Mexican archaeologists warn funding cuts to threaten ancient sites

Uxmal (Archive)

The Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador has often boasted of the strength and longevity of Mexican culture and learning, once saying that “when buffalo were still grazing in what is now New York, there were already universities and printing presses in Mexico”.

But archaeologists fear that a recent wave of swingeing budget cuts will decimate research into the country’s pre-Columbian past, and leave thousands of ancient sites – including Aztec temples and Mayan cities – at the mercy of looters.

More than 6,000 scholars recently signed a letter begging the president, commonly referred to as Amlo, to reconsider a 75% cut to the operating budget of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).

“These draconian cuts will have an inevitable impact on our heritage, and on the training of new anthropologists, historians and conservationists,” said Leonardo López Luján, one of Mexico’s leading archaeologists.

“If this policy isn’t reversed soon, we’ll be sacrificing our past and our future.”

The cutbacks to INAH – a 700m pesos reduction in 2020 – form part of a broader cost-cutting drive announced in April. Mexico’s 182 nature reserves and the search for the country’s 60,000 missing people will also be affected.

López Obrador insists that resources need to be directed towards Mexico’s hard-pressed hospitals as the coronavirus pandemic worsens. Mexico’s official death toll is more than 20,000 and confirmed cases exceed 170,000; few doubt that the real figures are much higher.

But critics question the need to inflict a further round of austerity on a field that was already struggling to survive.

INAH is responsible for preserving 193 heritage sites open to the public, 53,000 closed archaeological sites, 162 museums, 120,000 monuments, dozens of libraries and archives and three schools, López Luján explained.

Its budget was cut by a fifth last year, and hundreds of workers were fired. As cartel-related violence grows, archaeologists at remote field sites increasingly report threats and violence.