Welcome to the Dashboard, !

Close dashboard icon
LibreOrganize 0.6.0 - Documentation

The Tren Maya Project: Are All Aboard?

from the May 15, 2024 Bulletin

Étienne von Beltrab, born and raised in Mexico, is a professor of political ecology at the University of London. For the last four years, he has led a team of master’s degree students to conduct an intensive assessment of the Tren Maya (Mayan Train) project in Mexico’s Yuccatán Peninsula. Through interactions with government planners from different departments, engineers, architects, workers, urban and rural residents, he has become the foremost independent expert on the impact of the train. 

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


AMLO’s roots are in Tabasco, and he understands well the needs of the communities in the southern region. The Tren Maya will connect the southern states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo. Historically, the region has given much to the national economy, but until this administration, it received little from the center. As in colonial times, while its vast natural resources were extracted, the majority of the population was abandoned by the State.

Route of the Tren Maya (2023)

This is a huge area, as big as the United Kingdom. For too long transport services have been a monopoly of the private A.D.O. bus company, whose prices are prohibitive for ordinary people and which does not serve small rural communities since it’s not profitable. Over the last few decades, tourism has become the most important industry, but its benefits are captured by just a few in Cancún and the “Mexican Riviera” along the western coast. Residents in many communities, particularly young people, must leave home to go to Cancún, Playa del Carmen, Tulúm or the US for jobs. There is a desperate need to end the stagnation of the region’s economy.


But the expanding tourism and disrupting traditional ways of like is exactly what indigenous peoples have opposed, right? The Zapatistas have vehemently protested the Tren Maya.


The states with the highest percentages of indigenous people are Oaxaca, Yucatán, and Chiapas. Of the five southern states, four have voted in Morena governors, which in a way signals support for AMLO’s agenda. An opposition slogan is “Tren Maya is not Maya.” I have asked women selling tacos, taxi drivers, people I meet on the street, and even Mayan peasants about that saying. They say, “Why is it not Maya? It is for all of México!” What are their own questions? “Will I be able to take my produce on the train? What will the tickets cost?” 


So is the train being imposed on the people? The indigenous consultation in late 2019 was criticized for not fully meeting its promises, and yes, there were problems. But people are being consulted in many ways, including ejido assemblies. In the past, no one consulted the public, let alone indigenous peoples, about anything. Large-scale projects were always imposed, often with force and the repression of dissent.

In San Francisco de Campeche, the organization Colectivo Tres Barrios opposed the relocation of their homes and brought successful appeals. A decision to relocate the station means the train will no longer enter the heart of the city, and hundreds of residents will continue to live in their traditional neighborhoods.

Photo:  Arturo Contreras (Pie de Página) 

We found no massive popular opposition to the train.


More opposition comes from environmental groups who say that Tren Maya will damage this areas's fragile ecosystem. True?


With 1500 kilometers of tracks, of course there are impacts: vegetation is being cleared and fauna pathways are being crossed. Let’s remember first that the unregulated growth of tourism over the last few decades from Cancún to Tulúm destroyed a lot, so environmentalists have some real worries. 

Image: Infodemia Mx

However, they also tell half-truths and sometimes outright lies. One accusation was that segment 5 between Playa del Carmen and Tulúm did not consider possible damage to an underground river system. But I have gone to the site with geologists and have seen the amazing engineering used to minimize impact: elevated viaducts are being built to protect cenotes, underground rivers and archeological vestiges. It will be far less damaging than the current four-lane highway, where cars and trucks spew gas and there is no way for animals to cross.

The most vocal opposition group, the “Selvame del Tren” campaign, was invited to visit the site, but they rejected the offer, refusing to learn the real facts first hand. While they have captured international attention, they have no popular base.


So the project has changed from the original plan?


Due to concerns voiced by the people living there, the routes of all seven train lines have been changed from the original proposal. For example, where archeological findings face risks, the route has been changed. 

In another example, there was an outcry about the train disturbing the Volcán de los Murciélagos, the site of a cave that is home to 21 million bats. Currently, there is a heavily traveled road that passes directly over the cave. 

Volcán de los Murciélagos: Photo: Brenda Ordaz

The Tren Maya’s route was moved three kilometers away, so it will not only avoid the cave but will also reduce the traffic on the road overhead.


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 are active in the region, and I witnessed many people feeling safer in the presence of the National Guard and the military. Also, there is an intention to keep the powerful military busy! Moreover, revenues from the train’s operation will help fund military pensions. taking a huge burden from the national budget. But not everyone is happy with this move, and Mexicans will need to keep the government and the military in check.


What is the importance of Tren Maya as a public, not private, project?


There is a phrase used by critics that: “Tren Maya no es solo un tren,” “Tren Maya is not just a train,” implying that it will cause social and ecological dislocation. However, it can mean the opposite. If the train were a private contract, there would be no thought as to other impacts. But this project is connected to other governmental projects and programs that are making a difference in people’s lives.

For example, the Sembrando Vida program involves almost half a million farmers. Peasants are paid to implement agroecological practices to grow crops and plant trees, making it both a poverty reduction and a reforestation program. Near Tulúm, the new Jaguar Park is an enlarged protected area designed to stop excessive urban growth, restore degraded areas, and conserve flora and fauna — like the endangered jaguar!

Endangered Jaguar: Photo: Christina Silvestri

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