David Raby writes: Left-wing critics of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador () often focus on what they call his “mega-projects” as incompatible with a programme of democratic renewal intended to benefit the poor and excluded and to end neoliberalism. The biggest and best-known of these is the Mayan Train (Tren Maya), a 1,500 km railway through the country’s neglected and impoverished Southeast. 

The Mayan Train is designed to make a great loop round the Yucatán peninsula, through the states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo. It is meant to provide an alternative to road and air transport for both goods and passengers, its construction should generate over 80,000 jobs, and it should provide economic benefits to the entire region.

But opponents say it is environmentally destructive, will expropriate community lands and infringe on indigenous rights. They claim it will promote harmful patterns of development with industries like tourism and logging. Several environmental, indigenous and human rights organisations have taken legal action with amparos (stays of execution) against all or part of it, and numerous Mexican and foreign intellectuals have signed declarations condemning it. The much-respected Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN), the grassroots indigenous rebel group, has also condemned it.

How then can a progressive leader like favour such a project? How can his Fourth Transformation (4T) plan (for Mexico’s fourth great change after Independence from Spain, the Liberal Reform of the 1850s-60s and the 1910-20 Revolution) include such a harmful mega-project?

The train project explained

It’s important first of all to understand exactly what the Mayan Train proposal is. Most of the route follows the tracks of a former railway, the Ferrocarril del Sureste (Railway of the Southeast) begun in the late 1930s by the great popular reforming President Lázaro Cárdenas and his Secretary of Communications and Public Works, Francisco J Múgica. Decades later this pioneering project was abandoned and left to rot by neoliberal governments, but the track has remained public property, so the amount of community or private lands affected by the new project is relatively small.

Other local railways existed in the southeastern region from the early 20th century but had all been abandoned by the 21st century except for one which was virtually falling apart. Transport within the region and connections to central Mexico are therefore by road or air, with an ever-increasing destructive environmental impact.

It is true that most of the Yucatán peninsula is a low-lying limestone platform with a very sensitive ecological balance. Despite abundant rainfall, water drains away quickly through the porous limestone, hence the existence of a number of sink-holes known as cenotes which have had symbolic significance for Mayan culture for centuries.

This however has not prevented development of towns, cities, agriculture and communications, beginning with the great Mayan centres themselves (Chichén Itzá, Tulum, Uxmal, Palenque), continuing with monumental Spanish colonial cities (Mérida, Campeche, Valladolid) and modern centres like Cancún. The latter is in many ways an example of how not to develop the region, but the solution is not to halt all development, rather it is to combine the best of today’s technology (rail transport being an excellent example) with investment in sustainable communities.

The Director of the Mayan Train project is Rogelio Jiménez Pons who is also Director of FONATUR, the National Tourism Foundation. This in itself is enough to raise eyebrows in some quarters, but Jiménez Pons has a professional background in architecture and planning and is passionate about the Mexican Southeast.

The region, he says, has been abandoned by governments and pillaged by private interests. Since the 19th century logging and plantation agriculture have devastated much of the Yucatán peninsula, and in recent decades intensive commercial agriculture and stock-raising with no real controls on toxic inputs and waste disposal has made matters worse. In the words of Jiménez Pons, “The destruction of extensive natural areas of our country is due to the failure of the state to provide an alternative to enable people to make sustainable use of the wealth that surrounds them”.1

The new railway will provide an environmentally-friendly alternative to road and air transport, not only for tourists or business travellers from central Mexico and overseas but also for local people. The official website points out that the region suffers from an unusual concentration of activities in a few urban centres, on average 320 km apart. The train will help to remedy this, with a total of 19 major and 13 minor stations, and fares will be graduated to provide cheap travel for Mexicans and above all for locals.2

Construction of each section of the route is preceded by thorough ecological and archaeological surveys, and carefully-designed green overpasses are planned for local fauna. There will be well planned public and private investment in local communities around each station to encourage sustainable development and employment opportunities not just in the initial construction but in the longer term.

Tourism will certainly be the direct or indirect source of much of the employment, but it will be a much more carefully planned tourism than exists at present, with much greater economic and social benefits for local people. Moreover since most of them will be benefiting from the government’s social programmes (universal health care, decent old age pensions, scholarships for students, apprenticeships under the “Young People Building the Future” scheme, the “Sowing Life” agroforestry project, loans on easy terms to small enterprises, etc), they will be much better equipped to choose constructive options and avoid exploitation.

