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Mexico groups say Maya Train construction has caused significant deforestation

  • An analysis of satellite images by the NGO CartoCrítica shows that 10,831 hectares (26,764 acres) are currently being used for the Maya Train project, with 61% of the area deforested.
  • The organization’s survey also reveals that in 87% of the deforested lands, clearing or logging was carried out without a change of land use approval, as required by environmental legislation.
  • Mexico’s Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) has issued a statement saying the figures presented contain “inconsistencies.” But the organizations that carried out the analysis point out that their deforestation data is supported by satellite evidence.

Back in December 2018, Andrés Manuel López Obrador had been Mexico’s president for only a few days when he promised the public that not a single tree would be cut down as part of the upcoming Maya Train works. Yet, five years later, satellite images show that at least 6,659 hectares (16,455 acres) have been deforested to make way for the so-called Tren Maya, one of the current government’s flagship projects, which is being built in the Yucatán Peninsula, in southern Mexico.

An analysis of satellite images carried out by CartoCrítica shows that by June 2023 there were 10,831 hectares (26,764 acres) being used in some way for the Maya Train, with 61% of that area deforested.

Tren Maya
Military personnel building a train station in section 7, in Xpujil, Campeche. Image courtesy of Isabel Mateos.

This means that an area of 6,659 hectares, which in 2018 was covered by forest, now looks strikingly bare. Forests were replaced by railroad tracks, stations, bus stops, electrification areas, machinery yards, access roads and areas for storing materials.

This deforested area is almost 10 times the size of the Chapultepec Forest in Mexico City, and almost 20 times the size of Central Park in New York City.

In its analysis, which was published Aug. 2, CartoCrítica also highlights that 87% of the deforested area (5,769 hectares or 14,255 acres) was cleared or cut down in violation of environmental legislation. The work was carried out without a mandatory Change of Use of Forest Land (CUSTF) approval granted by Mexico’s Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT).

Just hours after CartoCrítica, the Mexican Center for Environmental Law (CEMDA), the Mexican Civil Council for Sustainable Forestry (CCMSS) and the Heinrich Böll Foundation released the Maya Train mapping tool at a press conference, SEMARNAT issued a statement claiming there were “inconsistencies” in the data presented by the organizations.

Maya Forest is 6,000 hectares smaller

As part of the investigation into how the Maya Train is affecting the Yucatán Peninsula’s forest cover, CartoCrítica compared satellite images from November 2018 with May and June 2023. As a benchmark, they also used data from the Mexican Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity on land cover that existed before the train works began. The full methodology is available within the mapping tool.

“We did not take into account land speculation (which is happening in the surrounding area because of the project) or the hotel infrastructure that is being built,” explained Manuel Llano, director of CartoCrítica, during the press conference.

An analysis of satellite images showed that, of the area deforested for the Maya Train works, 4,139 hectares (10,228 acres) were lowland and medium rainforest; 2,246 hectares (5,550 acres) were medium deciduous forest; 70 hectares (173 acres) were mangrove and péten (the name given in the Yucatán Peninsula to islands of arboreal vegetation found in flood zones); and 11.4 hectares (28 acres) were medium and high evergreen forest.

The satellite images also identified that, to date, sections 4 and 6 have the largest areas of deforestation. In section 4, which runs from Izamal to Cancún, 1,640 hectares (4,053 acres) have been cleared, while the construction of section 6, from Tulum to Chetumal, has led to the loss of 1,308 hectares (3,232 acres) of forest cover.

During the press conference, Sergio Madrid, a member of the CCMSS, said the National Forest Inventory stated that,in the Yucatán Peninsula, 1 hectare (2.5 acres) can hold an average of 900 trees. If this figure is correct, around 6 million trees have been cut down in the region as part of the Maya Train works.

In response to a request for information made in February 2023, Mexico’s National Fund for Tourism Development (FONATUR) — the agency responsible for the Maya Train project — admitted that 3.4 million trees had been felled or removed across several sections as a result of the works, with sections 4 and 5 experiencing the most deforestation.

The Sélvame del Tren group has calculated that at least 10 million trees have been cut down or removed due to the construction of the Maya Train.

One of the areas where the Maya Train is being built. Image @CCMSSAC.

Felling trees, flouting the law

In order for a person, company or federal, state or municipal government institution to clear or log a piece of land, the General Law of Sustainable Forest Development requires that a request for approval for a CUSTF be submitted to SEMARNAT.

