Maya train at risk of derailment in Mexico’s precious biosphere


A dilapidated shed on a road circled in the heart of Mexico’s Unesco-protected Calakmul biosphere is an unlikely war room.

But it was from there that the Indigenous and People’s Regional Council of Xpujil (Cripx), a local NGO, launched a legal battle to stop President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s $ 7.8 billion. Mayan train project in his footsteps.

Cripx and local farmers are concerned about the environmental impact of running diesel engines in the habitat of endangered jaguars in a landscape strewn with archaeological treasures. They face a powerful adversary: ​​the military.

The government has awarded the Ministry of Defense construction contracts for several sections of the 1,500 km route – including the one that crosses the lush Calakmul Biosphere, home to the majestic ruins of the same name. This month, he announced that when completed, the entire Maya train would belong to the army.

Cristopher Herrera Sarmiento, 35, a veterinarian, discusses the Mayan train with fellow residents of Escárcega, Mexico this month. Like them, his business lies in the path of the train. © Benedicte Desrus / FT

“They know that if they had granted the stretch here to a private company, it would be easy to organize the resistance,” said Jesús López Zapata, one of the founders of Cripx, speaking in the shadow of a tree behind the small desk.

“But not when it’s the army. “We are talking about a confrontation. We don’t want things to get to this point, but if things go well, we won’t have a choice. “

More than a dozen injunctions against the train are making their way through the courts but Lopez Obrador does not derail easily. He has pledged to visit the project every fortnight if necessary to ensure that the flagship development and infrastructure project is completed before he leaves office in 2024, and refuses to believe that legal challenges could thwart his plans.

But with court decisions pending, work has so far been limited to tearing up the tracks of an old railway line that exist on part of the planned route. New rails will be laid capable of carrying trains running at 160 km / hour to connect some of the country’s best-known tourist resorts and Mayan ruins.

Maya Train workers tear up old rails in the community of La Chiquita in southeastern Mexico on March 1.
Maya Train workers tear up old rails in the community of La Chiquita in southeastern Mexico on March 1. © Benedicte Desrus / FT

López Obrador says the project will provide tourism, local and freight services and bring development to the poor southeast where he grew up – an area historically neglected by Mexican rulers.

But the project divides. “I have been a long-time railway worker and I would like nothing more than to see the rebirth of passenger railways. Mexico. . . However, from the start, I never thought the Maya train was a good idea, ”Francisco Javier Gorostiza Pérez, a former conductor and former government official recently told the Mexican College of Civil Engineers.

He said the Mayan train’s expectation of reaching 50,000 passengers per day and 18 million per year was a cake in the sky – such a figure would be almost as much as China’s Beijing-Shanghai high-speed train, which attracts 20 million. passengers per year, and almost double the Eurostar’s Le 10.4m, he said.

Compared to other tourist trains, the projected number of passengers would be 12 times that of the Peruvian Cusco-Machu Picchu service and far exceed the 250,000 per year that use the Swiss Glacier Express, or the 200,000 people traveling on The Chepe through Mexico’s copper canyons, the country’s only surviving passenger service, he added.

Lemencia de la Cruz Castellana, 54, and her husband Isaías Vásquez Sánchez, 56, outside the abandoned train station where they squat in Escárcega, southeastern Mexico, on March 1.
Clemencia de la Cruz Castellana, 54, and her husband Isaías Vásquez Sánchez, 56, outside the abandoned train station where they squat in Escárcega, southeastern Mexico, on March 1. © Benedicte Desrus / FT

Gorostiza Pérez said the plans needed to be revised and warned the cost would likely increase by 50%.

As for the impact of the Maya train on some of the most biodiverse regions of the world, he said: “Running high speed trains in the biosphere and jungle areas would be a real ecological crime.”

The Mexican state auditor’s office also warned of cost overruns, questionable profitability, insufficient consultation with local communities and environmental damage.

But many residents are behind the project. “We had difficulty in taking legal action because many people see López Obrador as a savior and this project as a manna from the sky,” admitted López Zapata from Cripx.

For Isaías Vásquez Sánchez, an employee for 43 years on the Mexican railways, “the train will bring back glory”. He’s crouched down in the abandoned Escárcega station, a dilapidated traditional rail hub where three Maya train routes intersect, since he lost his job last August when freight services shut down for work. of the project can begin.

“I hope they will give me a job,” he said, leaning on the barbed wire of the future site. His wife, Clemencia de la Cruz, is proud to work as a cleaning lady with the train project. “I’ve never been on a passenger train,” she says. “There are a lot of poor people here who will be helped.”

Many traders in Escárcega also appreciate this prospect. What they oppose is the road.

Yosulia Gamboa, whose father was a worker and mayor of Escárcega, faces a double whammy. The proposed 20m right-of-way on each side of the runway will require the demolition of buildings and “I’m hit on both sides – on one side, my house and on the other, my clothing store,” he said. she declared.

Jerónima López Hernández (R), 34, a beekeeper, and her husband, Germán Bartolo Barrios (L), 52, take care of their beehives deep in the forest outside the village of Nueva Vida in the biosphere of Calakmul protected by Unesco in Campeche, south-eastern Mexico, on March 2.
Jerónima López Hernández (R), 34, a beekeeper, and her husband, Germán Bartolo Barrios (L), 52, take care of their beehives deep in the forest outside the village of Nueva Vida in the biosphere of Calakmul protected by Unesco in Campeche, south-eastern Mexico, on March 2. © Benedicte Desrus / FT

Maya Train officials say they are in negotiations with residents and expropriating land for the train is a last resort they hope to avoid.

Meanwhile, Alejandro Varela, head of legal affairs at Fonatur, the state agency in charge of the Maya train, said the injunctions could not prevent them from modernizing the lines and that despite the growing number of legal challenges to the project , “We are sure we will win”.

However, around Calakmul, some local farmers believe their compliance has been bought. Almost everyone is a beneficiary of López Obrador’s tree planting program, Sowing Life, as he pays 4,500 pesos ($ 220) per month.

Like many locals, Germán Bartolo Barrios felled the existing mature trees on the land he and his wife rented inside the biosphere and replanted them with the young trees from the project. “I think Amlo thinks Sowing Life is in exchange for supporting the Mayan Train,” said his wife, Jerónima López Hernández.

A native beekeeper from Tzeltal, she is in the process of obtaining organic certification for the honey she produces in the middle of the jungle and fears that “the train is causing a lot of pollution – a lot”.

Even some tourists were not convinced. “I wouldn’t take it. It will be a natural disaster, I don’t think it is necessary, ”said Iván Paredes, a 43-year-old survival instructor from Barcelona, ​​as he ate his lunch amid the peaceful ruins of Xpuhil.

Many fear that the train will end up white elephant. “It’s such a waste of money,” complained a businessman who lives in a state where the train will pass. “I can’t believe we can’t stop it.”



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