A “Mayan train” vs. Mayan rebels

The current federal government of Mexico is the first left-oriented administration elected at national level since the 1940’s. Its president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (locally known as AMLO), is a senior politician who has decidedly reoriented the public budget towards the recovery of the largely publicly-run energy sector, the implementation of massive social programs that imply direct cash aid transfers to marginalized populations, and implementing large infrastructure projects for the south of the country. Mexico is a 130 million inhabitants marked by a historical socio-economic and territorial divide between a rapidly growing north and an unprosperous south. AMLO envisions his administration’s social programs and infrastructure projects for the south as a way of discharging the long-held regional inequalities.

One of AMLO’s most emblematic infrastructure projects is known as the Mayan Train. It consists of 1,460 km of train rails that will surround the Yucatan Peninsula connecting with the sub-national state of Chiapas, home of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. The Mayan Train’s main objective is to connect major archeological and natural attractions of the Yucatan Peninsula and Chiapas with the vertiginously growing tourism industry clustered around Cancun city, located at the northeastern corner of the Peninsula.

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Official route of the Mayan Train. Source: FONATUR, 2019

The Yucatan Peninsula and its maritime borders host rainforests, wetlands and coral reefs which are home to multiple indigenous communities. The bio-cultural transcendence of this region is reflected by the establishment of more than 30 Natural Protected Areas and three World Heritage recognitions by United Nations. Despite of its richness, around 30% of the population falls in the category of multidimensional poverty. The tourism cluster ignited in Cancun in the 1970’s represents a “success story” that the Mexican right and left-wing oriented politicians admire and revere quite uncritically. In this context, AMLO believes the Mayan Train will spread development from Cancun to the rest of the region.

Since the beginning of AMLO’s administration, a widespread communication campaign has taken place to persuade — more than inform — the public about the potential benefits of the Mayan Train. As an experimented connoisseur of the potential force of social movements in Mexico, AMLO proposed a regional consultation to define if the project should be or not implemented. As expected, the strongest opposition to the Mayan Train has come from the indigenous movement articulated around the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.

This organization, constituted by Mayan rebels of Chiapas, declared war to the Mexican State in 1994, but right after the federal government granted them an amnesty as a result of huge national and international pressure to stop the war, the Zapatistas left the armed approach behind, and focused on creating autonomous governments that could control public services rejecting any aid and laws coming from the Mexican State although they consider themselves part of Mexico. Zapatista autonomy is a form of democratic organization that relies on a conception of power, justice and well-being that is radically different to the way modern nation-states are constituted. But beyond their vision of the world and discourse, the outcomes of the Zapatista experiment are remarkable in terms of the high quality of public services (notably health and security) that the “councils of good government” provide to their people in contrast to the poor performance of the Mexican State in non-Zapatista indigenous communities.

Most of the Zapatista communities are located in Chiapas, but they have links with grassroot organizations in the Yucatan Peninsula through a confederation known as the National Indigenous Congress where indigenous peoples of all Mexico have representatives. Zapatistas and their allies in the Yucatan Peninsula completely reject the Mayan Train. They see it as an initiative that will deepen inequalities and accelerate ecosystems’ destruction in the Peninsula under a façade of sustainable and inclusive development.

Unfortunately, they are right.

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A representative of the Yucatan Peninsula at the National Indigenous Congress’ “Forum in defense of the territory and mother earth”. Author: Noé Mendoza, 2019

The governmental plan includes building 18 stations located in 7 cities and 11 rural communities. Each station will require a “development pole” which is a mechanism to redefine the current land-uses of the area where the train stations will be built. The agrarian reform in this part of Mexico was ample enough to allocate throughout the XX century more than 50% of the continental territory of the Peninsula to subsistence peasants in a common-property tenure form known as ejido. The train stations in rural areas will be unavoidably built in ejido lands. The government could legally expropriate and privatize these lands, but AMLO’s proposal is to include the people in a real estate trust where the ejido owners will partner with the private investors that will build and operate touristic infrastructure. This mechanism has already been widely used to expand Cancun’s high-luxury tourism services over ejido lands.

“Don’t sell your land. Become an investor in the real estate trust instead”, is the message that Mexican government’s officials are spreading in the ejidos where the Mayan Train will go through. AMLO has declared that the opposition to the Mayan Train is merely ideological and uninformed because the train “…won’t open a mountain, trees won’t be taken down, nobody will be dispossessed from their lands, there is no pollution”, and most importantly, it expected to generate employment and ignite economic growth throughout the whole region.

