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Is Mexico’s ‘Mayan Train’ a Boondoggle?

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Shortly after he was sworn in as Mexico’s new president, in late 2018, Andrés Manuel López Obrador received a traditional cleansing during an Indigenous ceremony, telling crowds that Indigenous communities would have priority in social programs (about 21 percent of Mexico’s population self-identifies as Indigenous). In keeping with that promise, Mexico’s government is planning to build a “Mayan Train,” running 900 miles through southeastern Mexico and promoting Indigenous history and culture to tourists. The problem is that it’s creating divisions among the very Mayan communities it aims to serve, igniting a fierce debate over who gets to speak for Indigenous people, who have historically been silenced and sidelined.

The most contested part of the train’s proposed route runs through one of the most important rain forests in the Americas, after the Amazon: the Mayan forest’s Calakmul biosphere reserve. Located on the border with Guatemala, the nearly 3,000-square-mile reserve of largely intact jungle is a biodiversity hot spot and home to an archeological jewel: the ancient Mayan city of Calakmul. The train, a signature project of López Obrador, who hails from the underdeveloped south of the country and who’s fashioned himself as an advocate of the poor throughout his political career, is intended to shuttle wealthy vacationers from beach resorts in Cancún and Tulum down to the tropical jungle to “spread the wealth” to a forgotten corner of the region. 

“The problem is that here in Calakmul,” Ernesto Martínez, 25, told us on an unseasonably hot February afternoon, “there’s no water.” Beyond the biosphere, the Calakmul municipality is also home to some 28,000 people belonging to various Indigenous groups such as the Maya, Tzeltal, and Chol. For over a decade, they’ve petitioned successive governments for a solution to climate-change-driven drought. “And now they want to bring 8,000 tourists a day here?” Martínez asked incredulously, trying not to laugh.

The government argues that development will bring better services, including a new aqueduct to remedy worsening drought. To many in Calakmul, this is a compelling reason to support the train.

But many Indigenous groups, and their conservationist and academic allies, call the train “an act of war” and López Obrador’s bid to ingratiate himself to Indigenous communities “a mockery.” They warn that the train will not only devastate southern Mexico’s ecosystem but also trigger unsustainable development and further marginalize the communities living there. These critics—the most prominent of which are the Zapatistas, who led an armed insurrection against the federal government in 1994—say the project will repeat the mistakes of development in Cancún and Tulum and bring cartel violence, corruption, and mass development to the Mayan forest. The Zapatistas have gone so far as to say they’ll defend the land with their lives.

Martínez is going for a different approach. In January, he was the first to sign an injunction calling for work on the train to be blocked. Now he and a minority are up against not only the government but also members of their own community, many of whom resent attempts to block the Mayan Train, which they believe will help develop this marginalized and remote corner of the country.

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