- The Múuch´ Xíinbal Assembly in Mexico has long led legal battles against attempts to impose a whole range of activities and projects on the Yucatán Peninsula, from genetically modified soybeans and pig farms, to wind farms and solar power plants.
- The start of their legal fight against the railway project known as the Tren Maya, in 2019, opened a new front in their legal proceedings. The Tren Maya is a multibillion-dollar tourist train line that will run 1,525 kilometers (948 miles) across the Yucatán Peninsula.
- As a result of the legal case they have brought against the project, a federal court ruled that a section of the project must be halted while deliberations are made. However, since March, that decision has since been reversed.
- In an interview with Mongabay, Pedro Uc Be, a member of the Múuch´ Xíinbal Assembly of Defenders of the Mayan Territory, explains how the community collective came together to fight against the Tren Maya railway project.
*UPDATE: On March 30, 2021, a press release announced that the Collegiate Court of Circuit in Work and Administration Matters had reversed the decision to suspend activity on Sections 1, 2, and 3 of the Tren Maya project, giving the go-ahead for the works to continue.
In a statement, the members of the Múuch´ Xíinbal Assembly said: “This [ruling] is yet further evidence of the authoritarian decisions of the Powers of the Union with which they seek to impose a project on the peninsula. Attempts to defend people’s rights also continue to be hindered by political interests over Mayan territories, which thereby leave human rights defenders in a state of high risk and vulnerability.”
Pedro Uc Be is a poet and intellectual, but he is also a campesino. He is a teacher, a cultural ambassador and a priest. But, above all, for Pedro, he is Mayan and a defender of his territory.
His story as a land defender is a long one. For Pedro, this story started after he left his hometown of Buctzotz, in the state of Yucatán, Mexico, to study his first degree in theology in a seminary.
“[It was] very conservative, [and] it distanced me from my own culture”, he recalls.
It was in the mid-1980s that Pedro encountered liberation theology.
“It questioned so many things that it changed my life. It is such a generous [outlook] that it liberates you from [the confines of] theology. That’s what happened to me,” he said. He soon left the church and went to study another degree, this time in education. From there, “my reflective, theological and philosophical orientation” has revolved around the question of Indigenous identity.
Today, Pedro Uc is the author of a number of books, the most recent of which is titled: ‘The Resistance of the Mayan Territory in the Face of Dispossession’ (Resistencia del territorio maya frente al despojo). He is also part of the National Indigenous Council (Consejo Nacional Indígena- CNI), and a member of the Múuch´ Xíinbal Assembly of Defenders of the Mayan Territory.
From the moment the Mexican President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, announced plans to build a train line that would run the length of the Yucatán Peninsula, members of the Múuch´ Xíinbal Assembly, as well as collectives representing other communities, were among the first to speak out. They warned of the environmental and social risks a mega-project, such as the Tren Maya, would pose on the Mayan people and the rainforest. Since 2019, the group has filed injunctions against the Tren Maya, a project which they claim would “split open the heart of the peninsula.”
In an interview with Mongabay Latam, Pedro Uc Be explained how the Assembly was born, how they have spent decades denouncing and fighting against mega-projects that governments of all political inclinations have sought to impose on the Yucatán Peninsula.
INTERVIEW WITH PEDRO UC BE
Mongabay: How did your journey as a land defender begin?
Pedro Uc Be: For a long time, my fellow colleague, Russell Pebá, and I traveled among Mayan communities of the Yucatán Peninsula to give talks about Indigenous identity, human rights and the values of the Mayan culture. We don’t go [to these places] to teach these things, as the values are already there; we go there to refresh their memories about the values that our communities held before the arrival of television, political parties, Christianity or other religions.
It’s in this context that we came face to face with a situation that was developing in the town of Bacalar, in the state of Quintana Roo, where a group of people were cutting down thousands of hectares of rainforest in order to sow a crop that was completely alien to us: soybeans. We then discovered that they were genetically modified soybeans.
