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Mexico’s Tren Maya Signals a Landmark for its Development, but a Detriment to its People

Hannah Hains | Latin America Fellow

Activists install antimonumento denouncing destructive Maya Train project in CDMX’s iconic Avenida Reforma. Image credit: Ekō via Flickr.

Mexico has a big year ahead, with its 2024 presidential election in June set to be the biggest in the country's history. Mexico’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, also known as AMLO, has served a six-year term rife with controversy and backflips on original campaign promises. Yet one major election promise has been delivered. Right in the final months of his term, the controversial Tren Maya opened its first 500 kilometres of the line. Tren Maya (Mayan Train in English) is a 1,554 kilometre, USD $20bn intercity railway that traverses the Yucatán Peninsula. AMLO announced the megaproject at the beginning of his presidency, expanding on previously proposed plans for a 900-kilometre line. The plans were met with fierce opposition by locals of the Yucatán Peninsula - a largely Indigenous Mayan population in one of the  country’s poorest regions

In December 2019, after a year in office, AMLO announced a referendum on Tren Maya to be held in the Peninsula, wherein all five states through which the train would pass could vote for or against the project. These regions are predominantly sustained by the tourism industry as they are home to tropical beaches and famous Mayan archaeological sites. While Tren Maya has been promised to increase tourism and economic activity, the region’s delicate ecosystem and archaeological sites have been threatened by new infrastructure and increasing numbers of visitors. 

During the referendum, voters were told only of the benefits of the project: improved water supplies, access to education, economic growth, and environmental protection. They were not informed of the negative impacts, such as the inevitable environmental and archaeological destruction that would follow. While 92.3 per cent of participants voted in favour of the project, the Mexican Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has highlighted  low voter turnout, particularly amongst Indigenous women. This is likely due to inaccessible voting locations that prohibit women from leaving their daily work and travelling to vote, as well as poor translations of information provided.  Some voters also admitted that they supported the project because they knew it would go ahead regardless of their views. 

Since the referendum, support has lowered, and tensions have heightened. Tren Maya is  now  partially opened and, consequently, 3,000 residents living across the route have been displaced. Much larger sections of the jungle have been cleared than originally promised, archaeological sites have been destroyed, and prior consultations and tribunals with Indigenous people ignored. AMLO has since declared the project a matter of national security and has deployed the army to oversee its construction. By doing so, court rulings against Tren Maya are non-binding due to its security status, and environmental risk assessments can be ignored. In turn, the large number of filed injunctions made by Indigenous groups and NGOs against the train have had little effect. 

Though the project has promised to improve the lives of locals, it has ultimately created more harm than good. Indigenous people in the region were excluded from the consultation process due to language barriers, poor translations, and securitisation. Furthermore, though environmental safeguards were promised,  larger amounts of forests have been cleared than intended,  and there has been scarce consultation with environmental groups and scientists. Though Tren Maya will likely bring economic growth to the region, some locals fear that tourists will channel into resorts (many of which are owned by foreign investors) and official artisan vendors, but traditional street vendors will not receive any increased business. 

Violations of Indigenous rights, the destruction to the environment and to archaeological sites, and dubious referendums and tribunals throughout this campaign have all contributed to waning support for Tren Maya. Protests have taken place in Mexico City, prominent Mexican celebrities have headed campaigns, and Greenpeace and other NGOs have called for the project’s cancellation. Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries for environmental activists, wherein 54 were murdered in 2021, and 8 attacks towards those protesting against Tren Maya took place in 2020. Corporations involved in the project from Spain, the United States, and China have been called upon by the UN to address their participation and their silence on the attacks and violations of Indigenous rights. These companies, and AMLO’s government, are yet to be held accountable. 

Despite the scale of Tren Maya and the controversies surrounding it, the project has garnered little foreign attention. Yet the international community should care about Tren Maya and the paradox it presents: that development in emerging economies such as those in Latin America may pander towards the interest of foreigners at the expense of local populations. Foreign tourists and investors will benefit significantly, yet the Indigenous people will ultimately be harmed, reaping few of the promised awards.

Tren Maya hearkens back to Mexico’s colonial history. The securitisation of the project displays a neocolonial effort to suppress and intimidate local populations. Moreover, the entire process has undermined deliberative democracy and revealed a conspiracy to ignore the voices of those most affected. The very name of the Mayan people has been exploited and their culture appropriated to attract tourism while their sacred sites are trampled on. 

Tren Maya serves as a warning to countries with large Indigenous populations. Though AMLO can claim this as a success of his legacy - a delivered promise - the people of the Yucatán region will feel the impact for years to come.

Hannah is the Latin America Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. She recently completed her Bachelor of International Relations from The University of Adelaide and looks forward to undertaking postgraduate study in the future and investigating grassroots movements in Latin America.


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