Mexico wants to run a tourist train through its Mayan heartland — should it?

A proposed new train in Mexico would connect the archaeological site of Chichen Itza, on the Yucatan Peninsula, easier to reach from Cancun.(Photo: Michal Jarmoluk)

An ambitious new train would link resorts like Cancun to inland ancient ruins and colonial towns; that means laying rail across 932 miles of dense jungle, pristine beach and Indigenous villages

Gabriel Diaz Montemayor

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has a dream for the Yucatan Peninsula. He wants to build a train that will leverage the tourism economy of Cancun by bringing more visitors inland to the colonial cities, Mayan villages and archaeological sites that dot the region.

The Yucatan is a unique Mexican cultural crossroads. Many Maya here continue to farm, live and dress according to Indigenous traditions developed millennia before the Spanish colonized the Americas. Travelers also come from across the globe to sunbathe along the modern, highly developed Riviera Maya. Over 16 million foreigners visited the area in 2017; three-quarters of them were American.

The Mexican government thinks that a tourist train could turn Maya villages into destinations, too, bringing an infusion of cash and jobs into one of its poorest and most marginalized regions. Commuters would also benefit from rail travel.

But there are social and environmental consequences to laying 932 miles of railway tracks across a region of dense jungle, pristine beaches and Maya villages. And in his haste to start construction this year, López Obrador – whose energy policy is focused on increasing fossil fuel production in Mexico and rebuilding the coal industry – has demonstrated little concern for conservation.

The proposed Maya Train would connect the Yucatan’s coastal resorts with inland Mayan destinations
The proposed Maya Train would connect the Yucatan’s coastal resorts with inland Mayan destinations(Screenshot - youtube.com - "Tren Maya Turismo", Lisa J. Ellwood, Indian Country Today)

Pristine forests and Mayan ruins at risk

As a landscape architecture scholar who has studied Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, I agree that the Maya Train could bring substantial benefits to this region. But the train must be designed in a way that respects the delicate ecology, Indigenous history and social fabric of the region.

The Yucatan, a biodiverse peninsula that’s geographically isolated from the rest of Mexico and Central America, has already suffered mass deforestation due to careless urban development, massive tourism and, in particular, unsustainable cattle ranching.

For stretches, the Maya Train will run on existing tracks. But other parts of its planned route will cut through some of the only unspoiled ancient forests on the Yucatan Peninsula that are not federally protected as nature reserves. That bodes badly for endangered native species like the kanzacam cactus and black howler monkey.

Running a train through virgin forest also puts potentially hundreds of undiscovered ruins at risk. New technology has lead archaeologists to believe that the ancient Maya had many more cities, shrines and settlements than have been uncovered and excavated.

There is concern, too, that the construction of a new train line may exacerbate a demographic shift already underway in the Yucatan.

As young Mexicans have left the small towns of the Yucatan to seek tourism jobs, many traditional Maya villages face abandonment. In 2015, 36% of Yucatec residents lived in traditional towns of fewer than 5,000 people – about 10% fewer than in 1990.

A Maya Train with limited stations may spur development of a select few traditional towns. But many more – all those not located within the new rural tourism corridor – will likely see their population dwindle.

Cancun, Mexico
Cancun, Mexico, is a global tourist destination located miles from traditional Maya villages.(Photo: Gerson Repreza)

Building a better Maya Train

I don’t believe López Obrador’s ambitious signature infrastructure project should be killed. But the rushed construction schedule could be slowed down, giving the government time to study how the environmental and social costs of the Maya Train can be mitigated.

Analysts have almost universally pointed out that the government’s six-year timeline necessarily precludes a deliberate, comprehensive and careful planning and construction process.

Landscape ecology, the study of natural systems, teaches us that simply maintaining green corridors connecting patches of unbroken wilderness can go a long way to protect wildlife, their habitat and the natural drainage patterns of the area.

The railway’s path could probably be redesigned to avoid severing these ecological arteries, but a sound environmental impact assessment must first be conducted to determine the impact and feasibility of alternative routes. That has not yet been done.

The possible negative social consequences of the Maya Train could also be avoided, or at least compensated for, if the communities impacted by the railway could participate fully in the planning process.

López Obrador says that Mother Earth granted permission to build the train, but Mexico’s Maya Train was approved at a hastily called popular referendum last year with only 1% voter participation. Some Indigenous activists have rejected the outcome of the vote, which polled Mexicans nationwide about a project that affects mainly Maya villagers.

Tunkan Maya, Yucatan
Many Maya on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula still dress, cook and live as their relatives have for millennia(Photo: Henrique Matos [CC BY-SA 3.0 [creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/])

“We don’t accept it,” a representative of the Zapatistas, a southern Mexican Indigenous insurgency, said of the train on July 23. “We won’t allow [the government] to come in and destroy” the land.

