The water of a Mayan village, future threatened by a Mexican train
VIDA Y ESPERANZA, Mexico — Mexico’s ambitious Mayan train project is supposed to bring development to the Yucatan Peninsula, but along the country’s Caribbean coast it threatens the indigenous Mayan people for whom it was named and divides the communities it was meant to help.
A controversial stretch cuts a more than 110 kilometer strip through the jungle between the resorts of Cancun and Tulum, over some of the most complex and fragile underground cave systems in the world.
It is one of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s signature projects and has drawn objections from environmentalists, archaeologists and cave divers, who have staged protests to stop backhoes from bringing down trees and clean the thin layer of soil.
But for the mostly Mayan inhabitants of the village of Vida y Esperanza – a group of around 300 people and 70 houses whose name means “Life and Hope” – the train will pass right outside their doors. They fear it will pollute the caves that supply them with water, endanger their children and cut off their access to the outside world.
A few miles from the acres of felled trees where the train is supposed to travel, archaeologist and cave diver Octavio Del Rio points to the Guardianes Cave which lies directly under the train track. The cave’s limestone roof is only two or three feet thick in places and would almost certainly collapse under the weight of a high-speed train.
“We run the risk that all of this will be buried and this history will be lost,” says Del Rio.
López Obrador dismisses critics like Del Rio as “pseudo environmentalists” funded by foreign governments.
As with his other flagship projects, including a new airport in the capital and a massive new oil refinery in the Gulf, the president exempted the train from environmental impact assessments and last month invoked security powers nation to move forward, quashing court injunctions.
Many critics claim that López Obrador’s obsession with the projects threatens Mexico’s democratic institutions. But the president counters that he just wants to develop the historically poor southern part of Mexico.
“We want to take advantage of all the tourism that comes to Cancun, so that they can take the Mayan train to see other natural sites, especially the ancient Mayan cities of Yucatán, Campeche, Chiapas, Tabasco”, which are States poor neighbors, López Obrador said earlier this month.
But the Mayans themselves are people who live on the limestone bed of the dry tropical jungle. The ancient Mayan civilization reached its height from 300 to 900 AD on the Yucatan Peninsula and near parts of Central America, and they are best known for building monumental temple sites like Chichen Itza.
Descendants of the Maya continue to live on the peninsula, many speaking the Maya language and wearing traditional clothing, while maintaining traditional foods, cultures, religion and medical practices, despite the area being conquered by the Spanish between 1527 and 1546.
“I don’t think there’s anything Mayan” about the train, said Lidia Caamal Puc, whose family moved here from the Mayan town of Peto in neighboring Yucatan state. 22 years ago. “Some people say it will bring great benefits, but for us Mayans who work the land, who live here, we don’t see any benefit.”
“On the contrary, it will hurt us, because, how should I put it, they are taking away what we love so much, the land.”
When marines showed up last month to start felling trees in preparation for the train on the outskirts of the village, residents who had not been paid for their expropriated land prevented them from working.
Village council chief and train supporter Jorge Sánchez acknowledged that the government “did not pay those affected” even though the government said they would get compensation.
But it’s not just about the money, Sánchez said. “It will bring back jobs for our people.”
The 950-mile (1,500 kilometer) Maya train line will make a rough loop around the Yucatan Peninsula, connecting resort towns and archaeological sites. But at Vida y Esperanza, the train will directly cross the narrow, rutted six-kilometre dirt road that leads to the nearest tarmac highway.
For more than two years, Mayan communities have opposed the railway line, filing legal challenges arguing that the railway violates their right to a safe and clean environment and to be consulted; in 2019, the Mexican office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights found that the government’s consultations were flawed.
The issue of train economics and tourism revenue is more complex, partly because no credible feasibility study has been carried out. The project is expected to cost around $8 billion – but looks set to reach $11 billion – while the government calculates it will bring in $9.5 billion in revenue or “benefits”.
But these estimates are widely in doubt as López Obrador is essentially betting on attracting sun-and-sand lovers to ruins and indigenous towns for so-called “cultural tourism”. It is unclear how many want to combine these two activities, especially if the high-speed train passes the beauties of the lower jungle.
International tourism to the country has started to recover from the losses due to the pandemic, with American visitors performing the best. In the first half of 2022, just over 10 million tourists arrived from January to June, 1.5% more than in the first half of 2019. But overall tourism spending remains below pre-pandemic levels.
Unless the army, which is building the railway line, builds a large overpass over the tracks, villagers would be forced to take a secondary road four times as long to get to the highway. It would no longer make economic sense to live there.
The government tourism agency overseeing the train project, Fonatur, says a viaduct will be built for Vida y Esperanza. But such promises have not been kept in the past.
And the military plans to fill underground caves to support the weight of passing trains, which could block or contaminate the underground water system.
The high-speed train cannot have level crossings and will not be fenced off, so 100-mile-per-hour (160 km/h) trains will pass an elementary school. Most students walk to get there.
Equally serious, the train project divided Vida y Esperanza.
Luis López, 36, who works at a local shop and opposes the train, said “it might bring minor benefits, but it has drawbacks”.
“The cenotes will be filled or contaminated,” he said, referring to the sinkholes villagers rely on. “I survive thanks to the water of a cenote, to wash the dishes, to bathe me.”
Many residents of Vida y Esperanza, who depend on diesel generators, would much rather have electricity than a tourist train that will rush in and never stop there.
Mario Basto, 78, a nervous resident who works as a gardener, said he would rather have decent medical care than the train.
“It looks like the government has money it just needs to get rid of, while there are hundreds of hospitals that don’t have medicine,” Basto said.
And there are people in Vida y Esperanza who support the train project, almost entirely because of the jobs it created during construction.
Benjamin Chim, a taxi and truck driver already employed by the Maya Train, will also lose some of his land to the project. But he says he doesn’t care, noting that “it’s going to be an advantage, in terms of jobs.”
“They take a bit of ground, but it’s a bit that has no symbolic value, for me it doesn’t mean anything,” Chim said.
While the president’s supporters have claimed that anyone who opposes the train isn’t actually Mayan, that would be news to residents of Vida y Esperanza, where locals swear Mayan spirits, known as ‘Aluxes “, inhabit the forest.
The inhabitants appease the spirits by leaving them a small glass of wine.
Bright blue-green Toh birds, tarantulas, blue morpho butterflies, iguanas and occasionally jaguars roam the roads and jungle.
And it would also threaten something older than even the Maya.
Del Rio, the archaeologist, found human remains of Mayan ancestors that could date back 13,700 years in another cave system – but it took him and other divers a year and a half to travel through a single cave system. “It’s work that takes years, years,” he said.
López Obrador wants to complete the whole train in 16 months by filling the caves with cement or driving concrete columns through the caverns – the only places that have allowed humans to survive in this area.
But for the villagers, much of the damage has already been done.
“They have already stolen our tranquility, when they cut to lay the train line,” said Caamal Puc.