Is Mexico’s ‘Mayan Train’ a Boondoggle?

Is Mexico’s ‘Mayan Train’ a Boondoggle?

Is Mexico’s ‘Mayan Train’ a Boondoggle?

Opponents warn that it will not only devastate the Yucatán’s ecosystem but also trigger unsustainable development and further marginalize local communities.


Shortly after he was sworn in as Mexico’s new president, in late 2018, Andrés Manuel López Obrador received a traditional cleansing during an Indigenous ceremony, telling crowds that Indigenous communities would have priority in social programs (about 21 percent of Mexico’s population self-identifies as Indigenous). In keeping with that promise, Mexico’s government is planning to build a “Mayan Train,” running 900 miles through southeastern Mexico and promoting Indigenous history and culture to tourists. The problem is that it’s creating divisions among the very Mayan communities it aims to serve, igniting a fierce debate over who gets to speak for Indigenous people, who have historically been silenced and sidelined.

The most contested part of the train’s proposed route runs through one of the most important rain forests in the Americas, after the Amazon: the Mayan forest’s Calakmul biosphere reserve. Located on the border with Guatemala, the nearly 3,000-square-mile reserve of largely intact jungle is a biodiversity hot spot and home to an archeological jewel: the ancient Mayan city of Calakmul. The train, a signature project of López Obrador, who hails from the underdeveloped south of the country and who’s fashioned himself as an advocate of the poor throughout his political career, is intended to shuttle wealthy vacationers from beach resorts in Cancún and Tulum down to the tropical jungle to “spread the wealth” to a forgotten corner of the region. 

“The problem is that here in Calakmul,” Ernesto Martínez, 25, told us on an unseasonably hot February afternoon, “there’s no water.” Beyond the biosphere, the Calakmul municipality is also home to some 28,000 people belonging to various Indigenous groups such as the Maya, Tzeltal, and Chol. For over a decade, they’ve petitioned successive governments for a solution to climate-change-driven drought. “And now they want to bring 8,000 tourists a day here?” Martínez asked incredulously, trying not to laugh.

The government argues that development will bring better services, including a new aqueduct to remedy worsening drought. To many in Calakmul, this is a compelling reason to support the train.

But many Indigenous groups, and their conservationist and academic allies, call the train “an act of war” and López Obrador’s bid to ingratiate himself to Indigenous communities “a mockery.” They warn that the train will not only devastate southern Mexico’s ecosystem but also trigger unsustainable development and further marginalize the communities living there. These critics—the most prominent of which are the Zapatistas, who led an armed insurrection against the federal government in 1994—say the project will repeat the mistakes of development in Cancún and Tulum and bring cartel violence, corruption, and mass development to the Mayan forest. The Zapatistas have gone so far as to say they’ll defend the land with their lives.

Martínez is going for a different approach. In January, he was the first to sign an injunction calling for work on the train to be blocked. Now he and a minority are up against not only the government but also members of their own community, many of whom resent attempts to block the Mayan Train, which they believe will help develop this marginalized and remote corner of the country.

It should be no surprise that the Covid-19 pandemic has affected the debate, as it has almost everything else in the world. In April, with cases of the new coronavirus surging in Mexico, the Mayan Train project became the focus of a debate over government spending. Opposition parties called for the train, along with several other signature projects of the administration, to be scrapped, with the funds reassigned to deal with the pandemic and the deep recession it is predicted to bring to Mexico. López Obrador refused, arguing that the Mayan Train would bring a much-needed boost to the struggling tourism industry and speed Mexican recovery from the economic slump.

At first glance, it’s hard to see signs of drought in Calakmul. The banana leaves are wide and provide generous shade, and goats graze on green pastures. Then you see it in the small reservoirs run dry, and the crops. “The corn stalks only grow half [as tall] as they used to,” said Nicolás Pomuch, a twentysomething Calakmul local, who like most here depends on subsistence farming for a large part of his diet. Farmers in the region say that rainfall has changed over the past 30 years, with droughts lasting longer and the timing of rains becoming more erratic. Research supports this. Changes in the climate exacerbated by human activity are making subsistence farming more difficult for locals while also threatening wildlife, including the already endangered tapir and jaguar populations.

