Ownership fight erupts over Maya ruins
A dramatic rise in tourism ignites a debate in Mexico: Should a private family own an archaeological treasure?
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INAH seems to agree with his logic. Eduardo Perez de Heredia, head of the INAH in Chichen Itza, pulls up a charter adopted by an international group of architects in 1931. He points to a declaration that says private interests should be subordinate to the interests of the community. "It's just common sense," he says. "How can you protect something that is not yours?"Skip to next paragraph
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The INAH appears to have the money to buy the land. The agency's director, Alfonso de Maria y Campos, recently indicated that it has $1.5 million to purchase property on which archaeological ruins lie. He decreed Chichen Itza a priority. The land was valued at $750,000 last year.
But complicating a land transfer are the tensions that surface in many families over estates. The Barbachanos are a diverse lot: Over the years, the clan has included a governor, a filmmaker, an archaeologist, and other notable members. One thing all of them agree on is that they are under attack, even though they feel they have honored the nation's heritage. Evan Albright, who is writing a book on Chichen Itza, agrees the Barbachanos have been "good shepherds of the land."
But the family has different visions of what to do with the property. Hans Thies Barbachano, who inherited a parcel from his late grandfather at the heart of the archaeology site, prefers to keep it in family hands. But since the government is interested in the acreage, he says he's open to selling it – for a fair price.
The park is a big revenue generator. The entrance fee is about $10, which more than a million visitors pay each year. "My family was vested in these properties long before anyone else," says Mr. Barbachano. "I will defend it because it's family heritage for me, as well as cultural heritage for the rest of the world."
But Fernando Barbachano Herrero, his uncle, doesn't want to sell the land. He owns the Mayaland Hotel within Chichen Itza. He wants the property donated to the federal government. In fact, he says that his grandfather already did this and produces a 1944 letter from the INAH thanking the family for its donation. He believes the government failed to register it because they didn't care about the site. "For three generations we have honored and promoted this land, and we have never considered it to be our own," he says.
The other major landholder today is Carmen Barbachano, who owns the hotel Hacienda Chichen, run by her niece, Belisa Barbachano. Belisa Barbachano will say only that she has always respected the Maya culture and the land. "We are not trying to put a big corporation in the middle of our land," she says, dressed in a floral dress. She calls herself the "fourth-generation keeper" of the land and a "clan mother" who helps many in the local population.
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The land battle has become almost a spectator sport in the small communities that dot Chichen Itza. And that's the problem, says Rita Delgado, a housewife. "We are just spectators in the fight between the government and the Barbachanos." She believes the community should be the true guardians of the land. "Who created it? It was our ancestors," she says.
Scientists around the world worry about what impact the ownership impasse will have on the site's preservation. Already, an influx of small vendors is taxing the park's sewage and other facilities. "Right now the site is suffering terribly because there are many more people there than should be," says Geoffrey Braswell, an anthropologist from the University of California at San Diego. "It's a disgrace."
Yet for now a resolution seems far off. And a pyramid that has suddenly caught the world's attention for what it means to a nation's past is now a place where the complexities of modern Mexico – poverty, class wars, land rights, and fierce politics – converge.