A chorus of condemnation

Southeastern Mexico, and above all the State of Chiapas, has for decades been the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons: environmental destruction, seizure of land by commercial interests, repression of indigenous communities, political corruption and human rights violations. Hence the emergence here of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) rebel movement in January 1994 in opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Although armed action by the EZLN was very limited, it was met with brutal repression by the PRI governments of the time. Its vision of grassroots democracy and local autonomy inspired by indigenous culture had a massive initial impact across Mexico and indeed internationally. The anti-globalisation movement of the 1990s saw Chiapas as emblematic of its values.

The EZLN was among the first organisations to denounce the Mayan Train project; following a meeting to celebrate its 25th anniversary it declared on 1st January 2019 “We are going to fight…we are not going to allow (López Obrador) to bring his destructive projects here”, specifically the Mayan Train and the National Guard.3

Exactly a year later this position was repeated with typical colourful rhetoric by Subcomandante Moisés: “The capitalist hydra…with this mega-project the beast will swallow in one mouthful entire villages, mountains and valleys, rivers and lakes, men, women, boys and girls.”4

Where the EZLN led, much of the anti-globalisation, environmentalist and anarchist or communitarian left followed, and NGOs and anthropologists also jumped on the bandwagon. One of the most comprehensive condemnations of the project came from a highly-regarded progressive intellectual, Luis Hernández Navarro. In an article in La Jornada, Mexico’s best independent newspaper, he condemned the train project as a manifestation of “savage capitalism” which robs the native people of land and territory, destroys the environment, exploits migrant and native labour, “favours the introduction of pig ‘factories’, allows the production of genetically-modified soya and hothouse crops using large amounts of toxic chemicals, and turns a blind eye to the clearing of the forest”. He adds that drug trafficking, criminality and prostitution are central to this model, and all these evils will only grow with the Mayan Train, whatever the good intentions of the government.5

A similar categorical statement was made on July 30th 2020 by numerous academics in anthropology and environmental studies. “Observations on the Environmental Impact Assessment of the Mayan Train” alleged that the project would cause “serious and irreversible harm”, and was signed by researchers from 65 Mexican institutions and 26 from Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, Uruguay, Spain, France, Switzerland and the US.6

Irrelevance, distortion and vested interests

So comprehensive are these critiques that it appears inconceivable that anyone remotely progressive could ever defend the train project. It would seem that the railway will cause or aggravate every evil associated with neoliberal capitalism.

But a well-informed and balanced examination of the project shows that most of these criticisms are exaggerated, inaccurate or irrelevant, and in some cases reflect hostile vested interests.

The idea that the new railway will destroy virgin tropical forest is without foundation: most such forest was destroyed long ago by commercial logging and farming interests. Local indigenous communities lost their land or were left with marginal bush, swamps and gullies where they could barely eke out an existence, so their poverty forced them either to work for starvation wages for the elite, to migrate to the tourist cities or themselves to join in destructive logging and commercial farming.

A study of three municipalities (similar to US counties), Bacalar, Calakmul and Othon P Blanco, shows that their total forestry loss 2000-2018 was 2,641 square km or about 9% of their land area; loss due to the railway will be about 4 square km or 0.02%,7 without including substantial reforestation of surrounding areas which is part of the project.

A Yucatecan anthropologist exposes the myth of a paradise of virgin forests with abundant wild animals and untouched Mayan communities farming their traditional lands with an unspoilt culture, now threatened by the railway:

“…the ancestral territories were lost centuries ago, [the farming communities]produce less and less due to the droughts of recent years, they find themselves obliged to migrate to the tourist areas or elsewhere to find work…We find forests devastated by clandestine logging and poachers who even start fires to drive out the game…highways where heavy lorries travel at great speed and run down animals.”8

In this context, she points out, the train promises natural overpasses for local fauna, a budget for protection and conservation, and decent employment and training for young people so they do not have to engage in poaching, logging or organised crime. –

The local inhabitants are clear about one thing: paradise hasn’t existed for many years, and we cannot go on doing nothing about the situation. If transformation is what the government is offering, then that’s what has to be our hope, not a blind hope but working together and keeping an eye on it so that things work out for the benefit of the people.”

Another crucial point is that most of the objectors do not live near the route of the railway. The great majority of the academics who signed the declaration against the Environmental Impact Assessment are based in central Mexico or abroad. Even those associated with the Zapatistas are based in the Chiapas highlands, at least 100 km away from the nearest section of the route.

