Peasants Protest at Machu Picchu

The ancient Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, Peru’s top tourist attraction, has been the site of an escalating protest by hundreds of peasants over what they said is a pattern of government neglect of rural regions.

Using stones, some 80 protesters on Wednesday succeeded in blocking for four hours the railway line that ferries hundreds of tourists up to Machu Picchu daily, preventing trains carrying around 600 visitors from passing, police said.

The protests come in the wake of an accident in which part of the site — which is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list and attracts around 1,000 tourists a day — was damaged during filming of a beer commercial.

On Thursday about 1,500 peasants left in trucks from Santa Teresa and from there walked up to Machu Picchu.

Access roads around Machu Picchu have been blocked and the surrounding region has been paralyzed for four days.

Duberli Leyva, a police official in the nearby city of Cusco, said the peasants had a string of demands.

“They want paved roads, agricultural improvements — they’re furious. That’s why we have moved around 250 officers up to the ruins and in the surrounding areas, as well as around the railway line which leads up there,” Leyva said.

President Alberto Fujimori, re-elected in a May vote widely condemned as flawed, has made regional decentralization a key theme of his new government and has recently adopted measures to boost the agriculture sector.

Damage to Shrine

Thursday’s protest came days after a centuries-old sundial at Machu Picchu was damaged in a shoot for a beer commercial.

The Intihuatana, or “hitching post for the sun,” is a granite block carved into the peak of the mountain where Macchu Picchu lies, high in the jungle-covered Andes, about 300 miles southeast of the capital, Lima. It was used by Inca astronomers to predict solstices and was of great importance in Inca mythology and agriculture. It is considered the most important shrine in Machu Picchu.

A jutting edge of the sundial the length of a ball point pen was chipped off last Friday when a 1,000-pound crane used to film a beer commercial toppled over.

The shoot had been approved by the Cusco office of Peru’s National Institute of Culture. However, Gustavo Manrique, director of the office, said the permit specified only light equipment could be used. Manrique said the production crew sneaked the crane into the sanctuary at dawn after the National Institute of Culture specifically prohibited the use of a crane.

Criminal charges have been filed against the production company for destruction of national patrimony, or ancestral property, he said. The charges carry a sentence of two to four years in prison.

“Machu Picchu is the heart of our archaeological heritage and the Intihuatana is the heart of Machu Picchu. They’ve struck at our most sacred inheritance,” said Federico Kaufmann Doig, a prestigious Peruvian archaeologist.

“This is an affront to our ancestors,” he said.

The commercial was shot by the U.S. publicity firm J. Walter Thompson for beer company Cervesur, a subsidiary of Peru’s largest beer company, Backus & Johnston.

Cervesur, one of the biggest companies in the impoverished Cusco region, promised to help repair the damage, a procedure experts said would require advanced restoration techniques.

“Although we do not feel responsible for this regrettable event, we are committed to help clear up what happened,” said Cervesur regional manager Carlos de la Flor. The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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