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Thousands dance to save Andean sacred site.

By Lisa Garrigues -- Today correspondent

CUSCO, Peru - At least 2,000 Quechuan marchers and dancers filled the streets of Cusco on March 5 to protect the Andean sacred site of Q'oyllur Riti from mining activities.

Dressed in the traditional clothing and masks of the Q'oyllur Riti festival, one of the most important indigenous festivals in Peru, they came in buses and on foot from eight different Andean communities in the district of Ocongate, about six hours away from Cusco.

''Q'oyllur Riti is a sacred and historical site,'' said Felipe Achahui, president of the Brotherhood of Senor de Q'oyllur Riti and one of the demonstration's organizers. ''Nobody can touch it.''

Achahui claimed the Peruvian Ministry of Energy and Mines had leased Lot 28T, an area within the traditional festival site, to the mining company Minsur. Ocongate residents, he said, had found out about the concession by reading public notices in the newspapers.

Ministry of Energy and Mines spokesman Abel Ayerza Romero said the protest was a result of ''miscommunication'' and that there were no mining activities taking place within the sanctuary, a spectacular region at almost 14,000 feet that draws more than 25,000 local dancers and pilgrims a year.

Romero said Minsur has received mining concessions in the Ocongate region during the last two to three years, but he didn't know how close mining company activities were to the Q'oyllur Riti sanctuary.

Cusco newspapers reported the mining company was working several miles away from the sanctuary.

As a result of the protest, a special commission has been created to clearly delineate roughly 3,600 hectares of the sacred region as off-limits to mining activities. The commission was expected to meet in the Q'oyllur Riti region on March 30 and 31.

''If for some reason they don't accomplish that task,'' said Achahui, ''we'll demonstrate again, with all our traditional dances.''

Romero said the region had been declared a historical monument in 2004, but the previous administration of the Ministry of Culture had failed to complete the necessary paperwork to finalize the procedure.

During the demonstration, protesters entered the offices of the Ministry of Energy and Mines and the Ministry of Culture and brought government officials out onto the streets with them.

Government officials then addressed a crowd gathered in a downtown plaza, promising to protect the historic site. The mayor of Ocongate, representatives of several indigenous communities and a Catholic priest also spoke to the crowd.

Romero said he willingly joined the demonstrators. ''This is a demonstration that has profound roots in the ancient Incan culture of Tawantinsuyo. The result was that government authorities in the future will complete their necessary tasks a lot faster. It's a message for all of us who work in the public sector.''

The festival of Q'oyllur Riti, which takes place during the full moon closest to the Andean winter solstice in June, was originally an indigenous pilgrimage to honor the spirit of Mount Sinakhara, Q'oyllur Riti, or Snow-Star.

The Spanish conquistadors initially forbade the festival, but the local people continued to trek to the mountain and perform their traditional celebrations and dances.

In the 18th century, the festival took on Christian traditions, including the legend that a mysterious young boy appeared to a shepherd boy in the mountains and then disappeared into a large rock, leaving an image which looked like he had been crucified.

Now, indigenous and mestizo pilgrims brave temperatures that can fall below zero as they make the five-mile trek from the town of Ocongate to the festival site at the foot of the mountain. Dancers from local communities snake their way down the mountain in traditional attire, often representing specific characters, like the Ukuku, or Andean bear, who keeps order during the ceremonies.

Traditionally, the young men dressed as Ukuku trek even further to the top of Mount Sinakhara, and return carrying huge blocks of ice on their backs to offer as nourishment to Pachamama, the Earth Mother, upon their return.

''Local people know there is gold in the region,'' said Cusco resident Gabriela Callo Guzman. ''The minerals are what gives the area its magnetism. Without the minerals, the mountain spirits would die.''

Mining is a booming business in Peru, with mining exports making up 62 percent of total exports in 2006. Peru is the world's sixth largest producer of gold and the second largest producer of silver. Last year, due to new mining activities in the country and a rise in the price of minerals, total mining exports increased 51 percent.

Despite new monies coming in from these exports, protests in recent years have rocked the country, with local people claiming they see increased pollution and few benefits from mining activities.