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The Tren Maya: Everyone All Aboard?

from the May 17, 2023 Bulletin

Etienne von Bertrab, born and raised in México, now teaches political ecology at the University of London. His research focus: environmental injustice in Latin America. Over the last three years, von Bertrab has led a team that has conducted an intensive assessment of the Tren Maya, the López Obrador administration’s Mayan train project. His team has paid particular attention to the voices of people living in the southern region.


Why did AMLO make the Tren Maya project a major piece of his 2019-2025 National Development Plan?


AMLO has his roots in Tabasco, and he understands the needs of the communities of México’s southern region. The Tren Maya will connect the southern states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo.  

Historically, this southern region has contributed a great deal to the national economy, but received, before the AMLO administration, little help from the center. Ever since colonial times, the state has extracted vast resources from the south and left the majority of the population abandoned. 


Transport services in this huge area, as big as the UK, have for too long been a monopoly of the private ADO bus company, an outfit that charges prices ordinary people find prohibitive and doesn’t serve small rural communities the company can’t make a profit off of.


Over the last few decades, tourism has become the region’s most important industry, but just a few in Cancún and the “Mexican Riviera” capture the benefits from that tourism. Residents in many communities, particularly young people, must leave home for places like Cancún and Playa del Carmen to find jobs — or go to the US. The stagnation of the region’s economy desperately needs to end.

The Tren Maya mapped/LopezObrador.org.mx

But indigenous people have opposed tourism. They see it as disrupting their traditional way of life, right? The Zapatistas have vehemently protested the Tren Maya.


The states of Oaxaca, Yucatán, and Chiapas have México’s highest percentages of indigenous people. Of the five southern states, four have voted into office Morena governors, a signal of support for AMLO’s agenda.


One opposition slogan to the train declares that “Tren Maya is not Maya.” I’ve asked women selling tacos, taxi drivers, people I meet on the street, and even Mayan peasants about that saying. They say, “Why is the Tren Maya not Maya? It is for all of México!” What questions about the train do these people ask? They ask if they’ll be able to take their produce on the train and how much the tickets will cost.


So is the train being imposed on the people? Critics of the indigenous consultations that the AMLO administration held in late 2019 are charging that the project is not fully meeting its promises, and, yes, we’ve seen problems. But people are getting consulted in many ways, including with assemblies in the ejido peasant communities.


In the past, no one consulted the public, let alone indigenous peoples, about anything. Mexican governments always imposed large-scale projects on local communities, often with force and the repression of dissent.

In Xpujil, a small town in Campeche with a 7,000 population, people hadn’t had a decent water supply for decades and worried this problem would only become worse with the urbanization a train station would bring.


The AMLO government moved to ensure this community a water supply, even though this water grievance did not relate directly to the train project. Overall, local people are feeling respected and heard.

Future Xpujil Tren Maya station site/

Etienne vol Beltrab 

Our research has found no massive popular opposition to the train. Nearly everyone wants a cheaper and easier means of travel for jobs, family visits, and new opportunities for themselves and their children.


Opposition to the Tren Maya is coming from environmental groups who say that the train will damage this area’s fragile ecosystem. True?


The 1,500 kilometers of tracks will, of course, have an impact. Vegetation is being cleared, fauna pathways crossed. Let’s keep in mind that the unregulated growth of tourism, from Cancún to Tulum, has over recent decades destroyed a great deal of the local environment. So environmentalists do have cause for some real worries. 

But some environmental groups also tell half-truths and sometimes even outright lies.


One of their accusations charges that the train’s segment 5 between Playa del Carmen and Tulum doesn’t consider possible damage to an underground river system. But I’ve gone to this site with geologists, and I’ve seen the amazing engineering getting used to minimize an adverse environmental impact.


One example: the elevated viaducts built to protect cenotes — deep sinkholes —  as well as underground rivers and the region’s archeological vestiges. 

Infodemia Mx

The train will be far less damaging to the environment than the current four-lane highway that has cars and trucks spewing gas fumes and providing no way for animals to cross. The most vocal opposition group, the Selvame del Tren campaign, was invited to visit the train site, but rejected the offer, refusing to learn the real facts first-hand. This opposition effort has captured international attention, but has no popular base.


So has the Tren Maya project changed from the original plan?


Due to the concerns voiced by local people living along the train route — not the people from across the world who know little about México — the routes of all seven train segments have changed from the original proposal. The original Campeche route, for instance, would have required the unwilling relocation of some 400 families. The government instead changed the route. The route has also changed where archeological findings face risks.


We also saw an outcry about the train disturbing the Volcán de los Murciélagos, the site of a cave home to some 21 million bats. A heavily traveled road currently passes directly over this cave. The Tren Maya’s route has now been moved three kilometers away. It won’t only avoid the cave. It will reduce the traffic on the road overhead.


Critics have also raised the concern that the Tren Maya will cause the traditional ejido system of collective agriculture to disappear.


Until 1992, the year the privatization agenda of President Salinas took hold, ejidos could not be sold. Ejidos in this region, even so, still hold half the land. A range of factors have been perpetuating the ongoing ejido dispossession, with market-led urbanization the biggest threat. But unlike highways that bring development along their entire routes, the urbanization that the Tren Maya will bring will only take place in nodes around stations.


Some people, once the train starts running, will hopefully be able to return to their communities from jobs in the tourist centers and, with government support, even be able to return to farming.


Yet another controversy arose when AMLO put the construction and operation of the Tren Maya under the military. Why not the Department of Transport?


We’re just coming out of a neoliberal period. The military in charge will make it more difficult to privatize the train in the future, in case a new administration with a different ideology comes to power. Criminal organizations remain active in the region, and I have witnessed many people feeling safer with the presence of the National Guard and the military. Revenues from the train’s operation will also help fund military pensions. taking a huge burden off the national budget.


But not everyone feels happy with the military’s participation, and Mexicans will need to keep the government and the military in check.


What importance does the Tren Maya have as a public, not private, project?


Critics of the train like to say that “Tren Maya no es solo un tren” — “The Tren Maya is not just a train.” They’re implying that the train will cause social and ecological dislocation. But that same line, with the project under public control, can mean the exact opposite. The train can help prevent dislocation. If private contractors were running the train, they wouldn’t think about potential negative impacts on people or nature. But the Tren Maya is connecting with other governmental projects and programs that can make a real difference in people’s lives.


The Sembrando Vida project, for example, involves almost half a million farmers. Peasants are getting paid to implement agro-ecological practices for growing crops and planting trees, making the project both a poverty-reduction and a reforestation program.

Near Tulum, another public project, a new park in an enlarged protected area, is stopping excessive urban growth, restoring degraded areas, and conserving flora and fauna — like the endangered jaguar! 


Under public control, the Tren Maya is revitalizing the entire region, while preserving the natural environment. Indeed, “Tren Maya no es solo un tren”!

In the Playa del Carmen and Tulum/
Christina Silvestri