Calakmul is a vital source of rainfall for the whole Yucatán peninsula, but large-scale deforestation has dried up the area. “Even before the Mayan Train became an issue, we knew the region was at serious environmental risk,” Casandra Reyes, a biologist at the Yucatán University’s Investigation Center and author of a paper on the potential risks of the project, told us. “People don’t understand how important trees are for rain.” Trees absorb water from the soil and sweat it out their leaves, releasing moisture into the atmosphere that then gathers into clouds, returning the water to the soil when it rains. According to a 2017 study by the Center for Social Studies and Public Opinion, which provides research for Mexico’s legislature, some 90–95 percent of the country has already been deforested, placing Mexico alongside Haiti and El Salvador as one of the countries with the greatest tree-cover loss in the world. In the Yucatán peninsula, where most of the Mayan Train will run, tropical forests have in the past two decades been razed to clear land for industrial pork farms and large-scale monoculture soy and palm oil fields, according to Greenpeace Mexico.

The threat posed to the environment by the Mayan Train is, for the most part, not a result of the train line itself, much of which will run on existing tracks (though notably not the section around Calakmul); but rather the ambitious development project planned to accompany it and the rapid development this could in turn trigger, according to Reyes and half a dozen other scientists and conservationists we consulted. In addition to the passenger train, the government plans to use the tracks to transport cargo, which Reyes and others say will incentivize industrial farmers to double down on already unsustainable farming practices. The government also intends to build 18 new cities, or “development centers,” along the train route. These additional developments would put further stress on limited resources, especially water.

Consistently among the top 10 most visited countries in the world, Mexico has enjoyed a significant tourism industry since at least the middle of the last century. The focus on mass tourism and resorts, masterminded by the National Institute for Tourism Promotion, or Fonatur—the entity responsible for the Mayan Train—would, at first glance, appear to have paid off. Tourism has created more than 2 million jobs, and the sector accounts for close to 9 percent of the national GDP, growing faster than the economy as a whole in 2018, according to official data. Fonatur’s strategy is exemplified by its planned development of Cancún, transforming the once-sleepy fishing town into one of the world’s best-known tourist destinations.

But the development of much of the Yucatán peninsula’s east coast—beginning in Cancún but soon spreading to Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and beyond—has brought a raft of environmental problems. Rapid population growth and sustained construction have led to the destruction of mangroves, massive sand erosion, and an intractable sewage processing problem, which currently means most wastewater is dumped directly into the sea. In parts of the peninsula, only 2–5 percent of sewage is treated, according to Greenpeace. The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, a diversity-rich marine region already threatened by warming waters, is facing serious pollution problems caused by agricultural runoff and untreated sewage. 

The Mayan Train is a way to correct the planning mistakes of the “predatory model” of development that characterized much of Fonatur’s previous work, its current director, Rogelio Jimenez, told us when we visited his offices in March. “We won’t repeat those planning mistakes,” he said, showing satellite photos of breakneck development around Tulum. Instead, the focus in regions like Calakmul will be small boutique hotels. Jimenez says accusations that the government conditioned provision of services like water on the project are false. Without the train, there are no funds to transport water to the region, he says.

Cancún embodies other concerns among those wary of the project. In a draft of a paper published last year, researchers working with the government warned of insecurity that could follow mass tourism along the route of the Mayan Train, pointing to the example of Cancún and other resorts, where cartel battles for influence have led to a sharp rise in violent crime. During the first four months of the year, rates of homicide, extortion, and rape in the state of Quintana Roo were all above average, according to the NGO Semáforo Delictivo, which collects data on crime across Mexico. If, to Americans, Cancún still conjures images of white, sandy beaches and margaritas under palm trees, to many Mexicans, it increasingly represents the apparently unstoppable spread of organized crime and the perils of mass tourism. 