There was a lot of concern over this issue. First, because of the impact of the deforestation that was taking place. The way we see it, when you cut down a rainforest, you’re destroying a house full of life: it’s a home to animals, it’s a home to birds, and it’s a home to medicinal plants. It’s home to pollinating insects, to bees and to bats. We don’t see these things as resources, as the Western [worldview] would. We see them as brothers, as in Mayan thought, we are not alien or foreign beings to nature; We are part of nature itself. And as we are part of nature, when they harm trees, plants, or insects, then they’re also harming us.
Mongabay: Was it at this moment that you decided to defend your land by using legal means?
Pedro Uc Be: In Bacalar, our male and female colleagues said to us: “Why don’t we turn to the law [and use it] to denounce this soybean plantation?” We then sought the help of a lawyer. There were stumbling blocks along the way. We also discovered that, unfortunately, many NGOs were not interested in defending communities.
Many of them do what they call “documentation”, but when the moment arrives to defend the community, they wash their hands of the situation; the ones who have always paid with their lives [to defend their community] have been us, not the NGOs.
One of the good things that happened is that, after we experienced a setback with an NGO, we found a lawyer who at the time was really committed. He told us: “I am only going to advise you. You are the ones who have to do all the work if you really want to make a stand, because this is your struggle.” That scared us, but we told him that we were going to do it.
That’s what we were doing when the Agreement for the Sustainability of the Yucatán Peninsula (Acuerdo por la Sustentabilidad de la Península de Yucatán – ASPY) was announced and signed between the three governments of the peninsula: the governments of the states of Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo. This took place in 2016, as part of the COP13 event that was held in Cancún. They talked about it as though it were the solution to all the world’s problems.
When we read the document outlining the ASPY, we realized that it was just a way of packaging up the natural resources of the peninsula, in order to hand them over to corporations. We filed an injunction against the ASPY. We came up against judges, against the full bureaucracy of the federal justice system, and, after a lot of experiences and lessons along the way, we won the case.
Mongabay: Is that how the Múuch´ Xíinbal Assembly of Defenders of the Mayan Territory emerged?
Pedro Uc Be: After we won the case against the ASPY, one of our colleagues invited Russell and I to his house, where he was holding a meeting with his group, to talk about the issues of identity and territory. After this conversation, he held a livestream on Facebook. After the talk we started to receive a load of questions and comments. The comments were like; ‘Where can we find you guys?’; ‘In my community they’re buying 2,000 hectares [4,942 acres] of land’; ‘In my community, they’re saying that a company wants to come and sow lime trees and stevia plants.’ The responses surprised us.
We decided to hold a meeting on January 13, 2018 in Mérida [the capital of Yucatán state]; people from 25 communities from across the peninsula came. It was there that we founded the Múuch´ Xíinbal Assembly of Defenders of the Mayan Territory.
At that very same event, we agreed upon our guiding principle: “The land cannot be sold or leased.” Those who wanted to participate in the assembly could not sell or rent out their land. Our second principle is to say no to political parties, because they aren’t the solution, they are the problem. We also agreed not to accept funding from foundations or international funding agencies.
Mongabay: Mega-projects on the Yucatán Peninsula have shown no signs of stopping. Now, one of the current disputes some Indigenous groups have is against the Tren Maya project.
Pedro Uc Be: After the victory against the ASPY, our celebrations didn’t last long. A wave of mega-projects started appearing: wind farms, solar power plants, pig farms, property developers with their so-called green tourism plans, which is actually a form of high-impact form of tourism. And now, the famous Tren Maya project.
When López Obrador announced the Tren Maya project, shortly before he took office, we asked ourselves: “Who even asked him for a train line?”; “To whom did he ask permission to pierce the heart of the peninsula [with this project]?” It’s a project that will rip through the heart of the peninsula, just so that a train can pass through.
We are very clear in our mind that the train line is an outdated project from the past. It’s not even one of his [López Obrador’s] projects, it’s an idea that Vicente Fox [President of Mexico between 2000 and 2006] supported, as part of what was then called the Puebla Panama Plan.
From the beginning we have been saying that the train line is not for us. Because if it were intended for the Indigenous peoples [of the region], how very strange that they seem to have not consulted Indigenous people about it at first!
