Maya Train raises questions about Maya land, people and rights

Alvardo Mena said the Maya people are facing new oppression with the Maya Train and that fighting for Mayan rights is important for maintaining Maya culture. (Image by Alex Perez)

By Grace Finnell-Gudwien – March 13, 2023 

Sitting in the grass in front of a pyramid at the Chichen Izta, a sacred Mayan site, Alvaro Mena
told the tragic story of a battle that took place in that very spot over 100 years ago. Mena, a
Mayan leader from the Ka Kuxtal Seed Keeper Organization, said he learned the story from his
ancestors, the Maya people’s abuelos and abuelas who fought in the battle. It was a battle in
the War Against the Mayans, often known in western culture as the War of the Castes, which
took place from 1847 to 1901 between the Mayans and the rest of the Yucatan Peninsula
(which was separated from Mexico at the time) who had aid from Mexico. The Mayans were
fighting on their own land to try to protect their rights to it, Mena said, but history has distorted
the war to make it seem like the Mayans were unnecessarily fighting rather than defending against

While this war is over, its scars remain. On the ground in the Chichen Izta plaza, Mena said he
still feels sadness visiting this sacred place. The pain has lessened overtime, he said, but the
place will always be a reminder of the war – even if it is overrun by tourists and salespeople
selling souvenirs. Unfortunately, Mena and his people’s struggles are not over.

“Right now, we’re experiencing a new invasion,” Mena said. “We have to fight for our territorial

This new invasion is the Maya Train (Tren Maya), a proposed roughly 1,550-kilometer train
(about 963 miles) that will run through the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Construction has
already begun on the train, destroying 40-meter-wide lines of jungle and uncovering Mayan
archaeological ruins. Mena said the train is “wrongly named” because the only “Maya” part
about it is that it runs through Maya land. The Maya people were consulted very little for the
train’s plans, and it is encroaching on the Maya people’s rights, Mena said. The situation is
complex, though; some Maya people are actually excited about the train, noting it is generating
jobs and promoting their culture, whereas others agree with Mena that it is taking what is
rightfully the Maya people’s. As the train’s construction continues, Maya people and others in
the area have raised several questions pertaining to the situation’s complexity.

Can the loss of Indigenous land be compensated with money?

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and the Mexican government are convincing Maya
people to sell their land to the government and relocate so the railroad can be constructed.
Deysi Juarez, a student at the Intercultural Maya University of Quintana Roo, said she and
others in her community felt that the government is presenting selling their land as the only
option; they feel forced to sell even if they do not want to.

“The train line is already established,” Juarez said. “It cannot move.”

Juarez’s classmate Jose Aldair Heredia agrees. “We don’t know how it is going to affect us in
the long term,” he said. “We don’t know if it’ll affect our survival.”

Many students at the Intercultural Maya University of Quintana Roo said they are studying tourism. With their degrees, they said they plan to sustainably and responsibly teach others about their Mayan culture. (Image by Grace Finnell-Gudwien)

In addition to providing money for the Maya land, the government is promising additional benefits from the tourism to come from the train, but many are skeptical.

“The project doesn’t have a clear line of development,” said Juan Rodriguez, a Mayan journalist who covers the Maya Train. “In the long term, we fear the project won’t leave any benefit for the community.” He explained that the economy in the very southern part of Mexico is primarily based on agriculture. When the train starts offering other jobs involving railroad construction and tourism, the focus of the region will move away from agriculture, and farming will suffer. 

In fact, it already has. Juan Manuel Jaerez Campos, a representative of an agricultural cooperative in the Chetumal state, explained that 50 percent of sugarcane workers – around 1,400 people – switched jobs to help construct the Maya Train. Since the Chetumal state produces 90 percent of the sugarcane grown in Mexico, this loss of farmers slowed down the growing and harvesting process. The railroad route also lengthened the time and distance of how farmers get to and from their fields, further slowing harvest, Campos said.

Others believe the benefits are worth it. “I’m grateful for the president to have his eye on local communities,” said Irene Vazquez, a government worker for Fonatur, an agency involved with the logistics of the train. She said she is proud of her community’s heritage, and she is excited to have the opportunity to promote it to other nearby communities and tourists from around the world as the train travels to different Maya archaeological sites.

What are some of the other proposed benefits?

At a presentation about the Maya Train, Vazquez and her coworkers at Fonatur discussed other benefits the train is bringing to local communities, such as better health care, education and infrastructure because of the ability to connect communities. 

Intercultural Maya University of Quintana Roo students said in a discussion about the Maya Train that the construction is cutting down a tree used in medicines. Thus, the deforestation is allowing certain illnesses to increase in the area. (Image by Grace Finnell-Gudwien)

“We will be able to communicate with other neighboring states,” Vazquez said, noting that the train will cost less for Mexicans to ride than tourists traveling abroad. This discount is the same whether the person is Mayan or not.

Some fear that with increased connectivity and tourism, though, the Mayan communities could face more danger. “The concern of security is real,” said María Antonia de los Ángeles Díaz Martín, the academic secretary at the Polytechnical University of Bacalar. Even if increased tourism ends up as a good thing both financially and for promoting Mayan culture, she fears that the quick progression of the train and the lack of environmental and societal impact testing could hurt communities, Martin said.

“I would like to see security laws,” Martin said.

Fonatur is working with the Mexican Secretariat of National Defense (SEDNA) to make sure communities are safe, Vazquez and her coworkers said. SEDNA is overseeing the construction of the train and is making sure the project stays within the Mexican government and is not bought out by international contractors.

Do new jobs make up for lost land and culture?

