MEXICO CITY — During his inauguration speech on Dec. 1, Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, made bold promises to “purify public life in Mexico” and ensure that the “poor come first.” As part of his image as a man of the people, AMLO, as he’s known, has ordered two national referendums since his party, MORENA, took control of Congress on Sept. 1.
The latest one, which took place on Nov. 24 and 25, included a controversial vote on the construction of a train that would link Mayan archaeological and tourist sites in five southeastern states — and will also be used for freight. When the results came in a day later, 850,527 voters, a scant .65 percent of Mexico’s population of 130 million, made “the people’s will” known in favor of the “Mayan Train,” even as environmentalists and indigenous peoples fiercely protested. As “democratic” as the referendum may seem, it has no validity under current law, and the speed at which this initiative was put to a vote and the lack of public information on a project that will cost $6 to $8 billion are extremely concerning.
Despite such concerns, AMLO has stated he plans to move forward with the train. It is intended to run on 932 miles of track, nearly one third to be laid through tropical forests. It will pass through Campeche, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Tabasco and the Yucatán, where some of Mexico’s most important natural and archaeological treasures are located. These states are also home to critical habitats of stunning biodiversity. Mexico is one of 17 megadiverse countries, hosting the world’s second largest number of ecosystems. But its forests and mangroves are disappearing at an alarming rate.
On Nov. 15, hundreds of scientists, environmentalists, human rights defenders, cultural figures and non-governmental organizations addressed a letter to AMLO, condemning decision-making by inadequate public consultation and asking for a cancellation of the referendum. “High biodiversity sites must be preserved according to the most stringent international standards,” they wrote, “taking into account the indigenous peoples who have been the guarantors of their territories and custodians of the natural and cultural wealth of our country.” In response, AMLO uploaded three videos touting the train to his Twitter and Facebook followers and accused the signers of the letter of elitism, telling them they needed to “rub shoulders with the people.” The train is meant to promote economic development in and around the region’s principal tourist centers.
An endeavor of the train’s magnitude cannot proceed without a wide-ranging evaluation of its environmental, cultural and archaeological impacts. The environmental impact assessment must then be evaluated by federal authorities and open to public consultations. It also requires permission from the indigenous peoples through whose territory the train will run. The 1989 Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention states that indigenous communities must give free, prior and informed consent “to legislative or administrative measures which may affect them directly.” Mexico’s National Indigenous Network threatened legal action if work begins on the train in violation of international law. As Mayan communities in the Yucatán peninsula have said, “There’s nothing Mayan about the train.”