Mongabay: Before work started on the project, you raised the alarm about the environmental and social risks this mega-project posed. Now that there is already heavy machinery working in the area, would you say that your warnings about the risks fell on deaf ears?
Pedro Uc Be: Yes, absolutely. Most people don’t even seem to understand that this isn’t just about a train line; It is a project of territorial reorganization that seeks to turn the peninsula into an industrial corridor. Or what they now call “sustainable cities” or “growth poles.”
We have spoken out against it on a number of occasions and in a number of places. We have warned online and on social media, that a wave of destruction is coming, that it could sound the death knell for Mayan culture, because if any group is going to be most adversely affected [by the project], it is the Mayan community and its culture.
A huge number of people from all over the place are going to come to the region and the disruption this will bring to our culture will mean that our culture is diluted and we will lose what we still have left.
However, we are not doing this out of selfishness, we accept everyone, as long as there is a process of intercultural exchange in order to be able to understand and respect each other. But in this case, respect for Mayan culture is totally absent. What we’re talking about here is an invasion and a violation of our fundamental rights to our way of life and our own lives. That’s how we see it.
Mongabay: A federal court recently nullified the Environmental Impact Assessment of the construction works on Sections 1, 2, and 3 of the Tren Maya project. Furthermore, it called for work to be halted while the decision on whether or not to grant the request for an injunction against the project is made. However, the judge’s ruling has been ignored and works continue on the project.
Pedro Uc Be: The historic level of deceit which we are facing hurts us deeply. People talk about the rule of law and the separation of powers: Well, here we don’t have the rule and much less the law. There is no separation and there are no powers. The whole thing is a farce.
With the case against the Tren Maya project, we are suing them for the destruction of what we call cultural heritage, among other things. [The ruling of] the court has vindicated us.
We are upset and surprised, but we are not going to stop doing what we do and what we need to do just because of this [ruling]. We have a duty to carry on talking about this, to spread the word about the injustice that is taking place. We have resorted to every [institutional] level, from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), to the United Nations, but there has been no response.
Mongabay: President López Obrador has said that the construction will continue. What are your thoughts?
Pedro Uc Be: Before the pandemic, a number of organizations came together in Mérida for a meeting on March 7, 2019. One of the lawyers in attendance said to us: “Have you not thought that the project is still going to go ahead? Because we are not just talking about any old project; it’s the president’s flagship project. That means it’s going to happen.”
We told him: “Yes [we have thought that]. But it’s not about winning. Of course, if we win, that’s great. It’s about showing that we are not willing to agree with something that will kill us. We are not going to consent to our own death. We are going to fight.”
So, what will we win? The ability to say no to this. That is also a type of victory. Whether the train line stops or not, our victory will be in that we did not consent to a great injustice against us.
López Obrador can’t discredit us, because we are not receiving money from anybody.
Mongabay: Over the course of your struggle, have you ever felt that you are fighting alone against the tide?
Pedro Uc Be: We have never been fighting alone. All across the world, there are men and women whose hearts are made out of maize, like ours. Of course, the institutions are against us, but we also know that the institutions do not represent the full force of humanity.
Our greatest hope lies with the people who understand our proposals, our path forward, our pain. In many parts of the country, and in other countries too, there are people who are following us and our struggle. This has been an enormous help for us. Perhaps we aren’t strong enough to bring this project to a halt, but I believe that there is still great hope.
We feel like a lot of people are with us in our struggle. An example of this was when I received death threats [in December 2019]. A great number of social groups looked after me, gave me shelter, and protected me. That’s why, to this day, I carry on speaking out, because of them. Not the federal government, whose safeguarding mechanisms for defenders are a joke.
Mongabay: Ever since the announcement of the change of route of Section 5 of the project, which stretches from Cancún to Tulum, more and more voices have spoken out, warning against the environmental risks of the project. A campaign called #SaveMeFromTheTrain (#SelvaMeDelTren) has even been launched. What do you make of this campaign?
