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Full steam ahead for Tren Maya project as lawsuits hit judicial hurdles

  • The Mexican government is building a multibillion-dollar tourist train line that will run 1,525 kilometers (948 miles) across the Yucatán Peninsula.
  • The government agency overseeing construction says the project will bolster the rural economy in southern Mexico by creating jobs, and claims an 80% approval rate in many communities.
  • However, the construction allegedly threatens to destroy one of the most biodiverse areas of the country, home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and will lead to the relocation of many Indigenous communities.
  • Advocacy groups helping communities file 25 lawsuits against the project say that judicial hurdles and a rebranding of the project as being a “national security” matter complicate their chances of success.

In late 2021, the Mexican government made a controversial announcement that many of the country’s major infrastructure projects, most notably the Tren Maya project being built across the Yucatán Peninsula, were now a matter of “national security.” Among other things, the announcement meant that the nearly 200 billion peso ($9.6 billion) railway project could bypass a lot of red tape, allowing construction to progress faster than ever.

Claims that a tourist train line was a matter of national security proved divisive in the Mexican media, and environmental and human rights activists expressed concern that the new declaration would make it even harder to investigate wrongdoings tied to the massive construction effort.

The Tren Maya line is supposed to run 1,525 kilometers (948 miles) across Quintana Roo, Yucatán, Tabasco, Campeche and Chiapas, states with large Indigenous populations and high rates of biodiversity.

The project has been at the center of controversy since construction began.

Twenty-five injunctions have been filed so far against different sections of the project by 327 plaintiffs, according to a 2020 statement made by the National Fund for Tourism Development (Fonatur), which is overseeing construction.

Many of the injunctions, aiming to pause or permanently stop the project, focus on deforestation and the loss of local ecosystems in and around protected areas like the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in Campeche. Others claim that officials failed to consult local communities and needlessly endangered them while working during the pandemic.

Others allege the government is committing human rights violations by displacing hundreds of residents living in the path of the train.

“What the government says is that this isn’t a train project but a project of ‘territorial ordering,’” said Margarita Campuzano, spokeswoman for the Mexican Center for Environmental Law (CEMDA), which has filed three injunctions in the region. “They’re taking advantage of the train to organize different municipalities for urban and agricultural reasons. But it’s not true.”

Fonatur didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article. Rogelio Jiménez Pons, who until earlier this month served as Fonatur’s general director, said last year that the controversy surrounding the project is political and that many of the organizations behind the lawsuits are of the “extreme right” and “don’t like us.”

He also said that, in many communities, around 80% of people are in favor of the project. Proponents say it will create hundreds of thousands of jobs and bolster rural economies by bringing in business from larger touristic centers like Cancún and Tulum, as well as allowing local farmers to transport goods more easily with the line’s cargo cars.

The Tren Maya would travel through five states of the Yucatán Peninsula. Photo via Fonatur

Environmental lawsuits

Many advocacy groups have assisted local communities with injunctions that say the railway line will contribute to the fragmentation of regional ecosystems, which don’t exist in isolation but instead connect the states of Campeche, Quintana Roo and Yucatán.

“Biodiversity moves,” CEMDA operative director Xavier Martínez said. “Biodiversity doesn’t stay within the political limits of a thing called a natural protected area.”

The railway line, Martínez said, interrupts the connections between ecosystems, putting more than 20 protected areas at risk. One of the largest, the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, is a 723,185-hectare (1.79-million-acre) site that includes a UNESCO-protected forest and is home to two of Mexico’s primates and five wildcat species.

“The history of railways in Mexico and in the world shows us that the fragmentation of ecosystems calls into question the survival of species,” Martínez said. “And here we are, building in one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world, in one of the most important forests in Latin America.”

CEMDA’s injunction also alleges that the environmental destruction violates Mexican citizens’ right to a clean, healthy environment.

Indigenous rights lawsuits

CEMDA is also responsible for an injunction alleging that officials failed to properly consult Indigenous communities before starting construction, one of the most common claims against the Tren Maya project to date.

The officials are supposed to carry out a prior consultation with residents, explaining the risks and benefits of the project so they can decide whether they want to accept the development in their community. However, many residents said the process was only partly carried out, if at all.

