By Isabel Leask -
On June 1st 2020, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) inaugurated the construction of one of his most emblematic and controversial infrastructure projects to date: the “Maya Train.” Neither the social and environmental opponents of the project, including over 150 indigenous organisations, nor the recent soar in COVID- 19 related deaths have been able to sway the president, who believes that the train will reactivate and modernise Mexico’s economy.
Launched in 2019, and with an estimated cost of nearly 7 billion US dollars, AMLO’s mega-project seeks to connect the major cities and tourist sites across the Yucatán Peninsula (Campeche, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Tabasco and Yucatán) with the aim of integrating territories of rich biodiversity and Maya culture with sustainable forms of tourism. The 1500 km railway route will include the popular Cancún-Tulum tourist corridors on the peninsula’s east coast, and run through the Calakmul biosphere reserve which contains one of the largest-known archaeological sites of Maya civilization. However, in addition to connecting touristic spots and promoting major sites of cultural and historical heritage, the government has framed the project as a means to safeguard the “social welfare of the inhabitants of the Maya Zone”, due to the estimated socio-economic opportunities that it is expected to generate for local communities.
In the eyes of many, AMLO’s pledge to prioritize indigenous communities from the outset of his presidential campaign in 2018 was a seemingly welcome change to the neoliberal agendas that had previously monopolized Mexican politics. However, his promises to these communities have come under increasing scrutiny after 2020 federal budget plans revealed the introduction of severe austerity measures across the public sector. These included cuts to cultural institutions and social-welfare services such as the Instituto Nacional de los Pueblos Indígenas (National Institute for Indigenous Peoples) and Casas de la Mujer Indígena y Afromexicana, a counselling services for Indigenous and Afromexican women facing domestic violence.
Nevertheless, supporters of AMLO and his current mega-project have emphasized the opportunity for job creation and infrastructure developments that the train could bring to the Indigenous communities living alongside its tracks. This view has been supported by the UN- Habitat who, on the 16th of May 2020, published its estimated figures concerning the socio- economic impacts of the project on the communities within the Yucatán region. It assures that by 2030, the project could generate over 715,000 new jobs across the 16 municipalities with a train station, and for every 100 jobs, almost half (46%) would belong to Indigenous peoples. The UN-Habitat has also calculated that the economies of areas affected by the train will grow significantly, and estimate that this will help lift 1.1 million people out of poverty and improve education levels in the region.
Despite the opportunity for economic gain, the train has attracted opposition from over 150 indigenous groups who rejected the project in an open letter to the president on the day of its inauguration, stating that there had been “contradictions and falsehoods in the implementation of the project,” among other legal violations. Furthermore, the proposal has sparked a fierce debate over the autonomy and self-determination of the communities in the soon-to-be affected regions.
The most renowned of these indigenous opposition groups is the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) based in Chiapas, who led an armed insurrection against the government in 1994 and ratified its opposition to the train on the 1st of January 2020. In line with the Zapatista movement’s anti-capitalist rhetoric, EZLN spokesman- Subcomandante Moisés- announced that the consultation to build a billion dollar tourist attraction through Maya territory was a “mockery” and a “humiliation” of indigenous rights, and claimed that the Zapatistas were prepared to defend the land with their lives.
With regard to the environmental impacts, the Mexican government has claimed that it will take measures to reduce and contain the environmental damages generated by the project. According to the official Maya Train website, this will be implemented through the latest technologies in the environmental sector, the use of existing tracks where possible, and in areas where the effects cannot be fully contained, counteracting the damages with programs aimed at recovering natural resources.
Whether or not these measures will be enough to mitigate the environmental risks, however, has been the subject of widespread debate. From the outset, civil and environmental organisations have expressed concerns over the proposal to install a train in the Yucatan region, especially in the Calakmul biosphere reserve, claiming that natural resources will be engulfed by the mega-project, which could destroy biodiversity, lead to deforestation, and exacerbate drought.
Last month the Assembly of Defenders of the Maya Territory Múuch Xíinbal and the Mexican Civil Council for Sustainable Forestry (CCMSS) requested that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights take precautionary measures to protect the underground aquifer of the Yucatán Peninsula, also known as the Cenote system. The request was presented because of concerns that the train would worsen the already vulnerable environmental situation of the system, which according to the CCMSS is an indispensable resource of the territories of the Maya people and one on which the livelihoods of local communities depended.
As Covid-19 rages across Mexico and the number of confirmed virus cases has surpassed 114,000 (at the time of writing), opposition to the train has only intensified. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission has recently called for the suspension of the project which they believe to be a “non-essential” activity amid the current crisis, clashing head- on with the National Fund for the Promotion of Tourism who have sided with AMLO.
Furthermore, critics argue that the funds allocated to the project should be reassigned to other sectors focusing on relieving the effects of the virus on the Mexican population. It is clear however, that AMLO believes otherwise. Eager for Mexico to embark upon what he has termed the “new normal”, the president has mobilized plans for the gradual re-opening of the economy after a 70 day imposed lock-down period, and seems adamant that the Maya Train will put Mexico on track for a swift financial recovery.