This week, on his first trip abroad as Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador is meeting with Donald Trump in Washington, presumably to celebrate the new US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, an updated version of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. This visit has been harshly criticized in both countries. The meeting finds both presidents on shaky ground, with considerable sectors of society questioning their unilateral decisions on crucial matters and their capacity to govern. The two presidents have more in common than it seems, and both have shown how the erosion of democracy often goes hand in hand with environmental illiteracy and a reckless assault on nature. At moments their encounter brings to mind Bruegel’s Parable of the Blind: “if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.”
Mexico is battered by multiple crises. The recent assassination attempt on Mexico City’s police chief and the massacre of 27 young men at a rehab center exemplify the rise of violent drug cartel crime, gruesome murders of women and children fill the news, and coronavirus cases, now topping 268,000, increase relentlessly, with more than 32,000 deaths. And now, the president has embarked on a megaproject that threatens the entire Mayan region with untold social and environmental devastation.
For three millennia, from c. 1500 BC until the arrival of the Spaniards in 1519, Mayan civilization flourished in present-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. Yet over the past centuries, Mesoamerica has been despoiled, its indigenous population repeatedly subjugated and sidelined. Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate, victims of haphazard development based on monocultures such as sugar cane and henequen, intensive farming and cattle ranching, mining, highway building, the oil industry and mass tourism.
Upon taking office on 1 December 2018, AMLO, as he is known, pledged to “purify public life in Mexico” and “put the poor first.” Fostering his man-of-the-people reputation, he conducted a referendum featuring a questionable vote on building a railway to link Mayan tourist and archaeological sites in five southeastern states, also to be used for freight and fuel shipments. A piddling .65% of Mexico’s 89,250,881 registered voters said yes, making “the people’s will” known in a referendum invalid under Mexican law. When scientists, environmentalists, human rights defenders, cultural figures and non-governmental organizations condemned the decision-making process, AMLO accused them of elitism, suggesting they “rub shoulders with the people.”
Ignoring intense opposition, AMLO forged ahead with the train, slated to cost $8 billion dollars and run on 950 miles of track, one third crossing dense tropical forests. The train will cut through Campeche, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Tabasco and the Yucatán, states that are home to critical habitats of extraordinary biodiversity as well as archaeological treasures including Chichén Itza, Uxmal, Tulum, Coba, Calakmul and Palenque. 18 new stations will also service Caribbean tourist resorts such as Cancun and Playa del Carmen, and “urban development centers” will be built around the stations, furthering the destruction. Contracts have been awarded for the first four of seven sections to Mexican, Portuguese, Chinese and Spanish companies. The train will be powered by diesel fuel in the first three sections, emitting 430, 936 tons of carbon dioxide annually.
The president’s pet project will result in fragmentation and destruction of one of Mesoamerica’s remaining pristine rainforests. It will divide communities, bring insecurity and crime. Pedro Uc, a Mayan activist who has received death threats, predicts, “The train is going to open the heart of the peninsula and bleed it dry little by little”.
In December 2019 a new referendum was held in the five states. A scant 2.86% of 3,536,000 registered voters in 84 affected municipalities voted, mostly municipal employees. It was criticized by the UN Human Rights Council for not mentioning the project’s negative impacts and for the low turnout. Mayan communities, numbering more than 7 million people, have said, “There’s nothing Mayan about the train,” while the Zapatistas have vociferously opposed it, declaring war on AMLO and his project.
In Campeche, the Mayan Train will penetrate deep into the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, Mexico’s largest tropical forest reserve. The UNESCO World Heritage site known as the Ancient Maya City and Protected Tropical Forests of Calakmul harbors above 6,500 well-preserved structures, and is at the core of the second largest expanse of tropical forests in the Americas, after the Amazon rainforest. The Reserve is the planet’s third most crucial biodiversity hotspot, home to 100 species of mammals, 350 of birds, 500 of butterflies, 1,600 of plants and a host of tropical and subtropical ecosystems. The top predator is the jaguar, whose survival is threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, overhunting of its prey, conflict with livestock farmers and poaching for the wildlife trade. Mexican law lists the jaguar as endangered, and in Calakmul and adjacent protected areas in Guatemala the population is estimated at 609 individuals. The Reserve is sparsely populated by humans, but once the railway is built unbridled development at the expense of nature will ensue.