Besides the financial and welfare benefits, Vazquez and her Fonatur coworkers explained how the Maya Train has and still is creating new jobs in the region. Throughout the five states in the Yucatan Peninsula, the train has created 114 million jobs, said Amada Aime Rivero Dumani, another government worker for Fonatur. While these jobs are minimum wage, they also provide transportation, insurance and lodging. 

“We are a clear example of people from the local community being hired for this project,” said Vazquez. She said that she and three of her coworkers (including Dumani) are from the Calakmul state and have their current jobs because of the train. 

Sonya Mendnez (right) worries that the Maya Train will impact the agriculture and traditions of her community in Chetumal, she said. Since the region does not offer much tourism, she said she fears it won’t benefit when the train comes. Juan Campos (blue shirt) and Juan Rodriguez (gray shirt) are also concerned, they said. (Image by Grace Finnell-Gudwien)

Others are also hopeful of the jobs promised by the Maya Train. “I believe (the train) to be a positive and favorable thing to the community because it can bring a lot of community together,” said Intercultural Maya University of Quintana Roo student Fatima Herrera Fuentes, noting all of the jobs created by the train. “That’s something that’s really important to me.”

Many of these jobs involve the train’s construction. Once the train is constructed, though, how long many of these jobs will last is uncertain. 

“When this phase ends, all the workers will have to return to the fields,” said Sonya Mendnez, a representative of an agricultural cooperative in Chetumal. She also is concerned that once the train is built and transporting tourists throughout Chetumal, her community will not be able to keep up with the tourism. Since this region is so agriculture-based, there are not many traditional tourism things to offer. If the community wants to receive the financial benefits from tourists, then the town must come up with things to offer. This could involve diversifying the community’s traditions or mixing them with other cultures, Mendenez said, but this may dilute the local traditions in and around Chetumal.

Is the environment protected?

To build a train surrounding the Yucatan Peninsula, the constructors must level areas of forests to flat dirt paths about 40 meters wide. Doing this for over 1,500 kilometers causes lots of deforestation, hurting ecosystems vital to the Mayan culture. 

Long stretches of jungle are being wiped out for the Maya Train, but Fonatur is expanding ecological reserves to try to make up for the deforestation, says Fonatur employee Jimenez Perez. (Image by Grace Finnell-Gudwien)

Throughout the train construction so far, few environmental impact tests have been done, Fonatur employees acknowledged during a presentation about the Maya Train. This means that the environmental impacts are often being discovered after the train is built – when it is too late to change anything.

“We would like to go in reverse, but there’s no way,” said María Martín, the academic secretary at the Polytechnical University of Bacalar. “We will still have to see the environmental impact on (new areas).” 

Some animals, including endangered species, have already been impacted, said Luis Gonzalo Vidana Espejo, a professor and biologist on Mexico’s National Board of Biologists. In particular, there have been accidents with jaguars, which are classified as Near Threatened on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. ‘It is very sad to see,” Espejo said.

Besides fauna, some stretches of the Tren Maya’s railroad may go over cenotes, which are underground lakes. Tests need to be done to determine if running a passenger train over these cenotes, which provide drinking water to nearby Mayan and Mexican towns, is safe. Jorge Nescede, a structural engineer on Mexico’s National Council of Engineers, said tests about the soil and strength of each cenote as well as how much vibration each can take should be done.

“I doubt that a train will pass over it,” Nescede said.

Nescede is right. Fonatur, the Tren Maya logistics group, said these tests were taken recently (some are still being completed), and they have determined it is not safe for the train to pass over the cenotes. In response, the train’s route will avoid the cenotes.

In addition to rerouting the train, Fonatur is also attempting to mitigate the deforestation the train is causing. The train construction is building animal corridors to provide fauna safe ways to travel without crossing the railroad, Amada Dumani of Fonatur said. The group is also expanding ecological reserves in the Yucatan to make up for the jungle destroyed for the railroad construction and taking steps to lower the train’s carbon footprint, said Dumani’s coworker Jimenez Perez. 

Where do Maya people go from here?

As time and train construction moves along, President Lopez Obrador is trying to complete building the Maya Train before the end of his term in September 2024, Nescede said. The Mexican government keeps increasing the train’s budget in hopes of completing this goal, Nescede said, increasing an initial budget of $8 billion up to $14 billion and then $20 billion.

Maya people and others opposing the train are taking a stand, though. Train construction in the fifth section paused in mid-February when environmentalists protested that not enough environmental tests had been done to deem construction safe. On February 27, though, the Maya Train announced its plans to be open for passengers by December 1, 2023.

The Maya Train will run through this destroyed strip of jungle. This area is in the fifth section of the train, where Mayan environmentalists forced construction to pause until better environmental tests were taken. (Image by Grace Finnell-Gudwien)

Throughout the train’s construction and beginning of operations, Maya people will see the impacts of the train on land, culture, people and environment as they come. 

“Once you affect one, the other will be impaired,” student Deysi Juarez said, considering everything involving her land and her people.

To address all of these interconnected aspects, Mayan leader Alvaro Mena emphasizes how Maya people and all Indigenous peoples have rights to use to protect themselves. “We have the right to fight for our territorial rights,” Mena said. Maya people can protest against aspects of the Maya Train that hurt Maya land and traditions. They can strive to find a balance between protecting their land and culture and benefiting from new tourism and jobs.

Mena said that it can sometimes be hard to see the resistance from Maya people, but it is there, such as the environmentalists halting the fifth section train construction. 

“The fact that we are still alive… it means we are doing something,” Mena said. Like the War Against the Mayans, Mena said he knows his people have overcome problems in the past, and they can do it again now.

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