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In Sonora, Mexico, railway project flouts public consultation, threatening fragile ecosystems

sonora train

Image by Dawn Marie Paley.

  • Construction of an additional freight railway linking the Sonoran town of Imurís to the border city of Nogales is already underway in northwestern Mexico by the Army, despite no public information about its environmental licensing.
  • Residents of the town of Imurís, where the tracks would cross through about 200 properties, learnt about the project from a radio show; but despite the lack of public consultation, authorities tell locals opposing the tracks that there’s nothing to be done.
  • According to the Army, the project needs to be completed by the time President Andrés Manuel López Obrador leaves office in 2024.
  • The project would affect the Cocóspera River Valley, a key water source for local communities and wildlife, and an important north-south migration corridor for threatened species like jaguars and ocelots.

SONORA, Mexico — A vital oasis in Mexico’s arid northwest, the Cocóspera River brings to life a ribbon of mossy green forest in the heart of the Sonoran Desert. Further down, it feeds into rust-colored cliffs dotted with saguaro cacti, filling a reservoir at the Comaquito Dam. From there, it flows toward the town of Imurís, then travels southwest through a series of canals, carrying a vital water supply of water to the tens of thousands of people living downstream.

Carlos Kempton Torres is a farmer whose family has relied on the Cocóspera’s water for generations. Earlier this year, he found out about the Sonora state government’s plan to build a new rail line for cargo trains that would increase the capacity of the current railway between Guaymas, a city in southern Sonora, and Nogales, on U.S.-Mexico border, about 69 kilometers (43 miles) north of Imurís.

river Mexico
The Cocóspera River is a critical water resource for the Sonoran Desert and for thousands of people, but now its valley is threatened by a new railway project. Image by Dawn Marie Paley.

The project that would run through the outskirts of Imurís would also cut through Kempton Torres’ 20-hectare (49-acre) family farm, as well as through the Cocóspera River Valley, a protected area. If built, the tracks would cut off Kempton Torres’ house and water well from the rest of his property. Clearing and building for the rail line are well underway upstream from Imurís, and have not yet reached the municipality.

But Kempton Torres says he’s more worried about the possible threat to the river.

“Along this section, wherever you drill a well, there’s water, drinkable water,” he says, pointing toward a green field. “Without water, we’re nothing.”

Government representatives promised Kempton Torres that if tracks are built, the damage will be remediated. But he’s skeptical: he was told the same before two natural gas lines were built across his property. “They cut down all the trees and everything in their path,” he says. To this day, the right of way over the gas lines is barren.

Residents of Imurís, with a population of just over 12,000, first learned about the project in early February, when a local radio station in Nogales discussed it on air. Locals contacted the radio station to ask for more information, and were sent a file with a map that they opened on Google Earth. The map showed a yellow line splitting off from the existing tracks that connect the Pacific port of Guaymas to Nogales, marked in red. The new tracks would cut through Imurís, running parallel to the town’s canal system, following the Cocóspera River to the Comaquito Dam, cutting through El Aribabi Conservation Ranch before veering north and reconnecting with the original tracks. Locals began to circulate the file, and some started to panic: according to that map, the tracks would cut through nearly 200 homes.

Locals received on request a Google map file showing the extension of the project, after hearing on the radio about the proposed railway. 

A week later, the Sonora government called a meeting about the new railway at the office of the town’s ejido, the communal landowners’ association.

“When we [the Army] develop or oversee a project, we seek the best options so that it can be completed,” Ignacio Casanova, a Mexican Army major, told the crowd. He added the tracks had to be completed quickly, before President Andrés Manuel López Obrador leaves office next year.

“We have been working on this project for some time now. We started near Nogales, but we weren’t sure we could finish in the time we’ve got, which led us to seek lines along the same route that guarantee the best economic and scheduling outcomes,” Casanova said. “We’re told ‘do this,’ and it has to be done.”

The locals gathered in the hall erupted in discontent, demanding to see the project proposal.

Map courtesy of the Wildlands Network.

Following that meeting, Sonora Governor Alfonso Durazo Montaño, a member of the ruling Morena Party, said the map showing the first line was false. But María Betania Martínez Ríos, an Imurís city councilor, says she received the very same file last year from officials in the state government.

“A project involving a train line arrived at my office, and it came from the state government,” she says in an interview with Mongabay. The unfamiliar file extension meant she couldn’t open it on her computer. “I tried to open it on my cell phone, and when I finally did, I saw that it crossed right through Imurís.” She was later invited to a video meeting held by the government of Sonora about the project, which she attended, but says she understood little of the highly technical discussion.

Martínez Ríos says she was later shown printed images of a modified train line. It still cut through the town. Since then she hasn’t received any further information about the project, she says, or about municipal-level permitting, which her office handles.

Information on the project continues to be scarce. A copy of a 91.8 million pesos contract (about $4.5 million at the time of signing) between the Mexican Army and Key Capital, a private Mexico City-based logistics consulting firm, was obtained earlier this year by the Mexican environmental group Defensa Ambiental Noroeste. In it, the company agrees to prepare a detailed study of the proposed railway by January of 2023. The Army refused Mongabay’s request for further information, saying the project is “in the process of being consolidated.”

