PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico — The jungle reigns here with a seemingly endless greenery, from the treetops to the bushes that spring up everywhere, amid the songs of birds and the insects’ gentle fluttering.
It’s a territory where nature rules, a sacred place for the Mayans that is impregnated with archaeological remains and ancient traditions.
Yet the freshness of the vegetation ends suddenly near Tulum, and the greenery opens up into an ocher and brown desert.
The barren landscape has been carved by the Mayan Train project, or El Tren Maya, one of the flagship construction projects of the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has described it as a comprehensive plan to “achieve the sustainable development of southeastern Mexico.”
Upon completion, the railway will cover nearly 950 miles across the states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo — where Playa del Carmen is located — after an investment of approximately $10 billion.
“If you’re trying to protect a place, you don’t do this,” said Tania Ramírez, 32, pointing to the miles of removed soil, stones, roots and cut tree trunks.
Ramírez is a speleologist — a scientist who studies cave systems — and an environmental activist.
She warned that continuing the construction is like “covering the veins of water, of the aquifer” and talked about how the entrance to a recently discovered cave, The Dama Blanca, had been blocked by rubble produced by the works.
In 2020, during the project’s first phase, the president said the new railway would help promote tourism, cargo transportation and generate some 100,000 new jobs.
However, many of the communities along the Mayan Train route have spoken out against the project, citing the environmental impact it will have on the area.
“We know that the places where it is going to pass are very fragile — they are going to have to put these cement piles inside the caves,” Ramírez said, alarmed at the prospect of some concrete structure breaking through the area’s delicate surface.
‘It will degrade our entire forest’
A unique feature of the regions of Quintana Roo and Yucatán is that they are located on a large platform of chalky, limestone rocks that emerged millions of years ago from the Caribbean Sea. Also known as the Yucatan slab, this platform has few bodies of surface water but many underground rivers and cenotes, very deep water wells, which are one of the great tourist attractions in the area.
“We’re going to get urban sprawl when we don’t even have enough potable water and a minimum of services… It will degrade our entire forest much faster, and everything we have,” Ramírez said.
According to the initial plan, the railway’s Section 5, which will connect the cities of Cancun and Tulum, would be built along the existing highway between the two towns. But for Ramírez and other environmental defenders’ dismay, a change in the plan announced in January puts the railway in the middle of the jungle, in an area rich in cenotes and cave systems such as Sac Actún and Garra de Jaguar.
By then, more than 11 months of work had elapsed and more than 20,000 trees had already been felled in the other area. “We are against how this stretch is being built and we are very concerned about how it is being done in general, due to the lack of [environmental] studies,” Ramírez said.
Dozens of lawsuits and injunctions have been filed to suspend the works, citing the lack of a required environmental impact statement and other things.
Government authorities recently acknowledged that four of the seven sections of the project do not comply with this requirement, which is mandatory for any construction in the country expected to alter large swaths of territory or ecosystems.
In the meantime, construction has been able to continue with provisional permits.
‘The train goes’
On May 3, a Quintana Roo judge issued the latest of a number of rulings against the project, ordering for all work on Section 5 to be “suspended or paralyzed.”
To such rulings the government has successfully responded arguing that infrastructure projects like the Tren Maya are in the public interest and a matter of national security.
“We are going to confront these groups of vested interests with their spokespersons … but the train goes,” said López Obrador at a recent press conference. “That agreement is validated by the judicial authority, by the Supreme Court, it is legal.”
For activists like Ramírez, the project represents a lost opportunity for developing the region properly.
“We should be very proud of what we have and praise and recognize it. The development model for Playa del Carmen and Cancun has not been perfect. It has brought a lot of violence, drugs, and many things that we do not want to replicate in Mayan communities,” she said through tears.
‘We are in time to avoid a catastrophe’
Raúl Padilla usually can’t contain his excitement when he discovers something.