Pedro Uc Be: When it comes to a project as big as this one, it’s normal that a variety of voices have to speak out. Something important that can be seen in this campaign is that it proves that we have been right all along, even if they are not saying it quite like we do. We have been very clear, since the beginning, about the direction we are going in and we have been true to that. Other people have other motivations, but I think that it is important what they have highlighted: the impact on the cenotes (natural sinkholes with groundwater pools) and on the water supply.
I think that all of the voices that come together to speak out against this project are important, as long as they are well-informed and properly substantiated in favor of the environment. What people with a Western worldview call the environment, we call our territory, our community.
In a talk that I gave a few days ago, there were some videos that illustrated the impact that the heavy machinery is having on the cenotes: a scuba diver was in the cenote and you could hear the rattling of the machinery coming from above. One has to say that the government is so irresponsible for allowing these sorts of things to happen. What if, because of these poorly executed works – that are rushed just so that the government can say “great works are happening in the Fourth Transformation [flagship policy of López Obrador’s government]” – the ground collapses on the train’s maiden voyage and there is an accident.
Of course, we’d see the same impunity that we already saw with the collapse of Line 12 of the metro system [in May 2021]. We don’t want something like that to happen again, but it seems like the government doesn’t understand. And it’s not just the government, but the people who cheer them on, too.
Mongabay: One of the arguments used by López Obrador in order to defend the Tren Maya project is that the peninsula is an area that was left-behind, and it is necessary to create sources of employment. What do you think of this argument?
Pedro Uc Be: Something that confuses a lot of people are half-truths. The problem is that most people are not sufficiently well educated to understand where the truth stops and the lies begin, and when the truth is used to justify a crime.
It’s true that the Yucatán Peninsula lags behind in some respects, like any other region of the country. But if it’s poverty that we’re talking about, then we ought to ask ourselves: “What’s going on in the urban peripheries? On the peripheries of the city of Mérida and other big cities?” There are always swathes not just of poverty, but of utter destitution.
On the Yucatán Peninsula, we’re talking about relative poverty. People live in communities where they have their own houses, and they don’t pay rent. In the cities, people who live on the poverty line don’t have their own home, and they pay rent. In the communities on the peninsula, people have maize and they eat what they sow. And they eat healthily. In the city, if you don’t have a job, you don’t eat – you might even have to go out and steal to survive.
Now, who are really going to enjoy the main benefits of the train line? Two years ago, they began construction on the line and they told us that it would improve our supply of drinking water, improve our access to electricity, our employment opportunities, our health, our housing etc. Everything was going to improve. They even put a list of all the positives that the train was going to bring on the ballot paper of the referendum on the project. Two years on, and not a single community has seen any benefits. But how much have the companies involved in the construction of the train line earned? Who is really benefiting from it?
You can’t honestly say that the local communities are going to benefit from this project. There’s no truth in it. What will happen is that the project will be the end of us.
Mongabay: What are the next steps in your struggle?
Pedro Uc Be: One thing that we would like to do – but is a tough path to follow – is for Indigenous peoples to represent and defend themselves in court. Part of our misfortune is that we have had many ‘saviors’ [Christian missionaries]. Our saviors who turn up, end up crucifying us. If we hadn’t had saviors coming to us for the last 500 years, who supposedly brought us the Bible in order to save us, I think we’d be in a better position.
The same phenomenon has persisted: we have had many legal “saviors”, many economic “saviors”, social “saviors”. As communities we need to learn that the power to defend ourselves lies in our own hands, that it’s up to us. To quote the words of Paulo Freire: “Nobody liberates nobody, nobody liberates themselves alone: human beings liberate themselves in communion.” That is part of the work that we do as the Múuch´ Xíinbal Assembly, it’s what we’re dedicated to.
Mongabay: You said that this project would rip through the heart of the peninsula. What do you mean by this statement?
Pedro Uc Be: The vitality of a person or a living being is in its heart. To split open its heart is to condemn it to death. I say it like that as, if you disrupt the water supplies of the cenotes, who can escape unscathed? Polluting the water in the cenotes, destroying the rainforest, leaving the area without animals. That’s something that already puts Mayan culture in great danger.
Banner image: Pedro Uc is a poet, campesino and defender of his territory. Photo taken from his Facebook page.