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Mexico’s ‘Mayan Train’ Condemned By Many for the Devastation of Indigenous Land, Including Cenotes in Tulum

2:43 PM PDT on May 16, 2022

photo: Brut Media via Miguel Rodarte

A tourist train line slated for construction in southern Mexico is drawing protests from celebrities and militant activists alike over its dire and devastating potential impact on the environment and surrounding Indigenous lands, including many of the natural features that bring tourists to the area in the first place.

El Tren Maya, also known as the Maya Train, is intended to cover 948 miles in two inter-city routes along one track around the Yucatán Peninsula, using diesel-electric engines and crossing five states: Quintana Roo, Yucatan, Campeche, Tabasco, and Chiapas. The project is intended to link numerous popular tourist destinations with each other, and connect with several sites scared to Mayan populations.

The potentially $7.4-to-$25.3 billion project, which was announced by Tabasco-born Mexican president Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador in 2018 and launched with a Mayan ritual later that year, quickly drew the condemnation of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, as well as the criticism of The Mexican Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the National Indigenous Congress.

A referendum vote held roughly a year later was decided massively in favor of the project, with critics objecting to the positive spins put on the train, the lack of environmental impact studies or negative impact disclosures leading up to the vote campaigning, in addition to the entire existence of a vote which favored municipal workers and business leaders' say over more remote populations who lack an easy ability or financial means to travel to voting locations.

The turnout was notably low among indigenous women, including those from the Maya communities the trains themselves will be named for.

Numerous controversies, legal challenges and decisions, and government-led schemes to garner approval and progress for the Mayan Train have followed, at times delaying a project many feel is simply meant to be one of Obrador's showcase pet projects as well as pushing on an unrealistic timeline.

The president has repeatedly slammed criticism of the project, firing back at environmentalists and activists with the typical "fake news, planted people" charges used by politicians hoping to ram their bullshit down everybody's throats.

While some tracks are pre-existing, one of many potential environmental issues in fulfilling the project involves placing medians and support columns for the tracks and trains, which would involve extensive destruction of natural land along the nearly 1,000-mile circuit from the clearing of trees, including the destruction of cenotes and polluting the water table.

Feared destruction to abundant Indigenous communities, long prized jungles, habitats to already endangered wildlife (including the jaguars long revered in Mayan history and mythology), and the ensuing potential collapse of its unique cenotes (underground caverns) between the Mexican tourist meccas of Cancun and Tulum has provoked a new outcry among celebrities and activists groups hoping to save people, plants, animals, and the future of all. The cenotes are not simply major tourist draws, but also provide significant water supplies to the region.

In March, a concentrated campaign under the name #SélvameDelTren was started to spread awareness of collective disapproval for the Mayan Tren, involving numerous Mexican celebrities on social media, including stars like Natalia Lafourcade, Kate del Castillo, Cafe Tacvba's Rubén Albarrán, and Eugenio Derbez.

Obrador called out their concerns as the talk of armchair activists while promising every tree cut down will be replanted, ignoring the near futility of such a measure in stemming wider environmental disaster.

According to Mexico Daily Post, the president said: “They convince or they hire performers, fake environmentalists who supposedly are defending the environment, and they start a campaign against the train." Last year, Obrador also issued an executive order that made it a requirement for all federal agencies to give instant approval to projects like this that the government says is "in the national interest."

Billions upon billions of dollars could surely do more important things for the safety, happiness, and survival of everyday people in Mexico than simply easing the burden of every Becky and Brad who doesn't want to figure out how to bus it from Chichen Itzá to their tasting menu experience at Chambao Tulum.

As we in the U.S. scramble to travel again (which, itself, is hardly without serious environmental impacts, regardless of the destination) on the verge of our busy traveling season, our tourist dollars give us some agency in speaking out about tourism-driven projects supposedly designed for our convenience that may damage or destroy the very environments we're coming to expose ourselves to.

And just in case a half-assed "leave it better than you found it" speech from a couch-locked writer doesn't move anyone, here's an in-depth video by Brut Media exploring the potentially devastating path the Mayan Train and its construction could soon cut through the Yucatan's prized jungles and cenotes.


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A post shared by Miguel Rodarte (@rodartepop)

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