In the rainforest of the Yucatán Peninsula in southeastern Mexico, a mammoth piece of infrastructure is nearing completion. It cuts through jaguar territory, speeds over mystical limestone sinkholes and writhes its way around archaeological sites, colonial towns and seaside resorts.

The Tren Maya (Mayan Train) has started its journey with two promises: to shuttle tourists to and from the Riviera Maya, and, in doing so, to bring economic opportunities to some of the country’s poorest communities.

Last December, trains started running along the first phase of the rail line. When completed, it will run in a 1,554-kilometer loop through 34 stations, whisking passengers to and from cookie-cutter resorts like Cancun, Tulum and Playa del Carmen, inland wonders like UNESCO-inscribed Palenque and Calakmul, and the 19th-century plantation manors of Campeche.

A map of the Tren Maya when completed. Trainspotting34, Wikimedia Commons

The pet project of Mexican president Andrés Manuel Pérez Obrador has alternatively been described as a ‘megaproject of hope’ and a ‘megaproject of death.’ After four years of heated controversies – legal actions, unheeded judicial orders, UN statements and even military involvement – the Tren Maya appears to have prevailed. 

But questions persist around whether the railway’s economic promises can ever outweigh its social and environmental impacts, and the project has been the subject of relentless criticism from local communities and experts alike.

So, how can we expect the Tren Maya to transform the future of the Yucatán – for better and for worse?

Jaguar
The Yucatán Peninsula is home to one of the largest jaguar populations in Mesoamerica. Uriel Soberanes, Unsplash

Trees, jaguars and spider monkeys 

From ecosystem fragmentation to forest loss, pollution and water stress, the Tren Maya will have far-ranging present and future impacts on the natural environment.

One of the most immediate concerns is the fragmentation of natural habitats, especially for territorial species like the jaguar. The Calakmul reserve, for example, has one of the largest jaguar populations in Mesoamerica, alongside other endangered species like the puma, the tapir and the ocellated turkey. 

National authorities are planning to build wildlife crossings, but most of them will be underpasses instead of the spacious, open overpasses and tree-top passages preferred by carnivores and monkeys.

“The government does not have a long-term system in place to protect the habitats around these crossing structures, which risks rendering them useless,” says Anna Gee, vice chairman of the Foundation Council of the Plant-for-the-Planet Foundation, a non-profit working to restore forest landscapes in Yucatán.

Asked about the loss of an estimated 4,000 hectares of forest to the new train route, she says she prefers to focus on what can still be changed: “In 2023 alone, the peninsula lost 100,000 hectares of forest cover, mostly to unsustainable agricultural practices.” 

Yucatán is one of Mexico’s deforestation hotspots, due in large part to the expansion of cattle operations and industrial plantations like soy, sorghum and palm oil – sometimes as part of land grabbing and privatization schemes.

But another cause is the urbanization driven by mass tourism along the coast, which suggests that more forest cover could yet be lost if this development model is imported inland.

Tulum
The Mexican government plans to further expand tourism on the Yucatán Peninsula. Spencer Watson, Unsplash

More people, less water

The railway, along with a new airport in Tulum, are part of a plan to attract millions of additional tourists to Yucatán – and to build countless more resorts, casinos and shops to accommodate them.

For example, the initiative seeks to bring 3 million tourists to the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, each year – up from 50,000 today.

Tourism and real estate development are expected to provide a much-needed source of  employment for locals, but many fear uncontrolled growth will exacerbate the region’s water shortages.

“Access to drinking water is a major problem on the Yucatán Peninsula,” says Javier Valdivia Navarro, a Mexican Youth4Nature volunteer.

“The construction of the railway required a huge amount of water, but what is most worrying is the demand it is set to create, especially in areas with little water infrastructure, like Xpujil, in the state of Campeche.” 

Worse yet, no studies have been conducted to assess whether there will be enough water to meet this demand, adds Valdivia, who works with communities to conserve and sustainably manage the Mayan forest as a project coordinator with Terra Global Capital, a private company specializing in natural capital solutions.

Water availability in Yucatán has already shrunk by almost two-thirds in the past two decades, leading to water rationing in the dry season. Experts are concerned that demand is set to explode even as water is growing scarcer due to deforestation, pollution and the climate crisis.

Adding to these concerns is the fact that the Tren Maya has been built over ‘cenotes’ – freshwater-filled sinkholes that are part of a network of thousands of subterranean caves formed by the dissolution of limestone.

Scientists have warned that this fragile system could collapse under the weight of the railway, while the diesel fuel used by the trains could pollute underground rivers and pools, which provide most of the region’s water. 

Cenote
Scientists fear the Yucatán Peninsula’s network of cenotes could collapse due to the railway being built around it. Dorian D1, Unsplash

Flawed evaluations and consultations

To see the showcase development project through before the end of his term this November, López Obrador named it a national security project, putting the army in charge of the construction of sections like the one cutting through Calakmul.

This allowed authorities to breeze through the application of environmental and social safeguards, even as the project displaced more than 3,000 households living along the train route.

“Adequate planning is crucial to the success of infrastructure projects impacting ecosystems and communities, but there is no official information showing that all necessary steps were taken in this case,” says Valdivia.

“Transparency is the best ally of controversial projects, but it has been largely absent from the Tren Maya initiative.”

Tren Maya protest
A protester holds a sign against the Tren Maya at a Fridays for Future demonstration in Mexico City. Francisco Colín Varela, Flickr

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said the consultation process was flawed, and UN experts later warned that the national security decree was endangering the rights of Indigenous Peoples and other communities to land and natural resources, as well as their cultural rights and right to a healthy and sustainable environment.

The experts also decried the lack of human rights due diligence by companies working on the USD 29 billion project: “Relevant companies and investors domiciled in Spain, the United States and China cannot turn a blind eye to the serious human rights concerns related to the Train Maya project.”

Dozens of Indigenous organizations have also criticized the megaproject, which they see as epitomizing poor governance and unsustainable development. They fear local communities have only been told about the short-term benefits from the Tren Maya but kept in the dark about its adverse longer-term impacts.

“Economic development can and must be balanced with environmental conservation,” concludes Valdivia.

“But what is development? I believe it is ultimately up to local communities to figure out what it means for them.”

The post Tren Maya: The good, the bad and the ugly of Mexico’s megaproject appeared first on #ThinkLandscape.