El Tren Maya: A Railway of Social, Environmental, and Cultural Catastrophe

Before the outbreak of COVID-19, Mexico’s tourism sector was once again preparing for the influx of spring breakers that come around this time of year. Millions of people—from marrying couples to packs of college students—visit Mexico’s hot tourist destinations every year, flocking to the beaches of Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco, and of course, Cancun. Even with the persisting social and political turbulence of Mexico, international and domestic tourists alike continue to venture to the resort wonderlands along both of Mexico’s coasts.

A beautiful view of one of Cancun, Mexico many beaches

The tourism sector first started developing in earnest in the 1950’s, as a growing number of international tourists and expenditures trickled into Mexico’s economy. Governmental administrations took note of the economic success of the industry and began development initiatives to cater to the tourist’s every need. Massive strips of beachfront resorts, luxurious shopping malls, and fine-dining restaurants began popping up everywhere at great environmental and cultural cost. Fast-forward to the present, and around 40 million international tourists alone visit Mexico, about a fourth of them coming from the United States. With so many visitors spending money on tourist attractions, food, hotels, and every other vacation necessity, it is little surprise that tourism accounts for about 8.5 percent of Mexico’s GDP. Given the economic importance of the sector, current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador—more popularly known as AMLO—plans on further capitalizing on tourism with his development project: el Tren Maya.

El Tren Maya, which translates to the Mayan Train, is the AMLO administration’s keystone project, taking place in the southernmost states of Mexico. It will result in a railway network going from Palenque, Chiapas, to Cancun, Quintana Roo. The train will have three routes—the Caribbean line, the Jungle line, and the Gulf line—that cross over five states with various stops at some of Mexico’s most popular tourist destinations such as Merida, Chichen Itza, and Tulum.

The administration and economists alike have projected substantial economic success coming from increased transportation and connectivity between tourist hotspots. People will have greater access to more destinations, which will increase the amount of tourism, and therefore spread the flow of money entering these regions. The Mayan Train, and as a byproduct, the increased tourism, will generate hundreds of thousands of jobs according to AMLO, and help some of Mexico’s most vulnerable and impoverished communities.

While the project has received plenty of commendation from businesses and economists praising its economic ferocity, el Tren Maya (like most development projects) has some pretty dark skeletons in the closet. The current blueprints have the railway crossing 10 protected natural areas—home to pristine jungle habitat and millions of species that contribute to one of the highest biodiversity indices in the world. While the project will utilize existing railroad tracks, more than half will require new construction, putting at risk fragile ecosystems. The National Fund for Tourism Development (FONATUR), the organization spearheading the development, has promised to solely construct along highways and electrical transmission lines to avoid deforestation, but the projected development of buildings, businesses, and hotel areas that will emerge with increased tourism will require such methods, and further harm the ecosystems of the area. In fact, a group of biologists from the Autonomous University of Yucatán have predicted an ecological collapse of the entire peninsula. Habitat destruction, pollution, interference with nutrient cycling, and noise pollution are some the expected consequences from developing in virgin jungle, and will not only impact the flora and fauna but also harm the resources that indigenous communities depend on.  

Usumacinta River in Tabasco, Mexico

Putting aside the environmental cost of such a project, the train infringes on protected land and resources of Mexico’s indigenous communities—specifically the Maya peoples and the Ch’ol who will bear the brunt of the cost of such development. Due to Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, the Mexican government is required to consult and obtain consent from all of the indigenous communities impacted before beginning construction. And while the current administration has spent over a year firmly asserting that they have been collaborating with indigenous communities and environmentalists alike to approve the project, there has been a clear violation of indigenous rights.

As seen in the image above, Mexico’s southern states have the highest densities of Indigenous Peoples

Many organizations (ecological and humanitarian) have continued to vehemently protest and condemn the project, decrying the suspicious tactics employed by the government in their so-called collaboration. There has been a lack of transparency in communicating with the indigenous communities on behalf of the government, to a degree so vehemently corrupt that the UN Human Rights division highly criticized the methods saying they “didn’t meet international standards”. The so-called national vote that AMLO held to seek public approval of el Tren Maya had a 90 percent approval vote, but a voter turnout of 1 percent of the Mexico’s population, with an even lower number of indigenous votes. The consults officials held with indigenous communities were fraudulent and deceitful—further skewing the true implications of AMLO’s vote. Many of the indigenous peoples do not speak Spanish, and yet information was not presented nor translated in indigenous tongues. Critics further pointed out that before the vote, there was a complete lack of information given as to the real impacts of the train, with presentations and pamphlets only going over the economic benefits of the project.

There seem to be two sides to the real impact the Mayan Train will have on indigenous communities. People in support of the train praise the benefits increased development will have on impoverished and isolated communities, such as the installation of clinics, schools, and the strengthening of an economic base. Critics, on the other hand, warn that the Mayan Train will only displace these populations, benefitting the wealthy foreign tourists and deplete the natural resources the locals depend on. The overall lack of conducted impact studies make it hard to know for certain what development will bring, but many biologists and investigators have actually condemned the project as a failure in disguise that will generate a cultural, social, and ecological collapse.

As the final nail in the coffin, the uncovering of a hidden investigation conducted by the governmental agency, Conacyt, has demonstrated further negative impacts and is a display of the coercive and corrupt nature of the Mexican government. The study was conducted in Fall 2019, with a team of 30 investigators analyzing the impacts over the entire region. Some of the main findings were negative environmental impacts in all ten protected natural areas, irreparable destruction in 1,288 archeological sites, increased vulnerability of 146,000 indigenous people, and an overall increase in drug and human trafficking. Upon realizing the extreme negativity of the study, the government detained further investigation, and swept it under the rug until it’s discovery on March 8, 2020.

Looking beyond the Mexican government’s repulsive methods and rhetoric, progress on behalf of indigenous rights organizations has been successful. As of late January this year, organized groups were able to get a judge from the state of Campeche to mandate the suspension of Tren Maya construction. Given how the development projects usually go in Mexico, this is a huge success and step towards indigenous rights protections. Whether this is the beginning of the end for Tren Maya is uncertain, but what remains clear is that the indigenous communities of the Mayan Peoples and Ch’ol will continue to fight for the integrity of their land.