Also at risk along the train’s route is Quintana Roo’s Laguna Bacalar, whose limpid waters of the ‘lake of seven colors’ are already being polluted by hotels and private houses. A surge in tourism will turn the lake into a cesspit.
The Mayan Train will also have a severe impact on more elusive landscapes and vital resources. Recently, an underwater cave dating from 2.5 million years ago was discovered in Tulum, in the Yucatán Peninsula. The cave is part of an interconnected 215-mile-long cave system which has been called the world’s most important submerged archaeological site. Vestiges found include remains of extinct fauna and early humans, cave paintings, staircases and Mayan ceramics and graves.
Another astonishing discovery are three well-preserved caves used 10,000-12,000 years ago for mining red ocher pigments. The caves were flooded some 8,000 years ago as the seas rose, and now offer new light on human activity in the early Americas.
The system’s depth varies from 6 to 330 feet. The soil of the entire Peninsula is made of fragile and highly porous karst, and its platform of calcium carbonate, up to 6,500 feet thick, provides an aquifer that is the sole source of freshwater in the region and sustained Mayan civilisation for centuries. Links between many of northern Quintana Roo’s 358 underwater cave systems, between 932 miles and 4,350 miles long, have yet to be found.
Pollution of the highly permeable Yucatán Peninsula karst aquifer has been steadily increasing, and the urban development, population growth and mass tourism brought by the Mayan Train will severely endanger the aquifer, putting the water supply of millions of people at risk.
Archaeologists at the site of Aguada Fénix, in Tabasco, announced their discovery of the oldest monumental building ever found in the Maya region and the largest in the area’s pre-Hispanic history. The enormous structure is nearly 3,000 years old, a mile long and 33 to 50 feet high, with 9 broad causeways radiating outwards, and is believed to have been a ceremonial center. A station will be built only 9 miles from this tantalizing site, with tracks passing close to Aguada Fénix. Researchers are justifiably worried.
Hundreds of groups and individuals have called on AMLO to suspend work on the train during the COVID-19 emergency, arguing that its construction is not essential, will require eviction of residents from their homes and put at risk the health and life of workers and the mainly indigenous local population.
Flaunting his government’s persistent admonition to “Stay Home,” AMLO traveled to Lázaro Cárdenas, in Quintana Roo, on June 1 to inaugurate section 4 of the project, between Cancún and Izamal. On June 2, he moved on to Yucatán to wave the starting flag for construction on section 3. On June 22, after indigenous communities filed an injunction to prevent work on section 1, a court ordered a temporary suspension during the pandemic, to protect the “right to health” of the Ch’ol indigenous group. AMLO accused the injunction of having “political overtones,” and, as it allows rehabilitation or maintenance on existing stretches of track, work continues at the site. The president claims the megaproject will solve the areas’s migration problems by providing work for migrants, and help Mexico recover from the pandemic-induced economic crisis.
Mexico is struggling to survive on many fronts, and the Mayan Train, a social, environmental and cultural disaster in the making, should feature far more prominently on the world’s radar. It is hard to imagine that anything good will come to our country from this week’s meeting of two megalomaniac populists, both of whom prioritize profit over natural preservation.
Mexican poet and novelist Homero Aridjis is also known for his pioneering work as an environmental activist and his two-term stint as president of PEN International. Aridjis has served as Mexico’s ambassador to Switzerland, The Netherlands and UNESCO. Many of his fifty-two books of poetry and prose have been translated into fifteen languages. Most recently out in English are The Child Poet, Maria the Monarch and News of the Earth, a biography of his relationship with the natural world and a wide-ranging selection of his work and writings in defence of the environment.