Greenpeace activists caused “irreparable damage” to a large area of the Nazca lines, an ancient monument, during a publicity stunt, according to a Peruvian prosecutor investigating the incident.
The damage is spread over an area of 1,600 square metres beside a stylised figure of a hummingbird etched into the desert soil, the prosecutor said.
A spokeswoman for the public prosecutor said that, under Peruvian law, causing damage to a world heritage site could be punishable by a prison sentence of three to six years. The Peruvian culture ministry is also considering suing Greenpeace for damages.
The group of at least 12 activists “dislodged rocks” and “left a white trail” while placing giant letters in the soil close to the hummingbird figure, according to the report by Javier Paredes, an archaeologist commissioned by the ministry to assess the damage.
The report says that the group “altered the natural surface in the area in the form of a path where they accessed the site” and numerous footprints were left during the placing of the letters, which said: “Time for change! The future is renewable.”
The report added: “These alterations are visible not only on the ground but from the air, altering the general configuration of the area.”
The Nazca lines are a set of giant images of plants and animals, such as a monkey, a spider and a hummingbird, excavated in the soil 1,500 years ago.
Greenpeace initially tried to play down the incident but when it realised the extent of Peru’s anger it issued an abject apology, admitting it had appeared “careless and crass”.
Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace’s global director, is flying to Peru to apologise to the government, which is hosting a UN conference on climate change.
The statement said that Greenpeace would co-operate fully with the investigation and was “willing to face fair and reasonable consequences”.
It refused, however, to say whether it would comply with a demand by the authorities to identify the activists who took part.
Some of them are identifiable from photographs and video that Greenpeace published before it realised that the stunt had backfired. It declined to say who within its organisation had authorised the stunt.
Dominik Fleitmann, professor of archaeology at the University of Reading, said: “Greenpeace may be raising an important issue but it looks like they have gone about it in the wrong way. The Nazca lines are the extraordinary but fragile remains of a former civilisation and should be treated with respect.
“There is nothing wrong with peaceful protest, but those claiming to support conservation should be careful to practise what they preach.”
Greenpeace ordered staff not to talk about the incident but one member said there was great anger inside the organisation that “stupid” activists had tarnished its reputation and undermined its work at the Lima climate conference.
The staff member said that the stunt was aimed at drawing attention to the need for agreement at the climate talks but had the opposite effect, prompting debate about the arrogance of activists.
The Peruvian government said it would try to prevent the activists from leaving the country.
Mr Naidoo tweeted: “I am deeply concerned about the developments in Peru with regards to the sacred Nazca lines. I am on my way to Lima now to collect more information.”
Velia Patricia Begazo, a local prosecutor, said: “We as Peruvians are indignant regarding this attack on the archaeological monument. Greenpeace must assume responsibility.”
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