Machu Picchu Train Halted Over Water Protests

Authorities suspend tourist route to ancient ruins amid protests over irrigation scheme that could leave town without water

Authorities in Peru have suspended train services to the Inca citadel Machu Picchu due to protests over an irrigation project that critics say could leave communities without water.

The train, which ferries about 1,500 tourists to the ruins daily, will be halted today and tomorrow while trade unions, university students, peasants and other groups hold a 48-hour strike in Cusco, a regional capital and jumping-off point for visitors to the archaeological site.

Rail authorities said the train, which is the only way to reach Machu Picchu besides an arduous trek, would be suspended as a precaution until the strike ended and tension eased. In an apparently separate event, a forest fire flared about eight miles from Machu Picchu.

Violent clashes last week between police and protesters left one man dead and 44 injured. Protesters say the Majes-Siguas II irrigation project will leave the town of Espinar, 400 miles south of the capital Lima, without water.

The project envisages a dam and water system to irrigate 95,000 acres of agricultural land in the region of Arequipa, part of a Peruvian government plan to boost agriculture and diversify the economy away from mining. Officials said the irrigation project could generate 150,000 or 200,000 jobs.

Authorities issued a decree guaranteeing Espinar's water supplies but residents's suspicion grew after the state investment agency, allegedly without consultation, awarded a concession to a private consortium called Angostura-Siguas.

"The province of Espinar has its own needs that have never been considered," Nestor Cuti, a protest leader, told reporters. "With this concession we are condemned to have a lack of water for life."

The Peruvian prime minister, Jose Chang, said the government would negotiate if protests were halted. "We are sure we will be able to reach a solution that will be just for the town of Espinar."

Peru is one of South America's most volatile countries and is regularly rocked by protests. Access to water is especially sensitive given that Andean glaciers are melting and heavily populated coastal areas are near desert.

Authorities were today battling a forest fire in a nature reserve near Machu Picchu. The cause of the fire, which started yesterday, was not known, nor was the extent of devastation, said Nilo Chavez, a tourism and ecology official in Cusco.

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