“There ought to be an executive project, which should be approved before the work starts, but we don’t have it,” said Alejandra Castro Valencia, sub-secretary of urban development at the Sonora state government’s Infrastructure and Urban Development Secretariat (SIDUR).

The Kempton Torres family is worried that if built, the tracks would cut off their house and water well from the rest of their property and damage the river ecosystem. Image by Dawn Marie Paley.

Travel expense reports filed online by members of SIDUR over the past 12 months include black-and-white images of civil servants in pickup trucks with soldiers, and reveal that as of May of this year, construction of the railway line had already begun. During a visit to the site in late September, Mongabay saw heavy machinery clearing the right of way and filling in raised roadbeds on about 20 km (12 mi) of a rural road northeast of Imurís. To date, there’s no public information available as to whether the project has undergone an environmental assessment. A spokesperson for the federal government’s Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) said she lacked the information to respond to Mongabay’s inquiry on that issue.

The fight for life, water and forest

Three Imurís residents and Mongabay drove the dusty desert road into the small ranching town of Miguel Hidalgo, about 45 km (28 mi) southeast of Nogales. While approaching the town center, two open-top Humvees filled with soldiers came racing toward us before speeding away. The few streets in town, which locals call San Lázaro, are now home to mobile trailers serving as work camps. According to Castro at SIDUR, the Army built a new operations center in the area to oversee the project.

The Imurís locals say they think the track construction began in Miguel Hidalgo, as the town made up of sparsely populated ranches would be the least likely to oppose the tracks. No tracks have been laid yet; the most advanced works include several kilometers of raised roadbeds, which stretch south toward Imurís. Further ahead, specialized machinery is drilling foundations for what are likely to be bridges across rivers and streams that flow just a few months a year. Clearing for the right of way continues on around 20 km in total.

Fallen trees litter the road going parallel to the right of way through the remote ranches of Miguel Hidalgo. The clearing almost reaches a place called San Antonio, where there used to be a checkpoint run by Mexico’s National Customs Agency (ANAM). From there, the tracks are slated to push southwest toward Imurís and El Aribabi Conservation Ranch, a 4,000-hectare (10,000-acre) nature reserve along the Cocóspera River.

Together with his children, Carlos Robles Elías has shifted El Aribabi away from cattle toward certification as a private natural protected area, to preserve fragile habitats ranging from lowland Sonoran Desert scrub and mezquite grasslands to oak savannas and highland pine-oak forests.

Carlos Robles Elías, who has turned El Aribabi Conservation Ranch into a biodiversity oasis, fears that habitats will be significantly affected by the new tracks. Image by Dawn Marie Paley.

Wetlands on the ranch mean water flows downstream year-round through the Cocóspera River, providing habitat for protected and threatened species including ocelots and jaguars, rattlesnakes, alligator lizards, tortoises, endemic fish, and hawks, mallards, eagles and more.

Over the years, Robles Elías has sought to prevent and mitigate attempts by the federal and state governments to pave and put pipelines through his land. When a highway was planned to cross sensitive habitats on his land, he managed to deter state and federal officials from going ahead. But Robles Elías says the proposed railway is the biggest threat the area has ever faced.

He says he fears the freight trains that will use the tracks will contaminate all local ecosystems. “Sooner or later, one of the containers, one of the tanks [transported by cargo train] is going to leak, and contaminate the water,” says Robles Elías, who has expressed his concerns at public meetings, but says the government isn’t listening. He also says the tracks would affect local wildlife.

The Comaquito Dam reservoir, supplied by the Cocóspera River. Image by Dawn Marie Paley.

Conservationists share his concern. “On the one hand is the availability of water for the people and for nature,” says Mirna Manteca, co-director of the Northwest Mexico Program at the Wildlands Network, a conservation NGO. “But it’s not just about water, it’s also about the riparian habitat, which is an oasis for fauna in this region. We’re in a desert, these are arid ecosystems, and the entire structure of the riparian forests is critical for so many species.”

According to Manteca, the Cocóspera River helps jaguars and other animals navigate their habitat. “The impact doesn’t end when the project is built,” she says.“[It] stays in the form of the fragmentation and degradation of the natural habitat in this area, which is so important to so many species.”

Robles Elías and Imurís locals have proposed an alternative line that doesn’t follow the river or cut through their town. But, they say, it’s hard to mobilize people with so little information available.

In the meantime, construction continues undisturbed. “They’ve already marked the area where the tracks will go through my cousin’s property, from the main entrance right up to the lodge where we met,” Robles Elías wrote in an email to Mongabay in early October. “They’re telling me there IS NO SOLUTION, and there’s no turning back.”

Banner image: Tracks are planned to be build between Guaymas, a city in southern Sonora, and Nogales, on U.S.-Mexico border, about 69 kilometers (43 miles) north of Imurís, despite overlapping households and endangering ecosystems. Image by Dawn Marie Paley.

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation about another controversial-for-conservation train project in Mexico, the Tren Maya, listen here:

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