Essay II – Tren Maya

Tren Maya – The Mexican Way to (Un)Sustainable Development?

There is no need to convince anyone that transport infrastructure is one of the foundations of development. However, new roads and railways are only sustainable if, simultaneously, they attract business, if different social groups benefit from them by sharing in the profits and if they have a neutral impact on the environment. Authorities in virtually every corner of the world see the expansion of the road and railway networks as an excellent tool for achieving their strategic goals. Also, the vast majority of inhabitants realize that without improving transportation it is very difficult to achieve any significant economic and social progress. Most often they are in favour of this type of investment, but not if it concerns their immediate neighbourhood (the so-called NIMBY effect).

In view of the above, it may be supposed that Mexicans would be enthusiastic about their government’s plan to build Tren Maya (Spanish for Maya Train). However, already in November 2018, right after the announcement of the project, citizens began to protest on the streets of Mérida (one of the larger cities of the region covered by the investment). On January 1, 2019 – the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the rebellion – the Zapatista Army of National Liberation expressed its readiness to fight in defence of those who would suffer the greatest losses as a result of the project’s implementation. Why so much controversy?

Tren Maya – basic information

What do we know about Tren Maya? It is a railway project for passenger (including tourist) and freight traffic. The new line is to be over 1.5 thousand kilometres long and have 19 stations distributed among 44 municipalities in 5 states of the south of Mexico: Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatan and Quintana Roo. Most of the route runs along the edges of the Yucatan Peninsula. The name of the investment comes from the Maya, i.e. the indigenous peoples living in these areas. The project envisages the construction of new tracks, partly overlapping the course of the old and now ineffective railway. The steel rails will be laid on concrete sleepers and basalt ballast aggregate. It will be equipped with 75 diesel-electric (hybrid) passenger trains traveling at an average speed of 130 km/h and maximum speed – 160 km/h and freight trains (80 and 120 km/h respectively). By European standards it is not a high-speed railway but by Mexican – it is. Passenger trains will consist of 5-7 carriages, adapted to the needs of disabled people, with air conditioning, video screens, panoramic windows, and a cafeteria. Fares will be calculated on the basis of the kilometres travelled and the type of travellers (the lowest for locals, the highest – for foreign tourists).

Tren Maya is the apple of the eye of president Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The initiative – coordinated by the National Tourism Development Fund (Fonatur) – will be completed shortly before the end of his term of office, i.e. before December 2024. This is the largest investment – affecting an area of 8 million ha – covered by the National Development Plan. In 2018, its cost was estimated at USD 6-7 billion, but already in 2019 it was admitted that it would amount to over USD 37 billion! Initially, Tren Maya was to be financed 90% from the private sector, but it was eventually decided that almost all of it would come from the state budget. It is worth emphasizing that, typically, large projects are not recommended by promoters of the idea of sustainable development, as they often bring more losses than benefits. Therefore they recommend a large number of smaller undertakings, preferably initiated and co-implemented by civil society. This is not the case with Tren Maya. No wonder then that the construction of this railway has attracted public attention in Mexico and around the world.

Tren Maya through the eyes of its supporters

The Tren Maya concept concerns a region covering about 20% of the country’s territory, comprising 13.5% of the population, but generating only 9.5% of GDP (as of 2018). So it is not only Mexico’s geographic but also economic periphery. The new railway infrastructure will become an integral part of the national transport network, which will guarantee the free movement of people and goods. The federal administration predicts that this will increase the investment attractiveness of this backward region. It also assumes that the project will enable economic development, which will be more evenly distributed. So far, the value of the region’s final goods and services has been generated in a small part of these 5 states, namely: in Cancún and the Mayan Riviera (tourist centre), in parts of the coast of Campeche and Tabasco (oil industry) and in the agglomeration of the city of Mérida (an important cultural centre). Now this is about to change. Tren Maya will release the economic potential of many areas. It will connect places scattered all over the Yucatan Peninsula – tourist attractions which so far have been little known and difficult to access (rain forests, beaches, cenotes, pueblos mágicos, archaeological sites). The project supporters claim that thanks to this, tourist traffic – now practically concentrated in Cancún, and thus also a nuisance for people and nature – will be more evenly distributed. This approach is in line with sustainable development.