The consultation organized by the government in December 2019 showed an overwhelming support to the project by the general public and especially by the communities that will be directly affected by it, and polls of public opinion have shown similar results. Nevertheless, the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights denounced that the consultation violated international regulations since the government basically persuaded the people about magnified benefits of the project instead of informing about the multiple effects that might come with it. Additionally, the acceptance of the train by the communities was depicted by the government as a condition for them to receive social programs and public services urgently needed in the region.

Beyond the deceitful consultation, the main issue the Zapatista movement is pointing at, is the paradigm of development that supports the Mayan Train and its expected effects. It is true that people won’t have to sell their lands, the problem is that they won’t be able to continue their rural livelihood because they will exchange it for becoming a very minor stockholder in a trust that they neither understand nor control. They will give away their capacity to grow their own food in exchange of a variable rent dependent on the fluxes of stock markets.

It is true that the train can mitigate its environmental impact if it complies with the Mexican environmental legal framework, but the concerns are not centered on the train per se but on the social and environmental effects of the tourism industry that will expand from the Cancun cluster to the rest of the Peninsula and Chiapas. The real estate trust is designed to promote large private investments in the form of high luxury and large-scale hotels, restaurants and other services typical of the tourism industry of Cancun. It has been widely documented how this sector has consolidated a de facto power in the region which is willing and able to systematically violate environmental and labor legislation. Tourism turned the Yucatan Peninsula into the number one region in waste generation at national level, it is one of the main deforestation drivers and a major water pollutant in the region.

The political elite revere this industry because it positions Quintana Roo (the sub-national state where Cancun is located) as number one in employment creation nationally. Sadly, it also occupies the penultimate place in salary levels. Most of the employment generated there is temporary, badly payed and informal. Economic analyses have showed that although Quintana Roo is the most important destination in Mexico, its contribution to national finances is surprisingly low since most of the foreign investment allocated there tends to transfer the profits outside of this region.

Cancun and other cities that conform the touristic cluster known as Mayan Riviera are among the fastest growing urban conglomerations in the whole Latin American subcontinent, but they are also among the most unequal cities since the touristic areas have high quality public services while the peripheries, where most of the population inhabits, are poorly planned suburban areas where insecurity and violence has increased rampantly in the last decade. The crown of all the pitfalls of this vertiginously growing industrial cluster is that a significant proportion of the tourists that visit the Mayan Riviera constitute a powerful demand for illegal drugs. Recent research has proved that the northeastern corner of the Yucatan Peninsula is both an area of high demand for illegal drugs and a connecting point between South American and US East Coast drug cartels: a highly desirable territory for Mexican cartels who constantly dispute its control displaying violence and corruption at all levels. Today, Cancun is among the top 5 Mexican cities with highest homicide growth rates.

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Police forces watching over Cancun’s beaches. Source: Televisa, 2017

The “development poles” of the Mayan Train will very likely allow foreign investment to penetrate the Mayan lowlands, but it will also expand problems that derive from a weak State unable to impose the rule of law over foreign capital and drug cartels.

Zapatistas offer alternatives. They produce and sell highly demanded commodities like honey, coffee and allspices, but they understand that market economy is a tool they have to use wisely. In their view, autonomy is important when it comes to solving basic needs like food and public services because it helps them to step away from the need to grow endlessly in order to have a good life. They also have ecotourism projects of their own, but they are low scale, not so profitable initiatives. Ecotourism at communitarian level is a modest complement for rural livelihood which is quite distinct to the tourism promoted by the Mayan Train. Zapatistas don’t preach, they act and convince with their outcomes. A weakness they have is that their discourse sounds highly ideological, and it is hard to see that they speak based on the experience of a radical democracy experiment going on for more than two decades.

The south of Mexico has provided cheap labor and raw materials to support the national development models since the late XIX century. The Mayan Train relies on the same scheme. The indigenous populations neighboring the “development poles” will provide cheap land, labor and raw materials to foreign investment. The expectation is that the profits generated by large capitals will trickle down to the base of the pyramid. Early in his presidential term, AMLO decreed the “end of neoliberal policies”. Lamentably, the Mayan Train looks very neoliberal.

I try to see the world from the margins. From Mex-City, adopted the Mayan rainforest as homeland. Currently PhD candidate at NMBU.

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