“I think this is from a jaguar!” he exclaimed on a recent morning, pointing to a dark patch on the earthy floor of Garra del Jaguar, one of Playa del Carmen’s most famous cave systems. He then threw himself to the ground, took out a measurement card and set out to corroborate his suspicion.
His love for nature is evident in the inflections of his voice when he talks about the beauties of the area’s complex cave systems.
“In addition to the biodiversity of species, there is the historical part. We have found shrines, stairways, altars, pyramidal bases, a lot of evidence of ceramics,” said Padilla, whose foundation, Jaguar Wildlife Center, performs valuable work monitoring the area’s wildlife with cameras.
He said there’s still time to avoid a “catastrophe” like Mexico’s deadly metro accident last year, caused by the collapse of a bridge.
“These large vaults do not have the thickness for an infrastructure of freight trains with a speed of 160 kilometers per hour,” he said, referring to the caves. “It is crazy, what what they are doing, the truth is that they have neither head nor tail. We are at risk of losing the great Mayan aquifer.”
In addition to the effects on the environment, the Mayan Train has also been highly criticized for the damage it can cause to the archaeological structures, which usually occur when a work of this magnitude is undertaken.
Earlier this month, the National Institute of Anthropology and History (Inah) announced that more than 25,000 archaeological monuments and other finds had been identified in the area, including 129 human burial sites —most with offerings— and 835 natural elements associated with caves and cenotes.
Miguel Covarrubias Reyna is one of many archaeologists to raise concerns about building a railway in the middle of Quintana Roo’s jungle, where archaeological settlements abound.
“This is a lost war. The president is very foolish and he is not going to stop even if there are injunctions or judicial sentences that are irrevocable … We will see in the next administration who’s going to go to jail for all that, but the damage will be done, we’re not going to get it back,” Covarrubias said despondently.
‘They are not the owners of this land’
Ignacio Pat Tzuc, 57, is an Indigenous Maya. He knows the land that has already been cleared for the Mayan Train like the back of his hand.
The Indigenous leader said that the government of López Obrador did not carry out the necessary consultation process to be able to execute the project in Mayan territory.
Pat Tzuc said the government paid his community substantially less than what they asked for in order to use the land, the equivalent of $345 after the sum was distributed among 1,825 people. He said he’ll continue fighting the rest of his life to get a more fair amount.
“We know what a mega project is, where people with money come and are capitalists and invest here, but they are not the owners of our land. They want to earn the 100% no matter what and they take everything from here.”
However, not all the residents are in disagreement with the Tren Maya project. David Reyes Rodríguez, a community commissioner in Xalachó, said people there accepted the idea of the train and the government’s economic support. His only regret is that there is no station in his hometown.
“They should have put it here because that would bring great benefits. Xalachó has its handicrafts, baskets, embroidery fabrics and huipiles that could be sold there and make an economic contribution to this town, but no one spoke and they did not notify us,” he explained.
Pedro Valle Centeno, another resident, said the train has been a positive factor for the area’s economy, which was severely affected by the pandemic. He said many residents got jobs as carpenters, masons and workers, and he also believes that it will be something nice for his children who did not know “the old days of the railways.”
In late April, Pat Tzuc, standing in front of the site where his ancestors’ remains were found, intoned a plea in Mayan that resounded through the decimated landscape.
“We consider this territory as Mother Earth because we sow and it gives us many fruits, like corn and cocoa that we use to feed ourselves. We were never informed of everything that was done here, so that’s wrong.”
“You can’t be afraid to claim what’s yours,” he said.
But Tania Ramírez and other environmentalists say they’re afraid.
According to Global Witness, Mexico is the second deadliest country for environmental defenders, with 30 murders in 2020 alone.
The president has entrusted the Mexican military with the execution of some sections of the train, as well as the administration of income and resources. This, area activists say, has created mistrust among various social organizations.
“For us it is a very strong concern. We raise our voices, with fear…many rights have been violated,” said Ramírez.