Puebla, Mexico – Cholula is a seemingly unremarkable village three hours from Mexico City, the capital of Mexico. But it has one claim to fame: a large hill that awkwardly bulges out from the surrounding plains. There is more to this hill than what first meets the eye, however. In actuality, it is a massive pre-Columbian pyramid structure, almost twice the size of the largest of Egypt’s Giza pyramids.
“The fact that the pyramid was abandoned [before the Spanish conquest] and was naturally converted into a natural-looking hill through erosion meant that it wasn’t known that it was a human construction until relatively recently,” explained Michael Smith, a professor in anthropology at Arizona State University.
The structure is known as the Great Pyramid of Cholula. It is so immense that generations of Mexican archaeologists dismissed it as a natural formation.
It’s estimated to be well over 2,000 years old, but locals worry its end may be near.
The local community and activists have been opposing government-led development projects in the area intended to attract and cater to a new tourism industry.
“It’s like putting a convenience store on Machu Picchu; it’s totally ridiculous,” Maria Refugio Paisano Rodriguez from the protest group, Cholula: Viva y Digna (‘Alive and Dignified’), expressed her frustration to Al Jazeera.
For over two years, her organisation has been fighting against a redevelopment plan, which they say will devastate the pyramid’s delicate foundations.
Residents first learned of the massive development plans for their village a few years ago. During a council meeting in September of 2014, as the community gathered in a small, musty office, packed shoulder to shoulder, Mayor Leoncio Paisano Arias presented the Park of Seven Cultures project.
A projector flickered to life, and the village residents were given a virtual tour through what would become their new town. In the sleek 3-D presentation, the traditional old family homes and neat rows of cornfields behind the pyramid vanished. In their place, sprawling parking lots were packed with SUVs.
The camera soared over a pyramid surrounded by a tight belt of flashy tourist bars, up-market restaurants and even an artificial lake. As the projector hummed, the crowd grew restless.
Finally, someone shouted: “This is horrible!”
There was another shout, then another. Cholula’s typically placid locals had kicked their chairs over, stood up and their voices escalated. Soon, those shouts turned into a chant, “No, don’t start it!”
Eventually, one local resident, Adan Xicale, emerged as a spokesperson for the furious crowd. Addressing the mayor, Xicale said the construction project would ruin the town and called on the government to ditch it.
“There is no higher authority than the people,” he said.
Xicale was later imprisoned for over a year. A local human rights group, the Human Rights Commission of Puebla State, condemned his imprisonment.
Since that meeting, protests against the construction project have repeatedly erupted in Cholula, but activists say they are increasingly facing harassment at the hands of local police.
One activist, Tania Romero Castillo, said, “We were just [distributing flyers] when a police patrol showed up … and they detained us.”
She said she got off lucky. They were only held for a few hours before being released without charges. But their flyers were confiscated.
The local police department did not respond to numerous Al Jazeera efforts to solicit a comment regarding these allegations.
Yet the municipal and state governments have a very different take on the redevelopment plan. Both the Cholula mayor’s office and Puebla state tourism board have argued the project will bring new life to the village, including more tourism and better jobs.
Aside from a handful of activists, according to Mexico’s Secretary of Culture Rafael Tovar y de Teresa, the overwhelming majority of the community supports the initiative.
“People are already coming to enjoy the park … and they know that we are not damaging or taking away their heritage,” he told the Milenio newspaper in July.
But not everyone is convinced this will be the case.
One of the world’s leading experts on the Cholula pyramid, Dr Geoffrey McCafferty of the University of Calgary has been studying the site for over two decades. He says construction workers have already damaged chunks of the archaeological site, including areas never excavated by researchers.
He pointed to two specific areas. The first was once a psychiatric hospital built to the northeast of the main pyramid over a century ago. He suspects the ruins beneath the hospital may have once been the lavishly decorated homes belonging to Cholula’s wealthy pre-Columbian elite.
“All the construction work they’re doing there is damaging parts of the pyramid that have been well preserved for more than a 100 years, because the hospital had been on top of it. Now, with the construction going on, it’s digging into part of the site that’s never been recorded properly,” he said.
He also highlighted the construction of a lightrail station just metres from the pyramid, which has already gouged a trench into another unexcavated pre-Columbian platform.
McCafferty isn’t the only one raising alarm bells.
A coalition of local researchers and civil society leaders have issued an appeal to UNESCO in 2015 that included documents and photographs with allegations of massive damage to the archaeological site.
The National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) is mandated to oversee the research and preservation of Mexico’s archaeological sites. If a government body or company wants to carry out any construction on land designated as having archaeological significance, it must obtain authorisation from INAH before breaking ground.
Yet, INAH’s stance on the Cholula redevelopment has been mired in controversy. The government initially vowed to carry out the project in full cooperation with INAH. However, it wasn’t until November 2016 that the government finally confirmed it had received authorisation from INAH –
Moreover, the government has maintained that it does not need INAH authorisation for much of the construction already undertaken – which, it claims, falls outside the officially recognised archaeological zone.
McCafferty said this is also problematic because the ruins likely stretch far beyond the official zone.
“Something that you need to understand is that the ceremonial zone is not just the pyramid that’s visible today,” he said, arguing recent research has suggested the actual size of the archaeological site could be double the officially recognised area.
“Anywhere you dig in Cholula, you’ll find archaeological evidence,” he said.
Despite the new research, construction was continuing at the time of writing. Numerous Al Jazeera attempts to solicit a response from Cholula government representatives and the local tourism board were unanswered.
In September, new construction began on a plaza on the southern flank of the pyramid. Heavily armed police kept protesters at bay, and the trucks roared in. The fields that locals had once used to grow corn and flowers were bulldozed.
The earth was flattened out, and later, layered with concrete. When Al Jazeera returned to the site two months later, the plaza had already been dilapidated.
“Look at all these weeds. It’s ugly to us, and I’m sure to the tourists too,” one local farmer complained, adding that he couldn’t understand why the plaza had been built in the first place.
With the plaza now complete, the pyramid is almost entirely surrounded by a ring of concrete. Paisano conceded the future of the site looks grim.
“There are so many interests invoked in the project,” she said, arguing out the construction plan had become a cash cow for both the municipal and state governments. Along with potentially lucrative tax revenue, the project has also brought fresh funding at the federal level.
In 2015 alone, the federal tourism secretariat agreed to hand over 70 million pesos ($3.5m) in funding for the Cholula redevelopment. The same amount was also offered by the state government.
Individual politicians are also getting in on the action, with Mexican newspaper La Jornada Oriente reporting in October that former federal legislator Julio Cesar Lorenzini Rangel had constructed a three-storey hotel just metres from the pyramid.
Yet no matter how much money invested into the redevelopment, Paisano Rodriguez thinks the project will fail to deliver on tourist numbers.
“This is a project for taxes. No one here wants it,” she said.
McCafferty agreed, warning that one of the world’s greatest archaeological treasures would be doomed to a slow death in obscurity.
He sighed. “As with many kinds of development, once they get started, who’s to stop it?”