Large-scale tourism infrastructure development: the contentious case of the Mayan Train megaproject in Southern Mexico

Tourism in the Yucatán Peninsula has been dominated by the four Ss ‘sun, sand, sea and sex’ from the inception of the Cancún megaresort in the mid-1970s (cf. Chapter 3) until the late 2010s. While beach tourism has spread further along the so-called ‘Riviera Maya’, much fewer tourists have visited the ecological, archaeological and cultural treasures in the interior of the peninsula. Upon his inauguration in late 2018, Mexico’s new left-wing president Andrés Manuel López Obrador set out an ambitious agenda to open up the most remote areas of Yucatan to mass tourism. His signature megaproject, the ‘Mayan Train’ — scheduled for completion in 2023 — consists of a route of more than 1,500 kilometres connecting five of the country’s southern states, namely Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Quintana Roo and Yucatán (Camargo and Vázquez Maguirre, 2020). The planned train track will pass through several protected areas, including the UNESCO-designated Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, with its more than 7,000km" area being the second-largest expanse of tropical forest in the Americas after the Amazon and providing habitats for iconic species such as jaguars, pumas and tapirs (Godoy, 2018; Camargo and Vázquez Maguirre, 2020). Since the Ancient Maya City and the Protected Forests of Calakmul were declared a Mixed World Heritage Site, tourism in the area has increased substantially; between 2012 to 2016, the number of tourists almost doubled (UNESCO, 2018). The ‘Mayan Train’ project is expected to increase tourist numbers exponentially, with a projected 8,000 tourists per day by 2023 (Beatley and Edwards, 2020).

Only a couple of weeks after his swearing-in ceremony, the President — flanked by local politicians, business people and Indigenous community leaders — participated in a Mayan ritual requesting the permission of Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) to build this infrastructure project that is projected to cost upward of USS6.5 billion (Pskowski, 2019). The location of the ritual — the city of Palenque adjacent to an important Mayan archaeological site - was carefully chosen. It is one of 15 stations along the track that are to be developed by a host of private investors. In addressing the participants, the president declared the project “an act of justice, because this region has been the most abandoned” (cited in Pskowski, 2019, n.p.). He claimed that the project would create 80,000 jobs in 2020 and 150,000 in 2021 (Mexico News Daily, 2020a).

The Yucatán Peninsula is predominantly inhabited by Mayans along with several other Indigenous groups, namely the Tseltal, Ch’on, Tsotsil, Zoque and Chontai (Camargo and Vázquez Maguirre, 2020). The planned project has created deep rifts among Indigenous peoples in the area. While many have hopes to be lifted out of poverty with the availability of jobs in the tourism sector and other industries that will benefit from better connectivity, several Indigenous associations are vehemently opposing the project, some calling it ‘an act of war’ (Beatley and Edwards, 2020) and ‘a project of death’ (77ie Yucatan Times, 2019). These groups accuse the Mexican government of infringing upon their Indigenous territories and communal lands (ejidos) and of insufficient consultation and information about the nature of the project. The fiercest opposition to the megaproject comes from the far-left Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional — EZLN), whose members have vowed that they are willing to die as “protectors of the earth” in their fight against the megaproject (IWGIA, 2020, p. 442).

The Mexican Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights attested that the project failed to meet international standards of consulting Indigenous people and seeking their free, prior and informed consent and that information meetings “referred only to the potential benefits of the project and not to the negative impacts it might cause” (UNHCHR Mexico Office, 2019, n.p.). The human rights body noted the very low turnout of voters — with only 2.8 per cent of the local Indigenous populations casting their vote — underrepresentation of women in consultation processes, and the strategic promise of health services and water supply to the region in exchange for support for the project (Beatley and Edwards, 2020). Indeed, the project appears to fall short of meeting many of the legal standards and principles set out in various binding national and international legal frameworks (cf. Box 9.3). No environmental, social and cultural impact evaluation has been conducted for the entirety of the project, and some of the few environmental impact assessments that have been completed for portions of the project have not been made public (Verza, 2020). Greenpeace México, the Mexican Centre for Environmental Law and several university academics allege that biodiversity in protected areas will suffer from severe deforestation and land degradation as a result of the construction and operation of the ‘Maya Train’ (Mexico News Daily, 2020a).

Box 9.3 National and international legal frameworks with relevance to the ‘Mayan Train’ megaproject

Constitution of Mexico (Constitución Política de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos)

Article 2 guarantees Indigenous peoples the right to self-determination and the autonomy to decide their internal forms of co-existence and social, economic, political, and cultural organisation.

National Institute of Indigenous Peoples’ Law (Ley del Instituto Nacional de los Pueblos Indígenas)

Article 6 guarantees Indigenous peoples the right to consultation and free, prior and informed consent when Mexico’s federal government promotes legal reforms and administrative acts that are likely to affect them.

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)

Article 26 requires states to give legal recognition and protection to Indigenous peoples’ lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.

Article 32 supports Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination, consultation and free, prior and informed consent prior to approval of any project that may have an impact on them.

Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO)

Article 7 supports Indigenous peoples’ rights “to decide their own priorities for the process of development as it affects their lives, beliefs, institutions and spiritual well-being and the lands they occupy or otherwise use, and to exercise control, to the extent possible, over their own economic, social and cultural development”. The article further asks governments to “ensure that, whenever appropriate, studies are carried out, in co-operation with the peoples concerned, to assess the social, spiritual, cultural and environmental impact on them of planned development activities.”

Article 13 requires governments to respect the cultural and spiritual value that Indigenous peoples attach to their lands and territories, as well as the collective nature of that relationship.

Source: Pskowski, 2019; Beatley and Edwards, 2020; Camargo and

Vázquez Maguirre, 2020

The project’s implementing body, the National Fund for Tourism Development (FONATUR) conceded that it had skipped some of the legally required steps and had accelerated the timeline, but argued that it will minimise the environmental and social impacts by mostly using existing train tracks and public land (Verza, 2020). Yet representatives of the Assembly of Defenders of the Mayan Territory and the Mexican Civil Council for Sustainable Forestry (CCMSS) maintain that the project has already caused intense land speculation and that government agencies are pressuring Indigenous communities to give up their customary land around the future train stations and urban growth centres (The Yucatan Times, 2019). A particularly perfidious strategy of FONATUR appears to be the promise of providing better water supplies to this notoriously water-scarce region on the condition that the megaproject can go ahead (UNHGHR Mexico Office, 2019; Beatley and Edwards, 2020).

Resistance to such megaprojects as the ‘Maya Train’ can be dangerous in Mexico, where violence against environmentalists and land rights activists is rampant and often goes unpunished (Beatley and Edwards, 2020). In 2019, 23 Mexican human rights activists and land defenders were killed according to Front Line Defenders (2020), a Dublin-based non-governmental organisation. One Mayan activist who openly expressed criticism of the project and the lack of Indigenous consultation reportedly received a death threat in December 2019 (Beatley and Edwards, 2020).

In May 2020, Mexico’s Human Rights Commission called on the government to temporarily halt the construction of the ‘Maya Train’, with the argument that non-essential work on the project would risk the exposure of Indigenous communities to COVID-19 (Yucatan Expat Life, 2020). Due to similar concerns, a federal judge ordered a suspension of the construction work in June 2020 for as long as the COVID-19 epidemic remains a threat to Indigenous people’s health (Mexico News Daily, 2020).

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