As for the Zapatistas themselves, contrary to the vision of many global activists the EZLN does not represent the majority of Mexico’s indigenous peoples: it has a real popular base among the Tseltal and Tsotsil Maya of the Chiapas highlands, but elsewhere in the country its support is limited to a few isolated groups and intellectuals. has expressed respect for its work in highland Chiapas as a form of local democracy, and is well aware of the ongoing problems of corruption and paramilitarism which plague the area and which his government is trying to deal with. But these problems have nothing to do with the Mayan train, only a very small section of which passes through Chiapas, in a lowland area bordering on Tabasco.

Those who do live close to the railway are small and medium farmers of mixed race, and the relatively few whose properties are affected have been awarded adequate compensation. pointed out that 9 of the NGOs most active in opposition to the Mayan Train (particularly in obtaining legal amparos to hold up the project) have received funding from US Foundations, to a total of $14 million US.9 While this is no more than circumstantial evidence, it is relevant to consider that the railway will remain Mexican state property and that construction and operating contracts have gone to several Mexican, Chinese and European firms; hostility from US interests both commercial and political is scarcely surprising.

A telling example of a misleading NGO is the CRIPX (Consejo Regional Indígena y Popular Xpujil, Xpujil Regional Indigenous amparo halting work on the train in Calakmul municipality, Campeche. It was later said to have only 18 members of whom only two lived in the municipality; it had also received more than $565,000 US from the Kellogg Foundation. A rival association, the Comité Pro Defensa del Tren Maya de Campeche (Campeche Committee for the Defence of the Mayan Train), claimed to represent 69 indigenous communities in Calakmul with almost 29,000 population; they alleged discrimination on the part of the local judge who granted the amparo, and went to Mexico City to appeal against the decision.10

Mega-project” or constructive solution?

Work on the new railway is now (October 2020) going ahead fast; on the weekend of 9-11 October made formal visits to inspect progress on sections 1, 2 and 3 (of 7) and held public events along with Director Jiménez Pons, Secretary of Defence General Sandoval (recognising the contribution of military engineers), local politicians and representatives of private investors. They faced no protests and did not need unusual security arrangements since most local people seem contented, even enthusiastic.

It is worth commenting briefly on two common themes of the critics: that the railway is a “mega-project” and that it is linked to “extractivism”. There is here an ideological problem: any large scheme can be described as a “mega-project”, but blanket condemnation of all such schemes amounts to denial of the scientific and technological potential achieved by humanity.

Similarly, “extractivism” refers to extraction of resources from the Earth’s crust, in other words, mining and hydrocarbon exploitation.

Opposition to such activities has become a hallmark of popular and environmental movements opposed to the operations of mining and oil multinationals and imperialist governments. They rightly denounce the destruction of rural communities, contamination of land and water supplies, extinction of indigenous cultures and gross human rights abuses which often accompany such activities.

But all human societies have exploited natural resources and developed projects for their collective benefit with the technology available to them. The greater and more sophisticated the technology, the greater the potential for good, and for harm. This imposes enormous responsibility on governments, enterprises, scientists and communities, but to condemn all major projects is surely nihilistic and futile.

The urgent need in Southeast Mexico (and indeed throughout the world) in the face of the climate emergency and aggressive imperialist interests, is to develop effective community-based solutions to real problems, environmentally sustainable but also meeting the economic, social and cultural needs of local people.

Critics of the Mayan Train have ignored, often intentionally, its comprehensive efforts to address the environmental, social, economic and cultural problems of the region, and to do so with real popular participation. Director Jiménez Pons is categorical about its priorities: “The Mayan Riviera [Cancún etc] removed the original inhabitants and created a speculative process for the middle class…It is fundamental that we recognise the right to the land of the original peoples. They should maintain ownership but with the opportunity to be involved in development – the surplus value should be theirs.”11

In addition to several consultations with local indigenous groups, from October 2019 to February 2020 the train administration along with FONATUR and the Ministry of Education undertook a diagnostic study of the local community organisation and economy, with 13 participatory workshops involving more than 60 communities.

The workshops carried out detailed research and produced multiple specific proposals to develop social enterprises to benefit communities and strengthen the internal market. They included agriculture, stock-raising, fishing, beekeeping, manufacturing, trade, tourism and culture, and educational and training requirements.12 No wonder most local people welcome the Mayan Train and have little time for critics who offer no constructive alternative.

Mexico under has banned fracking and open-cast mining. It is trying to promote self-sufficiency and sovereignty in power supplies, technology and agriculture. Its efforts to develop efficient non-polluting transport infrastructure include new metro and light rail lines in the major cities, 500 new trolleybuses for Mexico City, new inter-city railways from the capital to Toluca and Querétaro, a major railway in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec – and above all, the Mayan Train. This surely reflects a creative vision using technology to benefit the entire nation and its people.

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