Maya village’s water, future threatened by Mexican train
VIDA Y ESPERANZA, Mexico
Mexico’s ambitious Maya Train project is supposed to bring development to the Yucatan 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 controversial stretch cuts a more than 68-mile (110-kilometer) swath through the jungle between the resorts of Cancun and Tulum, over ancient, complex and fragile underground cave systems.
It is one of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s signature projects and has drawn protests from environmentalists, who have blocked backhoes from knocking down trees.
But for the largely Maya inhabitants of the village of Vida y Esperanza, a clutch of about 300 people and 70 houses whose name means “Life and Hope,” the train is going to run right by their doors. They fear it will pollute the caves that supply them with water, endanger their children or even cut off their access to the outside world.
A few miles down the corridor of felled trees where the train is supposed to run, archaeologist and cave diver Octavio Del Rio points to a cave that lies directly beneath the train’s path. Its thin limestone roof would almost certainly collapse under the weight of a speeding train.
“We are running the risk that all this will be buried, and this history lost,” Del Rio says.
Lopez Obrador dismisses critics like Del Rio as “pseudo environmentalists” funded by foreign governments.
As with his other signature projects, the president exempted the train from environmental impact studies and last month invoked national security powers to forge ahead, overriding court injunctions. Critics say that threatens Mexico’s democratic institutions. The president counters that he just wants to develop the historically poor southern part of Mexico.
The Maya themselves have spent centuries scraping a living from the limestone bed of the dry tropical jungle, and they know the delicacy of the environment’s balance.
“I think that there is nothing Maya” about the train, said Lidia Caamal Puc, whose family settled here 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.”
“Rather, it will hurt us, because, how should I put it, they are taking away what we love so much, the land.”
When marines showed up last month to start cutting down trees in preparation for the train on the edge of the village, residents who hadn’t been paid for their expropriated land stopped them from working.
The head of the village council and a supporter of the train, Jorge Sanchez, acknowledged that the government “had not paid the people who were affected” even though the government has said they will get compensation. Sanchez said the project “will bring jobs for our people.”
The 950-mile (1,500-kilometer) Maya Train line will run in a loop around the Yucatan Peninsula, connecting beach resorts and archaeological sites. But in Vida y Esperanza, the train will cut directly through the narrow, four-mile (six-kilometer) dirt road that leads to the nearest paved highway.
Army engineers plan 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 at-grade crossings, and won’t be fenced, so that 100-mile per hour (160-kph) trains will rush past an elementary school, where most of the students walk to get there.
While the president’s supporters have claimed that anybody who opposes the train isn’t really Mayan, that would be news to people in Vida y Esperanza, where residents swear that Mayan spirits, known as “Aluxes,” inhabit the forest.
Bright blue-green Toh birds, tarantulas, blue morpho butterflies, iguanas and the occasional jaguar cross the roads and jungle.
And it would also threaten something older than even the Mayas.
For the villagers, much of the damage has already been done.
“They have already stolen our tranquility, the moment they cut through to lay the train line,” Caamal Puc said.