- The construction of a hotel in Mexico’s Calakmul Biosphere Reserve took many residents by surprise when bulldozers started clearing the forest in January.
- The hotel is part of the Tren Maya project, a controversial railway line that will move tourists and cargo throughout the Yucatán Peninsula and southern Mexico.
- Residents said they weren’t consulted and that the location of the project is dangerously close to Maya ruins and important sources of freshwater.
MEXICO CITY — The sudden, unexpected construction of a hotel in the middle of a protected reserve in southern Mexico has surprised residents and left many conservationists scrambling to figure out what’s going to happen to one of the largest contiguous rainforests in Mesoamerica.
Developers broke ground on the project in Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, in the state of Campeche, in January, setting off a wave of concern among residents worried about deforestation and the preservation of ancient ruins. The hotel is part of the Tren Maya, a controversial railway line that will move tourists and cargo throughout the Yucatán Peninsula and southern Mexico.
“There were rumors that a hotel was going to be built and that there were people already doing measurements at a work site. But they were just that: just rumors,” said Carlos Mauricio Delgado Martínez, a member of the Ocelot Working Group, an NGO. “No one really knew what was going to happen.”
Delgado said he was carrying out fieldwork when he encountered construction workers clearing trees in the middle of the reserve, dangerously close to the Maya ruins of Calakmul and an important watering hole that sustains local wildlife. The hotel will reportedly sit on a 3-hectare (7.4-acre) plot and have around 150 rooms. While the building is technically within the reserve’s buffer zone, where some development is permitted, it also falls within the area that was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002.
Heavy machinery was moved onto the site overnight, residents told Mongabay. And personnel from the Secretary of National Defense (Sedena), the agency overseeing construction of the Tren Maya project, are posted around the perimeter, deterring people from coming close or taking photos.
“There are soldiers in the archaeological zone — the national guard,” said Enrique Rodríguez Córdova, a local tour guide. “None of us has dared demonstrate out of fear that they will do something to us.”
Sedena didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.
The 1,525-kilometer (948-mile) Tren Maya project will have seven lines that connect the states of Quintana Roo, Yucatán, Tabasco, Campeche and Chiapas. Six hotels are being built along different points of the route — a new feature of the project that was only announced last November.
At every step of the way, construction has been plagued by dozens of injunctions claiming the government is moving forward without following environmental regulations. The injunctions say the railway construction puts sensitive forest and cave ecosystems at risk and forcibly relocates local and Indigenous communities.
In 2018, nearly 100 communities were consulted about the Tren Maya in line with an international treaty that requires the government to meet with and receive approval from residents who could be affected by potential development projects. A hotel was never mentioned, residents and environmental groups told Mongabay. And the original Tren Maya construction plans didn’t include hotels.
There’s also no record of the hotel’s environmental impact statement with the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat). It hasn’t authorized any hotel construction or land-use change in Calakmul, according to a document request response.
“There is no record related to authorizations, provisional authorizations, permits, licenses, approvals, consents, passes or in general any type of act of authority that has as its objective the planning, approval, construction and/or execution of a hotel within … the protected area called Calakmul Biosphere Reserve,” the document request response said.
Semarnat officials didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The hotel’s construction may still be legal, however. In 2021, in response to the wave of injunctions trying to halt the project, the government announced that the Tren Maya project was a matter of national security — a claim that has been criticized by legal experts. It allowed Sedena to keep building without consulting local communities or undertaking environmental impact studies, among other standard regulations.
“It could be a work of public interest, of course. No one is denying that. But it has nothing to do with national security,” said Gustavo Alanís, executive director of the Mexican Center for Environmental Law. He added “it has nothing to do with sovereignty or a threat against the state, a constitutional order or defending the country.”
Residents, finding few viable avenues for dialogue with the government, have resorted to filing complaint forms online.
“There’s no way to talk with the government, at least that we’ve found,” said Ana Esther Ceceña, a researcher at the Autonomous National University of Mexico and director of the Latin American Geopolitical Observatory. “A lot of researchers from the area have been speaking out about water, the cenotes, the jungle — everything. We can’t find a way to get [the government] to listen to us.”
Residents are concerned that a large hotel will shake up the local economy, given that most lodging near the Maya ruins are small, family-owned operations. But they’re also worried that such a large hotel will have a ripple effect on the surrounding forest and archaeological sites even after construction is done.
“Once a hotel like that is built,” Ceceña said, “there can be a number of problems related to water, waste, how food is supplied. All of that is going to enter the core of the reserve.”
Banner image: Hotel construction in Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. Photo courtesy of Ana Esther Ceceña.
Related audio: Hear this reporter discuss the Tren Maya project on Mongabay’s podcast, listen here:
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