“They never consulted with us, never invited us to come and listen,” said Romel González Díaz, of the Indigenous and Popular Regional Council in Xpujil, Campeche. “We first learned about it through a survey that they did on the national level, where one of the priority programs was a project that they call the Tren Maya.”

González said the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat) never adequately presented environmental impact reports to communities, which would have helped them understand levels of deforestation as well as the risks to wildlife associated with the project.

Some of the meetings that did take place were often not offered in the peoples’ first language, González said. Many Maya Tzetal and Maya Chol residents speak only broken Spanish and didn’t always understand what was being explained to them.

A Semarnat spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Mexican media and critics of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) have picked up on the widespread complaints regarding prior consultation. López Obrador has talked about building a railway line since his first presidential bid in 2006 (he lost that and the 2012 election, before winning in 2018), and has been accused of pushing past legal requirements for train construction with blunt force.

Even in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Mexico was recording more than 1,000 new cases per day, work on the Tren Maya project continued. Injunctions filed by the civil association Indignation for the Promotion of Human Defenders alleged that workers brought the coronavirus to vulnerable Indigenous communities, prioritizing progress on the railway project over the public health of residents of Chiapas and Yucatán.

The organization has filed nine injunctions in these states, as well as in Campeche and Quintana Roo, some of which have successfully stopped construction, albeit temporarily.

“In Quintana Roo there’s practically a blank check for the Tren Maya to move forward without permissions,” said Miguel Anguas, a lawyer with Indignation.

Construction equipment sits at the ready along the path that the Tren Maya will travel. Photo via Fonatur

Forced displacement lawsuits

Other lawsuits allege that the project has led to the relocation of local communities in some areas.

The relocations, which critics call evictions, are illegal because there is no Mexican law allowing tourist projects to remove residents from their homes. That means Fonatur is acting illegally when it asks people to move, according to Carla Escoffié, a lawyer representing several communities in Campeche.

The counterargument to this is that no one is being evicted, but rather given a choice to leave or stay. But Escoffié said officials don’t present leaving as a choice so much as an inevitability.

“They have utilized a discourse of participation and social inclusion when really there’s no such thing,” she said.

“They don’t make it up for discussion or consensus,” she added. “They say, ‘The project is going to happen. The project is going to cut through your neighborhoods, your community, your town, wherever you’re living. It’s going to cut through your house.’”

The $771 million section that would pass through Campeche had to be rerouted twice last August, in part because of the backlash over the fate of 300 families who would be displaced to make room for line construction.

Some of the communities Escoffié represents have been promised new houses, but the materials are chosen by the government, she said, and are of cheaper quality than those of the houses they left behind.

Many of the residents, knowing that they’re in a lose-lose situation, are too afraid to fight back against the government, she said.

“They’re the authorities,” Escoffié said. “Not an NGO, not an activist group. They’re the authorities and they come to communities to speak to them about a project of this magnitude and so people are afraid.”

Judicial obstacles ahead

Last year’s announcement classifying the Tren Maya as a “national security” priority frustrated advocacy groups involved in injunctions. Not only does it allow the project to more quickly and receive construction permits and other authorizations that have proven difficult to obtain so far, but it also gives the project stronger protections against requests for information. This makes it harder for groups to know what’s going on.

One of CEMDA’s injunctions already involves the violation of the right to access information about environmental impact records, which are key to understanding how the government is handling deforestation and loss of biodiversity.

“Access to the information that we have had has been a trickle,” Martínez said.

Last June, all the lawsuits against the Tren Maya project were consolidated under a single judge in Yucatán state, a decision that also surprised and angered many advocacy groups involved in the claims.

Martínez explained that, when dozens of cases are spread across different courts and states, there’s a high probability that at least a few of them will stick. It also ensures that each case receives sufficient attention.

“Imagine all the cases that this judge has to manage,” he said. “Will he have enough time and independence to move forward and protect human rights? It’s a lot of pressure.”

Plaintiffs in the lawsuits — many of them poor, rural and Indigenous — live hours or even days away from the Yucatán court and don’t always have the money to travel back and forth for hearings.

Anguas, of Indignation, said it really leaves them with their hands tied. “If I live in Chiapas and the hearing is in Yucatán,” — a 12-hour drive away — “how am I going to get there to exercise my rights? To present my evidence? Speak to the judge?”

Banner image: Mayan pryamids stick out from the forest in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in Campeche. Photo via Semarnat

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