MEXICO CITY — The Mayan Train is Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s signature project. And now more than ever, the president — commonly referred to as AMLO — banks on the giant infrastructure project to create thousands of jobs amid the economic crisis brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 900-mile train line, which will connect the five southeastern states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo in a tourist circuit, was designed to ostensibly “spread the wealth” that tourists lavish on Cancún, Tulum, and other coastal cities and bring it to the Yucatán Peninsula's interior — which contains some of the country’s poorest states. Despite petitions from organizations and activists to suspend works during the health emergency, the government is calling the train “essential work” and construction is imminent.
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As well as raising health concerns, activists warn that laying down the tracks is just the beginning of what could lead to a total ecosystem breakdown and imperil indigenous communities’ traditional way of life. Plans for the route show the tracks cutting protected jungle areas in half — notably the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in Campeche, a biodiversity hot spot and home to ancient Mayan ruins — which would halt the natural flow of flora and fauna, in turn leading to species’ endangerment and extinction.
The Mayan Train is also meant to carry freight from some of the more remote corners of southeastern Mexico to large transport hubs on the coast for easier access to trading partners. As a result, this could provoke an increase in commodities — mainly palm oil and soy — that already drive deforestation in the area. Additional plans to create 18 new cities — or “development centers,” according to the government’s tourism development branch — along the train route could also lead to a real estate explosion and drive out local communities.
AMLO rode into leadership on the back of a landslide victory in 2018, vowing to prioritize the country’s “humble and forgotten” by turning the page on neoliberal economic policies that had marginalized them. Since then, he has implemented a series of massive infrastructure projects designed to boost development in economically disadvantaged regions.
However, scientists, NGOs, and indigenous communities argue that many of these projects respond to corporate interests rather than AMLO’s base of support — and fly in the face of indigenous land rights. The Mayan Train is arguably the most controversial and headline-grabbing of these so-called megaprojects.
For Aleira Lara Galicia, director of campaigns at Greenpeace Mexico, one of the key problems is the government’s vision of development, which she believes is essentially opposed to that of indigenous communities.
"The Mayan Train is a project fundamentally and single-mindedly focused on touristic and economic development. We see that environmental, social, and cultural concerns are totally absent,” Lara Galicia said. “It's an economy-focused vision that reinforces the extractive, neoliberal projects this government once criticized.”
NGOs say that the government is sidestepping legal regulation on two fronts. The first is its failure to have conducted and presented an environmental impact assessment.
"In accordance with federal environmental law, the environment secretary must deny a public work authorization if the activity involved could potentially put plant or wildlife at risk of extinction," said Gustavo Alanís Ortega, executive director and founder of the Mexican Center for Environmental Law.
The train would pass through areas home to a number of species under federal protection, including the jaguar, tapir, and mangrove. If the government cannot prove that these species will not face a risk of extinction, "the project, in theory, legally cannot go forward,” Alanís said.
The second issue that NGOs point to is what they see as the government’s shoddy handling of a public consultation.
According to the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169, indigenous communities must be thoroughly informed about and consulted on projects that affect them or their land. While AMLO’s government did take a vote in December, activists say the information handed out prior to the vote failed to paint an accurate picture of the project, instead making vague promises of “work” and “benefits” to come.
Not a sustainable solution
In January, Ernesto Martínez Jiménez, an indigenous activist from Calakmul, and a group of 17 others put forward an injunction to halt the train’s construction based on what they saw as an unlawful consultation process. In February, a court upheld the decision to suspend works in their municipality but not in the rest of the region. Another group is contesting the suspension in Calakmul.
Martínez said that while he was not opposed to growing the local economy, he did not believe projects like the train were a solution.
“The Mayan Train is a project fundamentally and single-mindedly focused on touristic and economic development.”— Aleira Lara Galicia, director of campaigns, Greenpeace Mexico
“They won't meet our needs, not our development — nothing. If our population increases, we’ll need more. [The train] will increase our consumption of natural resources," he added.
Along with others, he would prefer “low-impact development” that does not attract hordes of tourists. They want to have their towns connected to major roads and electricity grids and to see schools built.
Martínez’s corner of Campeche is located near the Calakmul reserve — the second-most important tropical forest in the Americas behind the Amazon and a vital water source for the whole region. There, indigenous communities — a mix of Maya, Chol, and Tzeltal, among others — principally live off subsistence farming, or the “milpa,” their name for an ancient and sustainable technique honed by the ancient Maya. But severe drought, a cyclical phenomenon that has been severely exacerbated by deforestation and climate change, is leading to fewer or failed crops.
With water shortages already plaguing local communities, Martínez does not see how the land could possibly sustain a bigger population, let alone an influx of 8,000 tourists — the government’s projected number of daily passengers on the train.
He also sees the train as a more existential threat to his community — as tourism grows, predicting an increase in service industry jobs and a depletion of resources — as opposed to the government’s view of luxury hotels to provide capital for much-needed services.
"The train is a form of colonization because if more people come, we'll lose our language, our culture, our way of thinking, of building houses, of working the earth," he said.
Environmental destruction and little community benefit
There is a precedent for this. A few hours to the north, the now-infamous beach resorts of Cancún and Playa del Carmen are a cautionary tale of how a tourism boom can go wrong.
While more and more wealthy vacationers visited the beaches — the number of tourists in Cancún grew by 16.9% from 2011 to 2012 in Cancún and continued to grow by between 2% and 5% annually from then until 2017 — the majority of the profits stayed in the hands of large businesses. This left local people with poor-quality jobs cleaning hotel rooms, often forced to commute from hours away as living in Cancún became unaffordable.
In terms of environmental costs, the impacts of climate change, compounded by increased tourism, are already being felt. Scientists say that 30% of coral in one reef park in Quintana Roo died in a little over four months due to warming waters — just one of many examples.
“Real estate and megaprojects are transforming the Yucatán peninsula,” said Casandra Reyes García, a biologist at the Yucatán Center for Scientific Research and the co-author of the study “Mayan Train: Why are biologists so worried?” Even megaprojects aiming to transition energy to wind and solar are problematic, Reyes added.
If they were well developed, these projects could benefit the population and help mitigate the effects of climate change, she noted. “However, what we're seeing is that these projects are implemented on areas that used to be jungles and require removing a tree layer and also eliminate 10 centimeters of soil," Reyes said.
Once held up as a leader on climate action among low- and middle-income countries, Mexico is now betting on a series of environmentally costly infrastructure projects to boost development and kick-start the economy. Indigenous communities are likely to pay the highest price.