Endangered Cultural Heritage Sites in Latin America

Arts and Media June 2024 PREMIUM

The most valuable examples of human civilization and natural beauty are inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List; many of these sites are located in Latin America (as described in previous H.O. issues). 

Both Cultural and Natural World Heritage sites are meant to be preserved and protected by their own countries’ governments, as well as by the international community through the auspices of UNESCO. What happens, however, when these sites are endangered? Which of the unique examples of our cultural heritage in Latin America should we be concerned about, due to the threats they face?

Defining World Heritage Properties in Danger

According to the 1972 World Heritage Convention, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee can inscribe a property on the List of World Heritage in Danger if it faces an “ascertained danger” (specific, current, and proven) or a “potential danger” (threats that could have a near-future negative effect). For Cultural Properties, ascertained dangers include the “serious deterioration” of materials, structure, ornamental features, architectural coherence, and surrounding spaces, as well as a “significant loss” of historical authenticity or cultural significance. Potential dangers include changes to judicial frameworks reducing site protection, lack of conservation policy, and regional or town planning projects threatening the property. They also encompass the “outbreak or threat of armed conflict” and “threatening impacts of climatic, geological, or other environmental factors.”

National governments can request a site to be inscribed on the list; NGOs and local or international conservation teams can also alert UNESCO to the dangers a property faces. Including a site on this list highlights its plight, increasing visibility, and provides immediate assistance from UNESCO’s World Heritage Fund. The World Heritage Committee and the State Party must adopt and monitor a corrective measures plan until the property is considered safe and can be removed from the list.

Currently, there are 56 World Heritage Properties in Danger globally, six in Latin America, including four Cultural Properties, which we focus on in this issue.

City of Potosí, Bolivia

In the 16th century, the discovery of the largest silver lodes in the New World at Cerro de Potosí in the Bolivian Andes led to the development of a major silver mine. Francisco de Toledo designated Potosí as an Imperial City in 1572, making it the world’s largest industrial complex of its time. This site is a key cultural heritage location due to its role in generating Spain’s wealth and catalyzing global economic changes of the era. It exemplifies the complete social and technological process of silver mining, from extraction—reliant on indigenous forced labor (the mita system)—to the use of hydraulic power for 140 ore-grinding mills (ingenios) and the Royal Mint, where silver bars and coins were made and sent to Sevilla, Spain.

Potosí, a large colonial city, housed 160,000 colonists and 13,500 natives in separate areas. It boasts a complex of buildings, including workers’ quarters (barrios mitayos), luxurious homes, 22 parish churches, the Compañia de Jesus tower, the Cathedral, and the Royal Mint. These structures represent a unique “Andean Baroque” style, incorporating native Indian features and influencing regional architecture.

Inscribed as a World Cultural Heritage Property in 1987, Potosí’s mining activities have degraded Cerro de Potosí, making it porous and causing summit collapses. This endangers local lives, worsens living conditions, and threatens the site’s cultural integrity. Despite the Bolivian Mining Corporation’s commitment to preserving the mountain’s topography, recommendations from a 2005 UNESCO mission on sustainable mining and site preservation were not followed. Consequently, Potosí was placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2014.

To be removed from the list, authorities must implement an approved Strategic Emergency Plan, improve management of industrial activities, conduct geophysical studies to identify anomalies, establish a monitoring system, and amend legal frameworks to halt mining in the mountain’s elevated regions.

Fortifications of Portobelo-San Lorenzo, Panama

This 17th and 18th century group of fortifications on Panama’s Caribbean coast was inscribed on the list of World Cultural Heritage in 1980, given their value as unique and magnificent examples of military architecture, as well as their historical significance as part of Spain’s system of defense in the New World. These fortifications were meant to protect the Spanish Crown’s trade routes across the Atlantic, and thus also had an economic role. 

