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Mexican President goes full-steam ahead with Mayan train

Obrador originally conceived of it as an economic development project to help a long-neglected part of the country. But many locals are beginning to see it differently.

Indigenous people of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula are worried the train line will destroy their way of life. Above, the President launches the project.

Indigenous people of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula are worried the train line will destroy their way of life. Above, the President launches the project.Credit:AP

“The train is going to open the heart of the peninsula and bleed it dry little by little,” said Pedro Uc, a member of the assembly of defenders of Mayan Territory Muuch Xiinbal and resident of Buctzotz, a community east of Merida. “There will be [benefits], but in whose pockets?”

Uc said the project will divide communities and bring insecurity. Cancun’s rapid development as a tourist mecca led many away from their communities in search of work only to return years later as crime accelerated.

Obrador launched the project in early 2019, shortly after taking office. From the start critics questioned the financial viability of a tourist and cargo train. Even the man in charge of executing the project, tourism development director Rogelio Jimenez Pons, concedes the timeline was accelerated.

“Yes, we’ve skipped some steps, but we are forced to by the circumstances of the political terms,” he said last year, referring to the President’s six-year term.

A woman bangs a pot lid next to a sign reading in Spanish; "Your communist ideology is blinding you, leave already!" during a protest calling for Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to step down.

A woman bangs a pot lid next to a sign reading in Spanish; “Your communist ideology is blinding you, leave already!” during a protest calling for Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to step down.Credit:AP

Since then, the Mayan train has been the cure-all for every challenge. In addition to boosting the southeast’s economic development, Obrador said it could help solve the region’s migration problems by generating work for Central American migrants. Now, he says it will play a critical part of Mexico’s economic recovery from the pandemic.

Ezer May, an anthropologist and historian from Kimila east of Merida, said initially many people were swept up in the nostalgia for the Mayan train. His own grandparents used to ride the train to Merida. People believed it could bring tourists and higher paying jobs and they trusted Obrador who railed against corruption and always spoke of helping the poor.

But as they learnt more, they felt the government wasn’t telling the whole story. They worried about developers taking their land for things unrelated to their way of life or needs.

“It’s not about whether we are the minority or the majority, it’s about the threat to our culture, our language, our way of producing,” Uc said.

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The train will run through Mexico’s largest tropical forest, yet few environmental assessments have been made public and those that have warned of significant impacts. The region is full of pre-Hispanic archaeological sites and has a distinctive hydrological system of interconnected subterranean caverns and sinkholes that could be at risk.

“They are forcing us to enter a reality that does not consider our way of life,” Uc said.

The government says otherwise. It touts outreach it has done in these communities that culminated in public consultation in December where more than 90 per cent of those who participated voiced support for the project. However, the United Nations criticised the way the referendum was carried out, noting that only positive information about the project was presented to people. Others pointed to the low turnout.

“Very few people went to vote due to disinterest because of the bad information,” said Veronica Rosado, a pastry maker from Izamal, who says she’s not totally opposed to the project, but doesn’t like the way it’s being carried out.

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But by making the inauguration of the project’s construction his first trip in two months while coronavirus infections are peaking, Obrador has made it clear that more time is not something he is willing to give.

The start of construction “arrives at a good moment,” the president said Tuesday. “It’s needed to reactivate the economy.”

In recent months, a court blocked work from starting on stations next to villages inside the Calakmul biosphere in Campeche. Communities in the Chiapas – another state it would pass through – requested a halt because they fear the coronavirus will spread if work begins, and 300 families in Campeche are fighting in court against evictions.

On Tuesday, more than 240 academics and groups said in a statement the government “dismissed and disobeyed judicial orders” and recommendations of the National Human Rights Commission to push ahead with the project.

Obrador denies the train will damage the areas it traverses.

“Some who don’t know the southeast could believe what our opponents maintain that the train will affect the land, that it is going to affect the environment,” he said. “There is no effect” because it will use existing track.

The pandemic has made it more difficult to organise and protest the government’s plan, said May, the anthropologist.

“People are not focused these days on the train, nor Andres Manuel’s visit, but rather on having something to eat today, having community tomorrow and not getting infected with the virus,” he said. “I’m afraid to say it but I believe they’re going to build the train and the conflict will come after.”

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