Like so many others from Campeche, Martínez trekked north to Cancún two years ago for work and found a job in a shoe store. There he had a front-row seat to the madness that Cancún and its grand tourism experiment has led to. He saw people get assaulted and knifed, and he heard the staccato of gunshots at night. He lasted two months.

Martínez has sleek, ink-black hair, dark, alert eyes, and an aquiline nose perched on his wide, boyish face. The corners of his mouth often twitch as if he were trying to stop himself from smiling, which he does easily. He believes his people are being used as a branding strategy for a project that will line the pockets of big corporations and leave Indigenous communities in the dust, or cleaning hotel toilets. On a more basic level, he is concerned they’ll be the last to get any water.

“The train will lead to our extinction,” he told us. 

Last December, along with 17 other members of an Indigenous political body, the Consejo Regional y Popular de Xpujil (CRIPX), Martínez requested an injunction to halt the train’s construction. They argued that the government had failed to adequately consult Indigenous communities in the area. According to Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization, which Mexico and several other Latin American countries have ratified, Indigenous communities must be consulted on projects that affect them or their land. Governments are required to inform communities of the risks and impacts involved, and then take a vote. 

While a vote was held on December 15 and participants overwhelmingly supported the project, the UN Commission on Human Rights denounced the consultation for not meeting international requirements, noting the low turnout—only 2.8 percent of the local Indigenous populations voted—the underrepresentation of women, and a tendency to discuss only the benefits of the project while ignoring possible negative consequences. Crucially, it noted that the whole process seemed to tacitly promise much-needed services—from water to medical care—in exchange for support for the train.

Martínez says voters were misled or were unwilling to speak out. “A lot of people stay silent. They’re scared. We get killed in Mexico.” Violence against environmentalists and land rights activists, particularly those belonging toIndigenous communities, is rampant and frequently goes unpunished. Last year, 23 human rights and land defenders were killed in Mexico, making it the fourth most deadly in the world for such activists, according to the NGO Front Line Defenders. In December, a Mayan activist critical of the train and the consultation process reported that he had received a death threat. 

Martínez and the CRIPX have shouldered a lot of anger from members of the local, largely indigenous community, who accuse them of ramming their minority opinion through the courts. He says they don’t claim to represent anyone.

In March, a local court partly upheld the injunction, maintaining a suspension on building around the town of Xpujil—Calakmul’s largest town, with 4,000 residents and a stopover for tourists on their way to visit the Mayan ruins—but allowing work to begin on the rest of the planned route.

Debate over the train has caused deep rifts within the Indigenous communities of the Calakmul region, mirroring increasingly polarized national politics that have emerged around President López Obrador’s efforts to overhaul Mexico’s political structure.

Shortly after Martínez and the CRIPX filed the injunction, tensions ran particularly high in Xpujil. Driving around town in a new 4×4, Eleazar Dzib, 37, a recently elected representative of a nearby town, pointed out several recently opened businesses and other signs of modest growth: a new hotel, and a couple of dentist offices, the lettering directly painted onto the cement walls. It’s a sharp contrast to the town of his youth, he said, when locals lacked many basic services, including a secondary school. “For years we were forgotten, first without electricity then without water and with bad roads,” he said. “Now with the train there is an opportunity. What’s the worst that can happen that hasn’t already happened to us?”

Softly spoken but with the build of a diminutive wrestler, Dzib is diplomatic and polite when discussing the historical problems of the region, but he views harshly those concerned about the problems the train could bring. “I see the injunction as an insult to us as Indigenous people,” he said. Concerned that the courts could block the project, Dzib, along with representatives of 60 of the 84 towns in the region, met in February to support the train, claiming in a statement that they would not accept “outsiders” who sought to “take advantage of Indigenous communities.”