Tren Maya supporters argue that not only big business will benefit from the investment. Poor indigenous communities will also share in the profits (7.3 million people live in poverty in the 5 states where the project is being implemented, with 30% in its extreme form). Nearly 144,000 Maya people live within 1 km from the planned railway line, but within 10 km – over 620 thousand. A press article citing government sources claims that nearly 0.5 million jobs will be created for local people. They will be jobs directly related to the implementation of the investment, but also those that will be created later, along with the increase in the number of foreign tourists (by about 4 million). More Mayans will find employment, for example, as guides at archaeological sites, and in the area within 10 km from the railway line there are as many as 1,288 such sites (out of 7274 documented sites in 5 states). The authorities argue that the new investment will also minimize the large scale of emigration.

From the official website of the investment, we learn that Tren Maya is not only a railway line construction, but also a number of accompanying investments related to the development of extensive areas around new stations. Business and pro-social activities are to be carried out there (e.g. establishing hospitals). As a result, there is a threat that many communal lands (ejidos), so far used in agriculture and forestry, will be expropriated and sold. The lands were given to the Maya with the right to perpetual exploitation in the wake of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20 (the Maya had no property before). To prevent protests, the authorities proposed the creation of the Infrastructure and Real Estate Fund (FIBRA), which they believe will also provide financial benefits to indigenous people. As part of it, external investors as well as ejido members joining the fund introduce their assets to the stock exchange (the former – infrastructure and real estate, e.g. hotels, the latter – land).

And what do investment supporters say about environmental issues? They emphasize that Tren Maya trains will run mainly on biodiesel, so they will emit a small amount of pollutants into the atmosphere. Moreover, they refer to the report published in December 2020, which showed an “acceptable” level of environmental impact from the construction of the first three sections of the railway line (631 km). They indicate that the implementation of these parts of the project will transform only 6,06 km2 of land, where over 11,000 trees and shrubs will be removed. These, however, make up less valuable secondary plant habitats. They explain that the removal of vegetation is needed to free up space for construction works. In return, they plan to plant thousands of fruit-bearing and wood-productive trees.

The above arguments sound convincing, but are they really? Maybe it’s just pulling wool over our eyes and masking the negative effects of the investment?

Tren Maya through the eyes of opponents

The Mayans accuse the authorities of violating the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, which entered into force in Mexico in 1991. These include the right of indigenous people to effectively participate in decision making concerning investments on their lands. In November 2018 – quickly and without publishing information in indigenous languages – a “national” referendum was organized in which only 1% of the population took part and almost 90% supported Tren Maya. Only a year later, under the pressure of international organizations,public consultations were organized. However, they were only informative in nature (and that at a poor level). They were also not widespread, because only representatives of selected Mayan communities participated in them. Also, indigenous people could not propose any changes.

Researcher Violeta Núñez Rodríguez has warned that the FIBRA fund does not serve the Maya, but is actually an “elegant” way of expropriating their communal lands (ejidos). By ceding the land to the fund, farmers, in a way, come into possession of the land, but actually lose the right to use it. Only after 4 years from the end of the fund’s investments, they can get rid of their shares or buy the remaining shares from business partners, i.e. large companies. Only then can they re-use the land. Mostly, however, they cannot afford it, so the land would remain privately-owned, become subject to speculation and, over time, to urbanization. In this way, agriculture disappears from the land and the traditional way of farming – milpa – along with it. Most likely, not only indigenous farmers, but also indigenous guides engaged in ecotourism will lose on Tren Maya. I heard of such concerns from members of the Visit Calakmul, tourist co-operative founded in 2014, associating five Mayan settlements.

