The Mayan Trainwreck


Victor Lichtinger is Mexico’s former secretary of the environment and was the first director of the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation. Homero Aridjis is a writer, environmentalist and former ambassador to UNESCO. His latest books are “News of the Earth” and “Maria the Monarch.” This article was translated by Betty Ferber.

MEXICO CITY — During his inauguration speech on Dec. 1, Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, made bold promises to “purify public life in Mexico” and ensure that the “poor come first.” As part of his image as a man of the people, AMLO, as he’s known, has ordered two national referendums since his party, MORENA, took control of Congress on Sept. 1.

The latest one, which took place on Nov. 24 and 25, included a controversial vote on the construction of a train that would link Mayan archaeological and tourist sites in five southeastern states — and will also be used for freight. When the results came in a day later, 850,527 voters, a scant .65 percent of Mexico’s population of 130 million, made “the people’s will” known in favor of the “Mayan Train,” even as environmentalists and indigenous peoples fiercely protested. As “democratic” as the referendum may seem, it has no validity under current law, and the speed at which this initiative was put to a vote and the lack of public information on a project that will cost $6 to $8 billion are extremely concerning.

Despite such concerns, AMLO has stated he plans to move forward with the train. It is intended to run on 932 miles of track, nearly one third to be laid through tropical forests. It will pass through Campeche, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Tabasco and the Yucatán, where some of Mexico’s most important natural and archaeological treasures are located. These states are also home to critical habitats of stunning biodiversity. Mexico is one of 17 megadiverse countries, hosting the world’s second largest number of ecosystems. But its forests and mangroves are disappearing at an alarming rate.

On Nov. 15, hundreds of scientists, environmentalists, human rights defenders, cultural figures and non-governmental organizations addressed a letter to AMLO, condemning decision-making by inadequate public consultation and asking for a cancellation of the referendum. “High biodiversity sites must be preserved according to the most stringent international standards,” they wrote, “taking into account the indigenous peoples who have been the guarantors of their territories and custodians of the natural and cultural wealth of our country.” In response, AMLO uploaded three videos touting the train to his Twitter and Facebook followers and accused the signers of the letter of elitism, telling them they needed to “rub shoulders with the people.” The train is meant to promote economic development in and around the region’s principal tourist centers.

An endeavor of the train’s magnitude cannot proceed without a wide-ranging evaluation of its environmental, cultural and archaeological impacts. The environmental impact assessment must then be evaluated by federal authorities and open to public consultations. It also requires permission from the indigenous peoples through whose territory the train will run. The 1989 Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention states that indigenous communities must give free, prior and informed consent “to legislative or administrative measures which may affect them directly.” Mexico’s National Indigenous Network threatened legal action if work begins on the train in violation of international law. As Mayan communities in the Yucatán peninsula have said, “There’s nothing Mayan about the train.”

The Maya were an advanced civilization that came to a mysterious end. Since the Spaniards’ arrival in the 16th century, the region has been plundered and the indigenous population enslaved and then excluded from modern development. The tropical forests have been shrunken by chaotic development, successively based on monocultures such as sugar cane and henequen; on intensive cattle ranching and aggressive cultivation of the agricultural frontier; and on exploitation of oil and mass tourism, which brought growth along with inequality, destruction of ecosystems and pollution.

In Campeche, the Mayan Train will hurtle through the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, Mexico’s largest tropical forest reserve. The city of Calakmul is a UNESCO World Heritage site that’s known officially as the Ancient Maya City and Protected Tropical Forests of Calakmul. It contains more than 6,500 well-preserved structures and sits at the heart of the second largest expanse of tropical forests in the Americas (after the Amazon rainforest). It’s the world’s third most crucial biodiversity hotspot, housing 100 different species of mammals and numerous tropical and subtropical ecosystems. The site is sparsely inhabited. Once penetrated by the train, however, the inevitable consequence will be development at the expense of nature.

Another vulnerable area on the train’s route is Laguna Bacalar in Quintana Roo. The proliferation of hotels and private houses around Bacalar, known as the lake of seven colors, is already polluting its crystalline waters. A dramatic increase in tourism would turn the lake into a cesspool.

There will be an outcry not just in Mexico but around the world if AMLO rams through a megaproject that will bring about the fragmentation and destruction of one of Mesoamerica’s last pristine rainforests. The haste and eagerness to build the train should also raise suspicions. It suggests much more than an interest in the well-being of local communities. A train through already developed areas of Mexico’s Caribbean coast might be beneficial, but presenting the train as a panacea for reducing rampant poverty in southeastern Mexico is highly misleading. Poverty is best eradicated through education and provision of basic services such as health care, housing, drinking water, nutritious food, employment, and sustainable and productive projects that allow communities to thrive on their own terms.

No plan for the train has been made public, and there have been no environmental, social or economic viability studies. The president appears to believe that his brand of participatory democracy, though scarcely representative, will give him the mandate to do what he wants, if the decisions are sanctified by token consultations with the public. The result will not be one that purifies the country or puts the poor first. It will do just the opposite: defile priceless ecosystems and put business interests first.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.