“We have never been asked anything. When they built the highway we were never consulted,” Dzib said, referring to the road that cuts through what is today the Calakmul reserve, connecting Cancún to the rest of Mexico. “More than the train itself, we want our decisions as Indigenous communities to be respected.”

Dzib’s anger toward the activists behind the injunction blocking the train is shared by authorities up to and including President López Obrador. He has said opponents of the train “are making a fool of themselves” and, in characteristic fashion, has implied that critics are political partisans falsely claiming to represent local interests.

He and others backing the train believe that tourism will bring development. Until international travel ground to a halt as a result of the novel coronavirus, that sector was doing well. “There are many things here yet to be taken advantage of,” said Abimael Gonzalez, a local construction boss who opened his first hotel a year ago, after becoming convinced of the potential for tourism. For now, most tourists stay only one night, he said, but with other, less-visited archeological sites nearby and the promise of thousands of visitors arriving each day if the train is completed, he believes there is huge potential for growth. 

But water is also a problem for the hotel industry. When he runs short, Gonzalez sends a tanker to source it from wells owned by nearby communities to meet the needs of tourists’ showers and obtain the 2,000 liters needed for the hotel pool. At another hotel, employees complained that untreated sewage nearby was driving visitors away.

Critics of the train overlook the reality for many workers in the region, according to José Arnoldo Villaseñor, a biologist from Xpujil who works with local communities to promote sustainable tourism. Although he is wary of the environmental impact of the train, he recognizes that many local people are prioritizing the work it will bring. “They know they’ll have work [if the train comes]. It might be cleaning toilets, which the critics say is undignified for us, but as it is, locals are going to Cancún to do it.”

Calakmul means “two adjacent pyramids” in Mayan. From an aerial view, the archeological site looks like a stone giant reclining in a bed of grass. On the ground, awe-inspiring edifices surrounding a cleared, acropolis-like plaza climb from the jungle into the sky.

It was a thriving city for more than 1,500 years, between roughly 550 BC and AD 910. But over the course of about a century, Mayan civilization went into a protracted, dramatic decline, which saw most of its large cities abandoned. Though the reasons for the downfall are contested, one popular theory posits that extreme drought pushed the Mayans out. They may have played a role themselves, by deforesting large swaths of the jungle to build their cities and clear the way for grazing land. This theory is particularly popular among guides working the Calakmul site. Abel, our guide, offered another theory: Climate change disrupted weather patterns, rendering elites’ once-prized ability to predict weather useless and eroding popular trust in their leadership.

For a thousand years after its abandonment, Calakmul lay forgotten, as thick, tropical vegetation reclaimed the site. Local lore has it that the site was rediscovered in the late 1920s by a gold prospector flying low over the ground. In subsequent decades, the region became populated by a few remote frontier towns, as loggers were followed by rubber tappers. They were followed in turn by Mexicans from other states, many of them from various Indigenous communities who were drawn by the promise of land. Tourists only began visiting the site around the turn of the millennium.

On our last day in the region, we quietly walked the grounds, the forest’s silence occasionally punctured by gangs of spider monkeys foraging for fruit in the trees overhead, who seemed to shriek their displeasure at our presence. A couple of French tourists bounded their way up the steps of a temple. A Spanish couple posed for selfies. There weren’t more than a dozen tourists. 

We climbed the tallest of the two structures, from where we could see El Mirador, a rival Mayan city in Guatemala, on the horizon. Trees stretched out over the horizon, a thick green carpet punctuated by only a few peaks of the former great city. From this angle, the jungle looked pristine. Back on the ground, a crocodile lay partly submerged in a small, stagnant pool, the only source of fresh water for some distance.

Clouds gathered on our way out. A drop, then two, teasingly, tantalizingly, fell on us. Then it stopped. 

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