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.”

Related: ‘He’s Mr Scrooge’: Mexican president unveils severe cuts amid coronavirus

The cutbacks to INAH – a 700m pesos ($32m, £25m) 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.

The latest round of cuts to INAH would make Mexico’s flagship heritage body “completely inoperative” for years to come, said López. “We’ll go into hibernation mode.”

“It will be a tough road ahead,” agreed Diana Moreiras, an anthropologist at the University of British Columbia. “We have such a rich cultural heritage and as Mexicans we all gain from its protection, conservation and research.”

Moreiras said she was sympathetic to the need to make sacrifices, and government officials have promised – so far without details – that the core functions of INAH will be maintained.

But the rationale for such deep cutbacks is unclear as López Obrador presses ahead with expensive projects of dubious value, including revamped oil refineries and the “Tren Maya,” a sprawling tropical railroad that critics claim will trample indigenous communities and archaeological material in its path.

Macario Schettino, an economist, described plans to cut government spending by up to a third across the board – except for the health ministry and the armed forces – as absurd.

“I don’t think it’s explicable. I think it’s a terrible decision,” said Schettino. “It will be impossible for public bodies to function.

“The government has serious financing problems, it’s not taxing enough and the economic crisis is very deep,” he said. “But all governments around the world are taking on debt to confront this crisis, because this is the rational decision. I think we’re the only ones who aren’t.”

Even Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil has abandoned austerity plans to cope with the pandemic. López Obrador, a self-described leftist who won the presidency and control of Congress in 2018 vowing to transform the country, has yet to raise Mexico’s historically low tax rates.

The latest body blow to Mexican archaeology comes as researchers make fascinating new discoveries – from a mass grave of hunted mammoths just outside Mexico City, to the oldest and largest Maya structure found to date.

“I just can’t see how suffocating INAH could support indigenous cultures,” said David Stuart, director of the Mesoamerica Center at the University of Texas, Austin. “It can only undermine the nation’s remarkable history and its deep indigenous past.

“The Spanish conquest was exactly 500 years ago, not that long ago. Mesoamerican cultures can be traced 3,000 beyond that,” Stuart added. “How can that deep heritage not be important in the present day?”



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