From her small home near golf courses and slums in Lima, Peru, Gianina Rojas gazes up at a crumbling adobe pyramid, a leftover from the vast Inca empire of more than six centuries ago.
Like many people in modern-day Peru, Rojas was born and raised among Incan sites that were built before the Spanish colonized South America.
Now 26, she recalls treasure hunting as a child — hiding away pieces of ceramic pots, scraps of fabric and even human bones.
“Lima is full of places like this,” she said.
The pyramid is just one of thousands of historic sites, or “huacas,” that are being crowded out or destroyed as roads, schools, homes and stadiums are built to meet the population’s growing demands.
High-rise apartment buildings tower around one site. Highway traffic barrels through a pair of tunnels newly burrowed under an adobe palace. One of the few well-preserved pyramids sits across from the mansion of President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski.
An estimated 46,000 pre-colonial sites dot Peru’s landscape. About 400 of them are in Lima, the capital.
Yet Peru spends only enough to protect just 1 percent of those sites, according to official numbers, leaving hundreds of ruins abandoned or left to become trash dumps.
“Since the founding of Lima, there has been no relationship between the people and the huacas, beyond seeing them as mounds of earth or places to search for treasures,” said Héctor Walde, an archaeologist based in Lima.
Lima’s growth in the 20th century came with large-scale destruction of pre-colonial sites.
Today, a small group of archaeologists and officials are stepping up efforts to preserve sites being squeezed by growing cities.
“The idea is for Peruvians to feel that heritage is something that is enjoyed,” Deputy Minister of Heritage Jorge Arrunategui told the Associated Press.
The country has recently offered free admission to related museums and dozens of archaeological sites across the country, hoping to reconnect Peruvians with their heritage.
There is some debate about what else should be done.
Officials say a new antiquities law will preserve the nation’s cultural legacy by giving historic sites stronger legal protections. Activists fear it will diminish protections for thousands of sites because the law affects only those labeled archaeologically significant by Peru’s minister of heritage.
The push to save the country’s rich heritage also has not been widely embraced by everyday Peruvians. They sometimes take their ancient culture for granted, having lived their entire lives near the huacas — a Quechua word meaning “oracle” or “sacred place.”
Like many people in Lima desperate for a place to raise her family, Rojas’s mother built her small home in 1985 where she could find a spot. It’s next to a 2,100-year-old complex of buildings and pyramids once used as a center for religious and burial ceremonies.
They vowed to care for the site, which has been challenging.
“Most people do not know how dangerous it is to care for a huaca,” Rojas said. “You have to face land traffickers, thieves and bad people. The worst part is that the state never recognizes or thanks you.”