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Ownership fight erupts over Maya ruins

A dramatic rise in tourism ignites a debate in Mexico: Should a private family own an archaeological treasure?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 17, 2007

Chichen Itza, Mexico

This ancient city, once the most important center of the Maya world, has stood in the jungle here for more than 1,000 years. Scattered across 100 acres, the remains of stone temples and a crumbling observatory offer an imposing glimpse into the innovative Maya civilization, which recorded the annual solar cycle with Swiss-watch precision.

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Today tourists gape as they walk past Chichen Itza's most-recognized site, the 80-foot Temple of Kukulkan pyramid, where during the spring and fall equinoxes the sun casts a shadow in the shape of a plumed serpent. They walk across the Great Ball Court, the largest sports venue in Mesoamerica, where losing players were believed to be decapitated.

They also happen to be – unwittingly – walking on private property.

Over the last half century, the land within this archaeological site has belonged to the Barbachanos, a wealthy and powerful family in the state of Yucatán. The family purchased the grounds from an American diplomat, who excavated here in the 1900s but fell out of grace with Mexico for shipping artifacts back to the US.

It's an ownership issue that few Mexicans have known about or even cared about. Until now. This summer, a global contest to rename the Seven Wonders of the World brought renewed tourism and a corollary of unwanted curiosity to this ancient corner of Mexico. Now, suddenly, federal legislators are seeking to take over the land. Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) covets it, too. The Barbachano family is divided over what to do. And locals, most of Maya descent, claim it should be theirs.

In a country where property rights helped ignite a revolution, where peasants distrust large landowners and large landowners distrust the government – especially when it encompasses ruins that lie at the core of national identity – this has erupted into one of the most significant and sensitive property disputes in Mexico.

"This has unleashed a national polemic," says Jose Alfonso Suárez del Real, a federal lawmaker who wants to expropriate the land. "And we are all asking, 'How can a Wonder of the World have owners?' "

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The Maya settled in Chichen Itza before AD 800. After the city was largely abandoned in the 11th century, the structures, though well preserved, were overlooked for hundreds of years. In the 19th century, Chichen Itza was a cattle ranch; cows literally grazed among the ruins. It was not until 1894 that the US consul in Merida, Edward Thompson, bought the plantation and surrounding ruins, where he did some excavating. Much of what he found he sent to the Peabody museum at Harvard University.

Not long afterward, Fernando Barbachano Peon, the grandnephew of a former Yucatán governor, saw tourism potential in the ancient city. In 1944, Barbachano Peon bought the property from the Thompson family and laid the groundwork for the Yucatán Peninsula to become the most lucrative tourist area in the country. "We were a major force in making Chichen Itza significant," says Hans Thies Barbachano. "Nobody cared about it."

Today, more than a million tourists visit Chichen Itza each year, a number that officials hope will double as a result of its status as a "New Wonder of the World." Millions of people voted to designate it a "wonder" this summer as part of a commercial contest by a Swiss filmmaker. The results were announced in July.

Although the renewed interest in the site has touched off a small land war, many archaeological treasures in Mexico lie on private plots. The Barbachanos, for instance, also own the land under Uxmal, another nearby Maya city. While a 1972 federal law put archaeological ruins in state hands, the vast majority that dot the countryside sit on either private land or ejidos, farm cooperatives established in the mid-1900s.

It is Chichen Itza, though, that has touched off a national debate over cultural heirlooms. "A World Heritage site cannot be at the whim of a family," says Mr. Suarez del Real.