Other Yucatan residents appear to support the idea of a tourist train but want to be consulted closely about its route, stops and offerings, asked about their concerns and given the chance to make design proposals.

This kind of participatory planning process would ensure that Yucatec residents are the beneficiaries, not the victims, of the anticipated economic boom.

Done right, the Maya Train could actually trigger an economic conversion with sweeping environmental benefits for the Yucatan. If new ecotourism and agrotourism businesses grow up around the train, some rural residents will naturally move toward those trades and away from the high-impact, low-efficiency ranching that has so damaged the local ecology.

Slow down

Big public works like the Maya Train take patience, careful planning, thinking and rethinking.

These are not the hallmarks of López Obrador’s leadership style. The Mexican president insists the $6 billion train will be completed before the end of his term in 2024 and has mocked journalists who question the train’s environmental impact.

But the public backlash appears to have forced his government to do some quick course correction.

United Nations-Habitat, the U.N.‘s urban development agency, began consulting with the Mexico government in May. U.N.-Habitat’s interim director, Eduardo López Moreno, has called for a more holistic vision of the Maya Train.

“This is not 1,525 kilometers of track,” he said after joining the project. “It’s 1,525 kilometers of opportunities that will improve the quality of life for all inhabitants of southeast Mexico.”

Gabriel Diaz Montemayor is an Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at the School of Architecture at the University of Texas Austin since 2013. Previously, Gabriel taught at The Design School of Arizona State University, Auburn University, and the Superior Institute for Architecture and Design (ISAD) of Chihuahua, Mexico. Gabriel holds a Master of Landscape Architecture degree from Auburn University and an Architect title from the Autonomous University of Chihuahua (UACH). He was a registered architect in the Municipality of Chihuahua from 2003-06. 

Gabriel's research, teaching, and creative activities are concentrated in Northern Mexico and the Southwest of the USA. His research explores public space as a social and environmental integrator in the context of arid North America and the hybrid cultures of the expanded border region between Mexico and the US through the means of multi-purpose landscape infrastructure, mobility, water management, public programs/services, and housing. His studio teaching exercises collaborative design through joint partnerships with public institutions working on real issues and projects with students. Gabriel has organized this kind of studio with the Planning Institutes of Chihuahua, Hermosillo, Nogales, and Los Cabos in Mexico; and the cities of Phoenix, AZ, and Redwood City, CA. 

Gabriel also teaches Landscape Technology and Latin American Landscapes courses at UTSOA, and has taught classes on landscape representation and current issues and topics in architecture, landscape architecture, and urbanism. He has taught studios, design workshops, and lectured in various Universities of Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the USA, including: Woodbury University San Diego, Tec de Monterrey (ITESM) Campus Chihuahua and Hermosillo, Universidad de Monterrey (UDEM), Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon (UANL), Universidad de San Francisco de Quito, and the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico (PUPR). He has presented papers in conferences such as CELA (2007, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2015), ASEH (2011), ACSA (2008 and 2014), the National ASLA Annual Convention (2012), and CNU (2008). 

His work and writing have been published by Landscape Architecture Magazine (LAM), Domus Mexico, AULA Journal, Progressive Planning and Arquine. Gabriel keeps a small practice in Chihuahua, Mexico, as partner of LABOR Studio, where he participates in urban design, landscape architecture, and urban planning projects and research. The work produced in the studio has won professional awards at the Arizona Chapter of the ASLA, including the Tabalaopa Master Plan (an innovative, high density, low income development) and the Design Guidelines for the Urban Edge of Chihuahua.

Disclosure Statement: Gabriel Diaz Montemayor does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Note: originally published at theconversation.com; re-published with permission.

Comments (1)
No. 1-1
Dmwangi
Dmwangi

Nobody despises seeing native trees and plant life and animals being destroyed as much as I do. I live in Seattle, and every time I see a big logging truck go down the freeway loaded with fully mature logs from the Olympic Forest, it makes me cringe and feel angry. I know we use the wood for good things, but I still think of how these trees looked growing green and tall in the forest. Anyway, regarding this train, we in the USA are taught that Mexican people could use the revenue this tourist attraction would create. My hope would be that the tracks could be laid in such a way as to minimize disruption of the natural forests and villages. If that were possible and the people could benefit from the revenue, then my opinion would support the idea. But the more respect for the native land and people, the better. Rushing into it sounds like a bad idea. There should be meetings and discussions between the government who wants to go forward with this idea and the indigenous people. Railroads were always despised before they were laid, even in this country. Good luck and God Bless to everyone concerned.