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Greenpeace stunt disturbs Peru’s treasured archaeological site

December 15, 2014 at 6:25 PM EDT
An act of environmental protest directed at the global climate conference in Lima, Peru, may have inadvertently damaged a world heritage site. A week ago, Greenpeace members trekked to one of the nation’s most important -- and off-limits -- archaeological sites, the "Nazca Lines," and left a large-scale message. Jeffrey Brown reports on the disturbance and the response.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For the first time in two decades, countries around the world agreed in principle this weekend to reduce their rate of greenhouse gas emissions. The accord reached in Peru breaks a long impasse and lays the groundwork for a crucial meeting next year.

But nations have until next spring to spell out specific plans and very few ground rules have been set. Back in Peru, the conference wrapped up, but there’s now anger over what happened to an historic site in that host country, leaving potentially permanent damage.

Jeffrey Brown was in Peru and just returned with this report.

JEFFREY BROWN: A giant picture, called a geoglyph, of a hummingbird etched in stone and sand by ancient Peruvian peoples, it is a small part of the vast complex called the Nazca Lines, a World Heritage site that has entranced and mystified people into our own time.
But according to Peruvian officials, this footage shot by a drone and provided to the PBS NewsHour shows something more, evidence of expense extensive damage to the site that could now become used in a legal action.

MAN: You see in light here, over there.

JEFFREY BROWN: The story began a week ago when, before dawn, 20 members of the environmental group Greenpeace trekked to the site, which is strictly off-limits to visitors.

In cloth letters, they spelled out “Time for change, the future is renewable, Greenpeace.” It was a message aimed 260 miles away at the climate conference in Lima, where leaders from 196 nations were negotiating over limits to carbon emissions.

MAURO FERNANDEZ, Greenpeace Activist: From here, from the Nazca Lines, we’re sending a strong message to political leaders. And with this, we expect that they take action urgently to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was bold, brash and public. Greenpeace shot and released its own video of the action, the kind of big statement the group has been known for in the past.

Greenpeace also, for example, projected a message promoting solar energy on a mountain overlooking the world-famous Peruvian site of Machu Picchu. Greenpeace may have intended one message, but this quickly mushroomed into an international message, one that Peruvian authorities here took very seriously.

LUIS JAIME CASTILLO, Deputy Minister of Culture, Peru: To have a group of people, irresponsible, childish, to lay out a message and completely lose respect for the law, and absolutely disregard for what they were actually damaging.

JEFFREY BROWN: I was in Peru last week as this unfolded at another of the nation’s important archaeological sites, Chan Chan, where I spoke with Luis Jaime Castillo, vice minister of culture and himself an anthropologist.

What was your reaction to the Greenpeace action?

LUIS JAIME CASTILLO: Well, first, I think indignation, because this happened under circumstances that are completely unacceptable, then a little bit of sadness, because Peru has really prepared for this world summit on…

JEFFREY BROWN: The climate change summit.

Castillo told us that a delegation from Greenpeace had come to him with an apology, but it wasn’t enough.

LUIS JAIME CASTILLO: To tell you the truth, I don’t care for that. I mean, I care for basically one point. These things who are damaged, they have to be returned to their original status. Some people have to face criminal charges, because that is unavoidable. And the process has already started.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Nazca Lines have long been a source of wonder, but there remains much uncertainty about their origins and meanings. They consist of hundreds of pictures that are thought to have been created over a long period from 500 B.C. to 500 A.D.

Seen best from above, they at one point famously inspired a theory of extraterrestrial origin, but scholars believe they may have had a ceremonial or religious function. They were drawn in a sense by removing a thin patina of dark rocks covering light sand. This is one of the driest regions in the world. The lack of water and winds helped preserve the lines for centuries. But they’re still quite fragile.

LUIS JAIME CASTILLO: When you step on it, you simply break the patina and expose the bottom surface. How long does it take for the nature to lift again all that sand and take — and expose again and create the patina? Hundreds of years? Thousands of years? We really don’t know.

JEFFREY BROWN: When archaeologists do visit, as they did last week to assess the damage, they wear special pads on their shoes to broadly distribute their weight.

By contrast, photos taken by Peru’s Culture Ministry showed footprints and overturned rocks, allegedly by Greenpeace demonstrators. And the drone footage captures what the ministry says is other damage, the outline of what appears to be the letter C from the Greenpeace message, these horizontal lines that show where the message was laid out and in large paths where the activists walked in and out of the site.

KUMI NAIDOO, Executive Director, Greenpeace: I apologize personally to the people of Peru and all those around the world who were offended by our actions. This is not who we are.

JEFFREY BROWN: After arriving in Lima over the weekend to meet with Peruvian officials today, Greenpeace head Kumi Naidoo issued a video apology acknowledging the public relations fallout for his organization.

KUMI NAIDOO: We must now commit our full attention to making amends. I am committed to explore all options to the best of our ability for repairing any damage.

JEFFREY BROWN: Late this afternoon, though, Peruvian Vice Culture Minister Castillo told me by phone that Greenpeace had yet to provide a full list of the international group of participants, who are thought to have fled the country. He said Peru still plans to pursue criminal and civil cases to discourage future such actions.

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