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The monumental Nasca lines may not be around for long if steps are not taken, according to conservationists in the know.

Located in the arid coastal plain south of Lima, Peru, these incredible lines are only visible in their entirety from a tower, airplane or from space. Created on a gigantic scale, they consist of hundreds of simple lines, geometric shapes, and zoomorphic figures representing entities such as human figures, hummingbirds, spiders, sharks, orcas, llamas, jaguar, lizards, fish, and a monkey. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, the geoglyphs or "lines" of Nasca and the pampas of Jumana are well-known to the world, and are today an important tourist destination.

These Nasca Lines, as they are popularly called, date from 500 B.C. to 500 A.D. and cover an area consisting of foothills and desert for more than 450 square kilometers. Attributed to three different stages of development corresponding to the Chavรญn, Paracas, and Nasca cultures respectively, they were made by removing the overlying dark sand and iron oxide gravel to expose a lighter ground underneath. Although numerous theories abound concerning their origin and meaning, many scholars suggest that they had ritual astronomical functions.

But they may not fascinate forever. They have been included on the World Monuments Fund's (WMF) 2012 Watch of cultural heritage sites at risk. They face major conservation challenges as a result of looting, private flights over the sites without proper safety controls, mining activity in the region, public apathy, refuse accumulation, world climate change, inappropriate viewing platforms and lack of appropriate tourism infrastructure. After flooding and mudslides occurred in the area in 2007, a team of specialists surveyed the area. According to Mario Olaechea Aquije, archaeological resident at Peru's National Institute of Culture, "[T]he mudslides and heavy rains did not appear to have caused any significant damage to the Nasca Lines." But the nearby highway that facilitates access for visitors and others to the sites did suffer damage, a possible harbinger of things to come for the lines. "The damage done to the roads should serve as a reminder to just how fragile these figures are," Aquije said.

Not the least of the problems stems from lack of management and institutional coordination. "The Regional Government of Ica needs to take a big step in the protection of the site," says Norma Barbacci, WMF Program Director for Latin America, Spain, and Portugal. "Apparently they had funds for conservation which were not used for lack of management capacity. This lack of capacity and coordination between government institutions must be resolved."

There are positive signs. Barbacci says that the Ministry of Culture is developing a master plan for the preservation and development of the Nasca lines areas and that it should be ready by the end of 2011. "They also have been supporting some conservation work," she says, "and the Municipality of Ica has done some site drainage work."

For the WMF's role, it is hoped that the recent Watch designation will raise awareness and galvanize resources and support to implement the plan through collaboration among the concerned institutions and active engagement of the stakeholder communities. Critical to the long-term success of the plan is development and involvement of the communities who stand to benefit from the tourism that the Nasca lines generate. In the past, communities surrounding important World Heritage archaeological and cultural sites have been left out of the equation, to the detriment of the hosting countries' economies and thus the local incentives needed to sustain the integrity and continued attractiveness of the sites.

Says Barbacci, "WMF's role may be as an international observer and mediator between the different government institutions and the public sector, who need to work together on the preservation and sustainable development of this site. I believe the local community needs to be properly integrated in the implementation of the management plan through a participatory process.........The actual implementation of the management plan is the responsibility of the national, regional and local governments, acting in concert and with the participation of the local community. Our role is mainly as a catalyst for positive change."