Samuel Rosado Zaidi of the National Autonomous University of Mexico observed that one of the objectives of the investment is to create an efficient agri-food chain. They say the railway will serve as transport for the needs of the agro-industry. It is intended to connect the soybean farming areas which provide soybean for livestock (the municipality of Hopelchén) with pig farms around Mérida and the port in Progreso, from where pork is exported to East Asia. If this is the case, Tren Maya ignores the indigenous peoples. This is because the soybean plantations belong to the regional agricultural tycoons (e.g. Grupo Xacur) and to the Mennonites, originating from the Netherlands and characterized by high agricultural culture, who have established several settlements in the area in the last 20-30 years. They, and not the Mayans, will participate in the profits. To make matters worse, the new investment will increase deforestation as commodity farming is expansionary. With the shrinking of forests, the existence of forest stingless Melipona bees is at risk, and beekeeping is the main source of income for many of the local people (the region produces 35-40% of Mexico’s honey). Even if the extermination of the bees does not take place, the indigenous population will suffer a loss. The honey – produced thanks to forests adjacent to the Mennonite plantations – is more and more often contaminated with pollen from genetically modified soybean from the Monsanto transnational corporation, and therefore less often accepted in Europe as an organic-farming certified product.

According to a report by the Scientific Council of Science and Technology, the Tren Maya official documents focus on the commercial use of Mayan culture as a driving force in the tourism industry (Mundo Maya). They claim that the new investment – by accelerating the overall commodification of this culture – will result in a gradual departure of the indigenous population from their own practices and customs (only some of them are displayed to tourists, and others are forgotten). They fear that areas adjacent to the railway will share the fate of Maya land on which the “eco-archaeological park” of Xcaret was built, which in in fact in no more than an exclusive theme park. They also warn that the development of the zone adjacent to the railway will make it impossible to uncover and catalogue many remnants of the ancient Mayan civilization and could even destroy some of them.

Environmentalists observe that although biodiesel as a fuel is ecological, it will have to be imported from abroad, and its transport will generate pollution. They also emphasize that the government’s report on the environmental impact of the investment was made public only after the investment had been approved. Moreover, the report does not take into account the sections of the railway running through 10 protected nature reserves. One of them is the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve with great biodiversity and endemic flora and fauna. Scientists warn that the expansion of urban areas accompanying the construction of the railway will reduce the size of the mostly primeval equatorial forests in the reserve and divide them into patches separated by areas used by humans. This fragmentation of habitats will result in the gradual extinction of species as a result of human-made disasters (e.g. anthropogenic fires). There will be an increase in road accidents, large mammals especially – such as jaguars and tapirs – fall victim to accidents as they migrate further and further in search of water that is dwindling due to climate change. Specialists also remind us that fences will be built along the railway lines to block the migration of animals. The large colony of 9 species of insectivorous bats living in the El Volcán de los Murciélagos cave is especially endangered. Unfortunately, the cave is located only a few hundred meters from the future railway. Passing trains will probably cause vibrations leading to the collapse of the cave, which is practically the only shelter for the bats. The bats are likely to die out, and with them the plant species that are pollinated by them. The number of insects will also increase, which will make life difficult for the local people, which is already hard enough.

And what’s next?

The conflict between Tren Maya’s supporters and opponents is not over. Initially, the authorities avoided cooperating with the local people. Now they are trying to correct their mistake and are looking for a dialogue. In 2020, the construction of the railway line started in full swing. By January 2021, the results of tenders for the construction, electrification and maintenance of five (out of 7) sections of the route were announced. The contractors are Mexican companies (most often owned by the richest man in Mexico, i.e. Carlos Slim Helú), and Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the government does not intend to abandon the investment or modify it significantly. In addition, it has new ideas. It recently announced it would build two international airports in the Yucatan Peninsula: Tulum (cost: $250 million) and Mérida.

Does the phrase “business as usual” hold true in the case of Tren Maya, meaning business at the expense of the indigenous population and the environment? Or maybe it is not a very successful, but nonetheless sincere attempt to implement the principles of sustainable development? You need to answer these questions yourself. And one more thing. Keep a close eye on the implementation of this investment, because the Yucatán Peninsula is part of the world’s natural and cultural heritage.


The above activities form part of the GEODESOLA project co-financed by the National Agency for Academic Exchange (NAWA) under the “Foreign Promotion” program.


Maciej Kałaska Maciej Kałaska – geographer, Dr. of Earth Sciences, lecturer at the Faculty of Geography and Regional Studies at the University of Warsaw, science populariser and vice-chairman of the Warsaw Branch of the Polish Geographical Society. A lover of the nature, cities and cuisines of Latin American, Middle Eastern, North African and East Asian countries.