SEMARNAT can only approve a CUSTF in exceptional cases. At the press conference, Viridiana Maldonado, CEMDA’s lawyer, pointed out that “the exception only applies when these changes to land use do not compromise biodiversity or cause soil erosion, deterioration in water quality or ecosystem carbon storage capacity.”

By analyzing the 18 Maya Train CUSTF approvals granted by SEMARNAT, the organizations found that 16 of them were authorized during 2023 — after the work had already begun and the land had already been cleared.

Tren Maya_Cartocrítica
The zones in red show some of the areas where logging was carried out without land use change approval. Approved areas are shown in yellow. Image by CartoCrítica.

“Forestry policy prohibits the type of practice that FONATUR is engaging in, such as land clearing and seeking approval afterward,” Maldonado pointed out. In fact, the General Law of Sustainable Forestry Development states that no change in land use can be granted for the next 20 years in areas where logging or clearing has been done without approval. “SEMARNAT would have to deny those requests,” said Maldonado.

Through its analyses, CartoCrítica found that in the 6,659 hectares cleared or felled for Train Maya, 87% of forest cover was removed without a CUSTF in place.

“FONATUR does have some land use change approvals, but not enough. … The approvals are too few, incomplete and too late,” said Llano of CartoCrítica. For more than five years, the NGO has been promoting public access to georeferenced socioenvironmental information in an effort to protect biological and cultural diversity.

Deforestation to extract materials used in the construction of the Maya Train. Image courtesy of Robin Canul.

In its statement, SEMARNAT stated that all provisional approvals granted are still valid under the decree of November 2021, when López Obrador declared all federal government works and projects, including the Maya Train, to be of public interest and of national security.

On May 18, 2023, Mexico’s Supreme Court of Justice ruled that the decree made at the end of 2021 was unconstitutional. Four hours later, López Obrador published a new decree, which once again identified the works relating to the Maya Train and to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec trade corridor as national security issues.

“The provisional approvals granted prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling have not been revoked, as stipulated in the ruling. Therefore, the Maya Train works will continue in line with the law,” said SEMARNAT in its statement.

In a press release dated Thursday, Aug. 3, the environmental organizations stressed that provisional approvals did not exist in environmental law, and that legal officials had also made it clear that they could not substitute the procedures provided for in the law: the CUSTF and the Environmental Impact Assessment.

The map shows the different sections of the Maya Train project. Image courtesy of FONATUR’s website.

Within the 18 approvals granted for the Maya Train works, Madrid said that there were “no risk assessments, no reviews into the irreversible damage. It is not only a violation of what the laws of this country require, but also a grave matter of not having evidence of what this approval entails.”

Llano also pointed out that for sections 6 and 7 (from Bacalar to Escárcega) there is still no registered approval for land use change. “Even so, deforestation has already taken place.”

The law states that Mexico’s Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA) should determine whether a change of land use has violated the law and can impose warnings and fines or suspend works. “Several complaints have been filed by the public, and PROFEPA has remained silent,” said Maldonado.

Mongabay Latam contacted PROFEPA to request a comment, but no response had been received by the time of this article’s publication.

Works carried out for the Maya Train, in the state of Campeche. Image by Robin Canul.

CEMDA’s lawyer was keen to reiterate that it is a crime under the Federal Penal Code to carry out land clearing or logging without a land use change approval. The Specialized Unit for Environmental Crimes within the Attorney General’s Office is responsible for determining whether a crime has taken place, and the penalty for such activity can be up to nine years in prison.

But the deforestation carried out for the Maya Train works “goes beyond the law.” Sergio Madrid said the loss of forest cover also meant “the fragmentation of the forest, the destruction of habitat for hundreds of species of flora and fauna, the contamination of aquifers, the destruction of caves, the filling of wetlands, the interruption of natural water flows and the destruction of the livelihoods of Indigenous communities.”

Tren Maya
Road signs about the construction of section 7 in Xpujil. Image courtesy of Isabel Mateos.

Disregard of a court order

CEMDA’s lawyers have been vocal about land use changes without approval from SEMARNAT since October 2021, when they presented the results of an overflight along the train line to the First District Court in Yucatán. At that time, they identified at least 144 hectares (356 acres) of Maya Forest that had been cleared.

But it was not until May 2023 when the First District Court in Yucatán ordered FONATUR to suspend any logging or clearing that did not have approval to land use changes in sections 3 (Calkiní-Izamal), 4 (Izamal-Cancún), 5 north (Cancún–Playa del Carmen) and 6.

