The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mexico’s Maya Train project divides Maya people in its path

Some residents of the village Vida y Esperanza worry about effect on the water supply, highway access and safety. Others welcome the jobs.

A bulldozer clears an area of forest that will be the line of the Maya Train in Puerto Morelos, Mexico, last month. (Eduardo Verdugo/AP)

Mexico’s Maya Train project is supposed to bring development to the Yucatán Peninsula, but along the country’s Caribbean coast it is threatening the Indigenous Maya people it was named for and dividing communities it was meant to help.

One stretch cuts a more than 68-mile path through the jungle between the resorts of Cancún and Tulum, over some of the most complex and fragile underground cave systems in the world.

It is one of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s signature projects and has drawn objections from environmentalists, archaeologists and cave divers, who have held protests to block backhoes from tearing down trees.

But for the 300 mostly Maya residents of the village Vida y Esperanza, the train will run right by their doors. They fear it will pollute the caves that supply them with water, endanger their children and cut off access to the outside world.

“I think that there is nothing Maya” about the train, said Lidia Caamal Puc, whose family settled in Vida y Esperanza 22 years ago. “Some people say it will bring great benefits, but for us Mayas that work the land, that live here, we don’t see any benefits.”

López Obrador allowed the train project to proceed without environmental impact studies. For more than two years, Mayan communities objected to the train line, filing court challenges arguing that the railway violated their right to a safe, clean environment. In July, the president used national security powers to move it ahead despite court rulings.

López Obrador says the goal of the project is to develop the historically poor southern part of Mexico.

“We want to take advantage of all the tourism that arrives in Cancún, so they can take the Maya Train to see other natural beauty spots, especially the ancient Mayan cities in Yucatán, Campeche, Chiapas, Tabasco,” which are poor neighboring states, he said last month.

The ancient Mayan civilization reached its height from 300 A.D. to 900 A.D. on the Yucatán Peninsula and in parts of Central America. It is best known for constructing monumental temple sites.

The Mayas’ descendants continue to live on the peninsula, many speaking the Mayan language and conserving traditional foods, crops, religion and medicine practices.

The 950-mile Maya Train line will run in a rough loop around the Yucatán Peninsula, connecting beach resorts and archaeological sites.

The costs of and income from the train are not clear. The project is expected to cost about $8 billion — but appears likely to rise to as much as $11 billion — while the government calculates it will bring in $9.5 billion in benefits.

López Obrador is counting on luring beachgoers to the ruins and Indigenous towns. It is unclear how many want to combine those two activities or if tourism will return to what it was before the coronavirus pandemic.

In Vida y Esperanza, the train will cut through the narrow dirt road that leads to the nearest paved highway. Unless the army, which is building the train line, constructs a bridge above the tracks, villagers would be forced to take a back road four times as long to get to the highway.

The government tourism agency that oversees the train project says an overpass will be built. But such promises have gone unfulfilled in the past.

The army also plans to fill the underground caves to support the weight of the passing trains, which could block or contaminate the underground water system.

The high-speed train can’t have ground-level crossings and won’t be fenced, so 100-mile-per-hour trains will rush past an elementary school. Most of the students walk to get there.

Luis López, 36, who works at a local store and opposes the train, said “it might bring minor benefits, but it has downsides.”

“The cenotes will be filled or contaminated,” he said, referring to the sinkholes that villagers rely on. “I survive on the water from a cenote, to wash dishes, to bathe.”

Many residents, who rely on diesel generators, would much rather have electricity than a tourist train that will never stop there.

Others support the train project because of jobs it has brought during construction.

Benjamin Chim, a taxi and truck driver who is already employed by the Maya Train, will also lose part of his land to the project. But he said he doesn’t care, noting “it is going to be a benefit, in terms of jobs.”

Archaeologist and cave diver Octavio Del Rio said the train would threaten the understanding of something older than even the Maya. He discovered human remains of the Maya’s ancestors that may date as far back as 13,700 years in another cave network — but it took him and other divers 1½ years to snake through a single cavern system. Collapse of the Guardianes cave near the village would be a blow to research.

“We are running the risk that all this will be buried, and this history lost,” Del Rio said.

To our commenters

A reminder from the KidsPost team: Our stories are geared to 7- to 13-year-olds. We welcome discussion from readers of all ages, but please follow our community rules and make comments appropriate for that age group.