In 2012, this cultural property was inscribed in the List of World Heritage in Danger, after a decade of UNESCO requests to the Panamanian government to take measures to preserve the site in the face of environmental degradation, lack of maintenance and excessive urban development and encroachment on the property. In 2012, the World Heritage Committee again called on relevant Panamanian authorities to conduct a structural risk assessment and strengthen the walls, batteries and platforms that sustain the fortifications. There was also concern over the lack of funding for the site, as well as of a holistic conservation plan.

Since then, the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) has provided funding for the site’s conservation and management. In 2023, UNESCO recognized the Panamanian government’s actions to improve the condition of the site, including the completion of the Community Development Plan of Portobelo and a new Land Management Plan, both oriented towards improving the living conditions of residents, as well as projects for conserving and restoring the main components of the fortifications. Nonetheless, the establishment of a buffer zone for the property – which would protect it from further urban encroachment - was still being considered, as was the extension of the IADB’s loan; thus, the World Heritage Committee decided to keep this important site on the List of World Heritage in Danger until the submission of an updated conservation report in 2024.


Chan Chan Archaeological Zone, Peru

The city of Chan Chan, capital of the Chimu Kingdom in Peru, was the largest earthen-architecture establishment in pre-Hispanic America, peaking in the 15th century before being conquered by the Incas. The archaeological remains of Chan Chan illustrate the Chimu Kingdom’s complex social, military, and technological organization, and its outstanding urban planning. An elaborate irrigation system, supported by canals from the Moche and Chicama rivers, sustained agriculture around the city. The city center was divided into nine autonomous “citadels,” each protected by high earthen walls and containing homes, storehouses, reservoirs, temples, and funeral platforms arranged around open spaces. Surrounding these were 32 smaller compounds and areas for activities such as weaving, carpentry, and metalworking. The symbolic and sacred architectural features, including friezes with abstract and anthropomorphic motifs, offer insights into Chimu civilization.

Chan Chan was inscribed as a World Cultural Heritage site in 1986 and simultaneously placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger due to the adverse effects of extreme climatic conditions, particularly heavy rains from ‘El Niño,’ on the fragile earthen architecture, along with plundering and a highway crossing the site. Ongoing restoration efforts using earthen materials have mitigated climate-induced deterioration. Since 1999, measures have been implemented to control rising water levels. Peruvian laws protect Chan Chan, and the Ministry of Culture has collaborated with regional and municipal authorities to address illegal encroachments. However, full protection remains elusive, with unresolved issues such as relocating illegal settlers, stopping illegal farming, and addressing urban development encroachments, including the impact of an animal food plant in the area.

Coro and its Port of La Vela, Venezuela

The town of Coro on the Caribbean coast of Venezuela is one of the earliest Spanish establishments in the New World, founded in 1527, the first capital of the Captaincy General of Venezuela and the first South American town to gain independence from Spain. It contains more than 602 historic buildings. Coro and its Port of La Vela preserve their original urban layout and earthen building techniques such as bahareque, adobe, and tapia, which remain in use today. Despite environmental challenges, Coro and its Port have maintained their original layout and much of their earthen architecture. However, the site requires boundary extensions and better urban controls to protect its attributes fully. 

Coro and its Port are protected under various national laws and have been declared a National Monument multiple times since 1960. The Presidential Commission for the Protection of Coro and La Vela, established in 2003, has developed the Integral Plan for the Conservation and Development of Coro y La Vela (Plincode). This plan outlines short, medium, and long-term actions for the site’s management.

Due to severe rains in 2004-2005, the site was listed as a World Heritage in Danger. Emergency measures and a framework agreement were established, involving multiple stakeholders, including the Venezuelan government and community councils. These efforts aim to address conservation needs and integrate community participation in managing the heritage site.

The new management approach, focusing on community involvement and sustainable conservation, aims to preserve Coro’s architectural, historical, and cultural significance, ensuring the protection and revitalization of this unique heritage site.


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