In making this decision, the court stated that “provisional approvals issued based on the Agreement for the execution of the construction works for the railroad do not replace the approvals [of land use changes] that involve a technical and scientific study prior to the commencement of works. By not having these approvals in place, the surrounding ecosystem will be at risk, because it would allow works to begin without knowledge of potential repercussions and damage, on the understanding that environmental damage is often irreparable.”

One of the Maya Forest areas where section 5 of the Maya Train is being built. Image @CCMSSAC.

According to the organization’s report, in sections 3, 4, 5 north and 6 in June 2023 alone, some 67.4 hectares (167 acres) were felled or removed without approval to change land use. “FONATUR and those constructing the train line in these sections are allegedly in breach, and in contempt, of the law,” said Llano.

Sections 5 north, 6 and 7 are being built by the Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA).

Lawyer Maldonado also claimed that “land clearing activities are being carried out in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve.”

Madrid explained that the Yucatán Peninsula is home to the Maya Forest, the second-most-important tropical forest in the Americas after the Amazon. This territory is also home to the largest underwater cave system in the world. This natural heritage is at risk due to the current “extreme deforestation taking place in the Yucatán Peninsula.”

Every year, he said, between 40,000 and 90,000 hectares (98,842 and 222,395 acres) are felled in the Yucatán Peninsula. This “dynamic process of deforestation” is being generated by the energy, tourism, mining, real estate and agro-industrial initiatives that have been promoted in the region for some 20 years. Madrid warned that this process will intensify with the Maya Train, which “will interconnect and bolster these projects.”

Tren Maya
Construction of a hotel in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. Image courtesy of Ana Esther Ceceña.

SEMARNAT gives its side of the story

A statement released by SEMARNAT shortly after the mapping tool was released reads: “The study claims that a total of 6,659 hectares is susceptible to CUSTF. However, the total registered with SEMARNAT in the final and provisional authorizations is 3,167.29 hectares [7,826.5 acres].”

The agency stated that these 3,167.29 hectares represent “the total number of hectares officially identified” as undergoing land use change, and that all of them have definitive or provisional approval.

SEMARNAT also claimed that the map developed by CartoCrítica included “storage areas for materials that are not necessarily part of the Maya Train project and that are owned by private parties offering services to several clients.”

In response, CartoCrítica, CEMDA and the Heinrich Böll Foundation issued a joint statement pointing out that their claim that 6,659 hectares have been deforested by the Maya Train works was supported by satellite evidence. “The numbers presented are backed up, meter by meter, by the satellite images used for their calculations.”

Tren Maya
Construction of a Maya Train station, in the municipality of Xpujil, Campeche. Image courtesy of Isabel Mateos.

SEMARNAT’s statement said the study carried out by CartoCrítica included only 18 “definitive approvals” that totaled 1,727.70 hectares (4,269 acres), and not 889.9 hectares (2,199 acres) as the organizations claimed.

In response to this, the organizations have said that, according to the information to which they have had access, FONATUR requested 28 CUSTFs, two of which were rejected, eight of which are under evaluation, and 18 have been approved.

The organizations went on to say that according to the corresponding resolutions, the 18 CUSTF approvals covered 1,726.31 hectares (4,266 acres). However, due to the fact that not all information had been made public, it was only possible to georeference the location of 76% of these approvals (1,314.42 hectares). “It was not possible to map an area of 412.32 hectares (1,019 acres), which corresponds exclusively to a part of section 5.”

One of the areas where section 5 of the Maya Train is being built. Image courtesy of Neify Pat/Múuch’ Xíinbal.

From an analysis of the 1,314.42 hectares (3,248 acres) with land use change approval that could be plotted, “it was concluded that, within the approved area, 889.9 hectares have been deforested. … This means that, as of June 2023, parts of the approved areas had not been cleared.”

The organizations said this showed that “CUSTFs have been issued that were not used and, at the same time, other areas without CUSTFs have also been deforested.”

The organizations also claimed that many documents relating to the Maya Train had not been made public, given that the federal government had deemed the project a matter of national security.

Banner image: Work on the Maya Train in section 6, in Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Quintana Roo. Image by Thelma Gómez Durán.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on Aug. 4, 2023.

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: Hear Mongabay reporter Max Radwin describe the Tren Maya project in context with Mexico’s overall infrastructure initiatives, listen here:

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