, but the area surrounding them is beset with problems. An area measuring 32,500 hectares, including the monument zone, has been declared a protected zone; two master plans addressing issues of development and heritage protection have long been ready; and the number of visitors has been restricted to 2,500 a day. However, conservation efforts, reviewed in 2010, have not made sufficient progress. Insensitive development, poor access to the sanctuary, and the absence of environmental impact assessments continue to take a toll on civilisational heritage. The government of Peru has done well in persuading Yale University to repatriate thousands of artefacts taken away by Hiram Bingham from Machu Picchu, but it has not shown the strong and sustained commitment needed to implement a comprehensive conservation plan. The time to act resolutely is now.