From the great desert up north to the vast jungles southeast, Mexicain soil is among the most biodiverse in the entire world. Its diverse landscapes stuck between two oceans, Atlantic and Pacific, have always been at the core of the different civilisations installed in the territory.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, the many Mesoamerican communities lived harmoniously with the untouched, harsh and sometimes vertiginous nature surrounding them. As a result, amidst great planes, snow-capped volcanoes and many Sierras Madre (« mother » mountain chains), rich and complex faiths and rituals were born. A few centuries after Hernán Cortés’ arrival, Mexico’s conquistador, Mexico City’s streets (which were grand canals during the Aztec Empire) moved to the rhythm of the Spanish Crown. After the country’s independence in 1821, there was no turning back : impressive cathedrals, built with the stones of Mesoamerican temples, looked down on cobblestone streets and massive colonial palaces.
Drenched in tropical heat and covered by a dense, vast jungle, the Yucatán Peninsula, southeast, has always stood out from the rest of the country thanks to its independent spirit. As an example, the Mayan territory was one of the hardest to conquer : resistance and rebellion from the Mayans against Christian evangelisation and a hard-to-bear climate made the task quite complex. Far away from the capital, the Peninsula developed throughout the years in an autonomous way and even declared its independence from 1840 to 1848. The Caste War of Yucatán broke out in that socio-political context in 1847 : the Mayan population, living under serfdom and treated with great injustice by the criollos (Spaniards born in Mexico) and mestizo Mexicans, chose to revolt. The conflict, where thousands of white and mestizo people were killed, marked the spirits of the Peninsula.
In 2018, the Yucatán Peninsula became the image of Mexican progress. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), big defender of indigenous peoples’ rights and a critic of corruption and inequality in Mexico, decided to make the Peninsula the playground of his landmark project, the Tren Maya. This extensive rail network would cross the peninsula while stropping at the region’s capital cities and best-known sites (Mérida, Cancún, Tulum, Palenque, etc.), turning travelling and goods transportation into much easier tasks. While it is extremely common to take the train in Europe, one has to consider that Mexico’s railway history is a tad more complex. Basically non-existent before the 19th century, railroad tracks reached up to 20,000 kilometres during Porfirio Diaz’s dictature (1876-1911). This progress frenzy, typical of Diaz’s times, flew away with the Mexican Revolution, leaving in ruins a vast railway system. Today, in a country as big as Mexico, people travel through the air or on the road, which can be quite costly for the average Mexican.
AMLO’s project appeared, then, as a result of a general need for change and development. First reactions in the capital were positive, celebrating especially the arrival of passenger trains in the south of the country, which would bring more people and tourists, meaning more money and more jobs. If one takes a look at the project’s website, its main objectives and considerations are a better quality of life and sustainable development. For a region as marked by inequalities and poverty as the Yucatán Peninsula, it was only good news ! ONU-Habitat even confirmed these great ambitions, celebrating the jobs and employment that would arrive with the Tren Maya.
And yet, great anger furrows the Peninsula ever since the project was announced. Denouncing a lack of precise information concerning the environmental impact of the project, the Mayan people have felt excluded from the government’s decision-making process, which ultimately concerns their territory. After endless complaints and as a leader with populist views, AMLO consulted Mexican citizens about the project in 2019. Nonetheless, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) was very critical towards the consultation, highlighting the lack of participation of Mayan people.
The eastern section of the network, which would skirt the Caribbean, has also been heavily criticized. The seaside resorts of the Riviera Maya are already packed with tourists each year, endangering the region’s fragile environment and triggering irreversible effects. Small villages like Tulum have also become luxury hot-spots, inaccessible to locals. But apart from that, tourism also brings violence: in the first eight months of 2020, more than two hundred people were murdered in the municipality of Cancún.
The arguments for and against the project are numerous, but what is certain is that this double stance seems to reflect an old social cleavage, that of the inequalities born from the complex and tumultuous history of the Yucatán Peninsula. To quench a certain thirst of progress, Mexico’s government would be right to defend its landmark railway project, which to the eyes of big city leaders, foreigners and tourists is quite the success. However, the Mayan world, with its immemorial language and traditions, often wonders when its own needs will finally be considered. Needs that, according to Mayan voices, would be filled by more direct and effective actions than by the construction of a gigantic rail network, during a global pandemic, in one of the world’s most unequal regions.
Efforts continue on both sides, but in a county where people’s voices have often felt forgotten, let’s expect to see, in 2024, the modern wagons of the Train Maya furrow the jungles of Southeastern Mexico.
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