Several decades ago, the inhabitants of the Yucatan peninsula traveled the main cities of the region by train to visit relatives or sell their products. So when they first heard of a project called “Tren Maya,” many thought it was a good idea.
Two years later, everything has changed. The initial enthusiasm gave way to mistrust. Many communities were deceived with information that they considered scarce and partial of a project that would cover five states in southeastern Mexico, from the Caribbean beaches of Cancun to the Mayan ruins of Palenque.
But neither the growing social and environmental criticism of the project, nor the legal resources interposed to stop it, not even a pandemic that has killed more than 10,000 people in the country, have prevented the president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, from dedicating this week to inaugurate several sections of its construction.
For López Obrador, the new coronavirus has made the works even more urgent because it ensures that they will generate 80,000 jobs in a marginalized and impoverished area, just when the COVID-19 crisis has left almost a million Mexicans without jobs.
But there are residents who are not so convinced of the benefits of the 1,525 kilometers of roads that will connect the main tourist centers of Quintana Roo, Yucatán, Campeche, Tabasco and Chiapas and will reorganize the territory around 15 stations, with a total cost of between 120,000 and 150,000 million pesos (between 5,500 and 6,800 million dollars), which according to some analysts could multiply.
“The train is going to open the heart of the peninsula and it is going to bleed it out little by little,” said Pedro Uc, who lives in Buctzotz, 100 km east of Mérida, and is a member of the assembly of defenders of the Maya Múuch Territory. Xíinbal. “That there will be benefits, there will be but in whose pocket?”
Uc fears that the project will create divisions between communities and insecurity. And the rapid development of Cancun as a tourism mecca is an example: many workers resorted to the demand for well-paid jobs and returned years later when violence and insecurity multiplied.
López Obrador launched his megaproject in the spring of 2019, shortly after reaching the presidency, and from the beginning he ran into critics who questioned the viability of a train that would also carry tourists who load through the region. Even the person responsible for executing the project, Rogelio Jiménez Pons, acknowledged that it was done in a hurry. “Yes, we have skipped some steps, but we are bound by the circumstances of the political terms,” he said in April last year, referring to the President’s interest in the work being completed in his six-year term, which ends in 2024.
Since then, the Mayan Train has become a panacea for all complex situations: first of migration, because according to the president it would generate opportunities for many Central Americans who came to the country, and now of the pandemic, as part of the national economic recovery. In addition, López Obrador has reiterated that the construction companies will be watched, corruption and surcharges would not be allowed and the benefits would reverberate on the people.
Ezer May, an anthropologist and historian from Kimbilá, east of Mérida, explained that at first many communities were carried away by the nostalgic memory of the trains of decades ago and were confident that the project would bring more visitors and better-paid jobs. He himself remembers how his grandparents used this transport on a regular basis.
In addition, the fact that the idea came from López Obrador, a president who excited many Mexicans for his position against corruption and in favor of the poor, generated sympathy.
But little by little, the lack of information generated mistrust. Some saw their lands or houses in danger, others feared the consequences of an uncontrolled development around the 15 stations, where subdivisions, hotels or golf courses are already being announced.
In addition, the few documents disclosed on the environmental impact of the work speak of serious risks in the largest rainforest in Mexico, full of pre-Hispanic archaeological remains and with a peculiar water system based on interconnected underground caverns, the cenotes.
“They are forcing us to enter a reality that does not consider our way of life” or the service needs of the communities, added Pedro Uc.
In December 2019, the government organized a consultation process in which more than 90% of the participants gave their support to the project. The United Nations said it did not meet international standards because it only reported on the positive aspects of the work.
“Very few people went to vote for disinterest, for bad information,” recalled Verónica Rosado, a confectioner from Izamal who says she does not totally disagree with the project but “yes, how it is going.” Rosado asks the government for time to agree on decisions.
But precisely time is what López Obrador is not willing to grant. The start of work “comes at a good time”, stressed Tuesday when opening one of the sections on a tour that was widely criticized by his opponents. “It is necessary to reactivate the economy,” he added.
In recent months, legal resources have begun to accumulate to suspend work, at least temporarily: in Calakmul, a Campeche biosphere reserve, it was possible to block the construction of stations in communities; Villages of Chiapas have taken refuge because they fear getting the coronavirus if they start working, and 300 families in the city of Campeche fight in court for not being evicted because they are not satisfied with the relocation options or the compensation offered by the government.
These processes are still open but more than 240 collectives and academics in the country issued a statement on Tuesday in which they affirm that the government “disdains and disregards judicial orders”, as well as the recommendations of the National Commission on Human Rights, in order to continue with the work. Some of the NGOs have even appealed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which has not yet spoken. They denounce the violation of the rights and guarantees of a population that will be used as “cheap labor” for a project that reproduces ancestral discrimination against indigenous peoples.
López Obrador denies everything. “Some who do not know the southeast may believe what our opponents maintain, that with the train the lands will be affected, the environment will be affected,” he said Tuesday, adding that this will not happen because the old layout ..
But the Mayan communities remember that it is not just about the roads, but also the type of urban development that it will entail.
“We are not just poor and peasant. We are a people with rights, “said another group on the peninsula, Chuun T’aan, on the occasion of the presidential tour. “What we want is another way of relating to the State.”
At the moment, it seems complicated to achieve it and more in a moment of sanitary emergency that has paralyzed the organizational and debate processes, assured the anthropologist May.
“People are not focused these days on the train or on Andrés Manuel’s visit, but on having food today, having food tomorrow and not getting sick from the virus,” he said. “I am afraid to say this, but I think the train is going to be built. The conflict will come later ”.