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Mexican scientists sound the alarm at Mayan Train

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By Cassandra Garrison and Jose Luis Gonzalez

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Parts of the remote jungles of southern Mexico have barely changed since the days of the ancient Maya.

In the eyes of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a railway built by his government – known as Tren Maya – will bring modern connectivity to areas for generations deprived of significant economic benefits.

But the railway and its hasty construction also critically endanger pristine nature and ancient cave systems beneath the jungle floor, scientists and environmental activists have said.

The railway “splits the jungle in two,” said Ismael Lara, a guide who takes tourists to a cave that is home to millions of bats near the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. Lara fears that the train, due to its nearby passage, will disrupt wildlife routes and attract too much development to fragile ecosystems.

For nearly a year, Reuters has photographed construction at points along the entire length of the planned railway, documenting the evolution of the landmark project that Lopez Obrador has pledged to complete by the end of 2023.

The 1,470 km (910 miles) of railroad is expected to carry diesel and electric trains across the Yucatan Peninsula and link Cancun, Mexico’s top tourist destination, to the ancient Mayan temples of Chichen Itza and Palenque.

The railroad has deeply divided Mexicans, and the controversies surrounding the construction illustrate the struggles of developing countries around the world to balance economic progress with environmental responsibility.

FONATUR, the Mexican tourism agency responsible for the project, said the railway would lift more than a million people out of poverty and could create up to 715,000 new jobs by 2030. Construction costs could reach $20 billion, Lopez Obrador said in July. .

But with the project already over budget and behind schedule by billions of dollars, scientists and activists say the government is cutting corners on its environmental risk assessments in a bid to complete it while Lopez Obrador is still in office.

In December, United Nations experts warned that the railway’s status as a national security project allowed the government to circumvent standard environmental safeguards and called on the government to protect the environment in line with global standards.

FONATUR defended the speed with which the studies were produced. “Years are not needed, expertise, knowledge and integration capability are needed,” he said in response to questions from Reuters. He declined to comment on the UN statement.


The Tren Maya Highway cuts a swath up to 14 meters (46 feet) wide through some of the world’s most unique ecosystems, bringing the modern world closer to vulnerable species such as jaguars and bats.

It will pass over a system of thousands of underground caves carved into the region’s soft limestone rock by water over millions of years.

Crystal-clear pools called cenotes punctuate the Yucatan Peninsula, where the limestone surface has collapsed to expose groundwater. The longest known underground river in the world runs through the caves, which have also been the site of finds such as ancient human fossils and Mayan artifacts like a canoe believed to be over 1,000 years old.

If constructed incorrectly, the railroad risks breaking through the fragile ground, including into yet-to-be-explored caves below, says Emiliano Monroy-Rios, a Mexican geochemist at Northwestern University who has extensively studied the caves and the cenotes of the region.

The diesel, he adds, could also seep into the network of underground ponds and rivers, the peninsula’s main source of fresh water.

With less than 20% of the underground system reportedly mapped, according to several scientists interviewed by Reuters, such damage could amount to significant geological discoveries.

The government’s Environmental Impact Assessment for Section 5, the most controversial stretch, says the environmental impacts are “insignificant” and have been sufficiently mitigated. The study indicates that the risk of collapse has been taken into account in the engineering of the tracks, and that this zone will be observed thanks to a prevention program.

Dozens of scientists disagree, writing in open letters that the assessments are riddled with problems, including outdated data, the omission of recently discovered caves and a lack of input from local hydrology experts.

“They don’t want to recognize the fragility of the earth,” said Fernanda Lases, a scientist with the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) based in Merida, calling the problems identified “very worrying”.

The names of the 70 experts who participated in the government study have been removed from the publication.

One piece of research used by the government to support its findings was taken from a blog by Monroy-Rios, who says he was never contacted by the report’s authors. His research highlights the need for thorough monitoring and tracking of any infrastructure project in the region. He says that didn’t happen.

“I guess their findings were pre-formatted,” Monroy-Rios said. “They want to do it quickly and that’s part of the problem. There’s no time for proper exploration.”

An expert who participated in the reports and spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity said the work was done quickly.

“There was pressure, especially due to delivery times,” said the expert.

The expert expressed concern that the government would not properly mitigate the risks that experts had highlighted in the government’s impact assessments or devote the necessary resources to maintaining the train.

FONATUR said the project will have resources and follow-up care in the future, including established programs for environmental protection.

“The Mayan Train project is of course safe, monitored and regulated by environmental authorities as has happened so far,” the agency told Reuters.

Inecol, the Mexican ecological institute that produced the reports, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. A spokesperson for Lopez Obrador did not respond to a request for comment.


Despite concerns about the railway, it enjoys the support of many villages that for decades felt largely overlooked in national development plans.

In Xkuncheil, a dusty little town of about 140 people on Section 2 of the train that crosses Campeche state, Luz Elba Damas Jimenez, 69, owns a small shop selling sodas and snacks near the tracks. Many of her neighbours, especially young men, are working on the project, she said. She also has more clients now.

“The government is working on good things for the country… Sometimes there are just no jobs in these small towns, but now they have jobs,” she said. “The truth is that we took advantage of it.”

Martha Rosa Rosado, who was offered government payment to move out when an earlier plan for the tracks was to cross her home in the Camino Real neighborhood of Campeche, echoed those sentiments.

“No government ever remembers the southeast. Everything goes north and the southeast is forgotten,” she said as she grilled pork outside her house for 40 years.

Some 450 kilometers away, in Playa del Carmen, near the seaside resorts teeming with tourists, a group of volunteers – helmets and frontals – descend into the caves on weekends to monitor their condition.

Roberto Rojo, a biologist with the group, says the train will endanger the entire ecosystem above and below ground.

“They are now doing studies that should have been done at least four years ago,” Rojo said from inside a cave just below where the train is supposed to pass.

Behind him, tree roots descend from the cave ceiling like a rough rope, stretching out to be quenched by the water pooling at his feet.

“It’s our life. We are endangering and endangering the stability of this ecosystem,” he said.

($1 = 19.2527 Mexican pesos)

(Reporting by Cassandra Garrison and Jose Luis Gonzalez; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)

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