Mexico Wants to Run a Tourist Train Through its Maya Heartland — Should It?

Mexico Wants to Run a Tourist Train Through its Maya Heartland — Should It?

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, Maya 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.

Proposed route of the new Maya train

Pristine forests and Maya 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.

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Cancun, Mexico, is a global tourist destination located miles from traditional Maya villages. Dronepicr/Wikicommons, CC BY

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.

Many Maya on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula still dress, cook and live as their relatives have for millennia. A traditional home in Yucatan. Credit: Anna ART / Adobe Stock

“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.”

The article ‘Mexico Wants to Run a Tourist Train Through its Maya Heartland — Should It?’ by Gabriel Diaz Montemayor was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.


Mexico Wants to Run a Tourist Train Through its Maya Heartland — Should It? - History

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. REUTERS/Mauricio Marat/National Institute of Anthropology and History

Thursday, August 15, 2019 5:51 PM UTC

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 &ndash whose energy policy is focused on increasing fossil fuel production in Mexico and rebuilding the coal industry &ndash has demonstrated little concern for conservation.

Pristine forests and Mayan ruins at risk

As a landscape architecture scholar who has studied Mexico&rsquos 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&rsquos 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 &ndash about 10% fewer than in 1990.

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

Cancun, Mexico, is a global tourist destination located miles from traditional Maya villages. Dronepicr/Wikicommons, CC BY

Building a better Maya Train

I don&rsquot believe López Obrador&rsquos 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&rsquos 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&rsquos 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&rsquos 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.

&ldquoWe don&rsquot accept it,&rdquo a representative of the Zapatistas, a southern Mexican indigenous insurgency, said of the train on July 23. &ldquoWe won&rsquot allow [the government] to come in and destroy&rdquo 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.

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

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

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

&ldquoThis is not 1,525 kilometers of track,&rdquo he said after joining the project. &ldquoIt&rsquos 1,525 kilometers of opportunities that will improve the quality of life for all inhabitants of southeast Mexico.&rdquo


Oct 23 Mexico Wants to Run a Tourist Train through its Mayan Heartland — Should it?

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.


Mexico Wants to Run a Tourist Train Through its Maya Heartland — Should It?

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, Maya 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.


Mexico Wants to Run a Tourist Train Through its Maya Heartland — Should It? - History

Mexico wants to run a tourist train through its Mayan heartland — should it?
Published at The Conversation, on August 13, 2019, here.


México quiere construir un tren en el corazón de la región Maya, ¿debería de hacerlo?
Publicado en The Conversation en español el 27 de agosto de 2019 aquí.

The article has been picked up by a number of publishers, including:

El artículo ha sido republicado en varios medios en español, incluyendo:


McConnell says he favors state bankruptcy over more federal aid

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks to reporters after it was announced U.S. congressional leaders and the White House agreed on nearly $500 billion more in coronavirus relief for the U.S. economy, bringing to nearly $3 trillion the amount allocated to deal with the crisis, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 21, 2020. REUTERS/Tom Brenner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday opened the door to allowing U.S. states to file for bankruptcy to deal with economic losses stemming from the coronavirus outbreak that are punching big holes in their budgets.

McConnell, in a radio interview, said Republicans would not support giving state and local governments more money in future coronavirus aid legislation, saying those funds could end up being used to bail out state pensions.

Speaking on the Hugh Hewitt syndicated radio program, McConnell said he instead “would certainly be in favor of allowing states to use the bankruptcy route.”

The IShares National Muni Bond Exchange Traded Fund ( MUB ) traded lower after the news.

Currently, states cannot file for bankruptcy, while cities and other local governments can use Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy to restructure their debt if allowed by their states. Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth, commenced a form of municipal bankruptcy in 2017 after the U.S. Congress authorized it.

In a letter to Congressional leaders, including McConnell, the National Governors Association on Tuesday reiterated its call for an additional $500 billion to replace revenue lost by the states. The $2.3 trillion federal CARES Act allocated $150 billion to states and local governments exclusively to cover virus-related expenses.

With social distancing and stay-at-home orders in place around the nation aimed at slowing the virus’ spread, nonessential businesses and services have shuttered, leading to skyrocketing unemployment and lower consumer spending. As a result, cities and states are starting to project deep revenue losses, particularly for big money generators like income and sales taxes.

Reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington and Karen Pierog in Chicago Editing by Alden Bentley, Chizu Nomiyama and Sonya Hepinstall


Mexico's president goes full-steam ahead with Mayan train

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador waves to supporters in Lazaro Cardenas, Quintana Roo state, Mexico, Monday, June 1, 2020. Amid a pandemic and the remnants of a tropical storm, President Lopez Obrador kicked off Mexico's return to a "new normal" Monday with his first road trip in two months as the nation began to gradually ease some virus-inspired restrictions. (AP Photo/Victor Ruiz)

MEXICO CITY – Residents of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula remember riding trains to visit relatives or sell their produce decades ago, so when President Andrés Manuel López Obrador made a nostalgic pitch to build a “Mayan train” through the region's jungles the mainly indigenous residents were initially receptive to the idea.

Two years later, as the president inaugurates a leg of the project’s construction Wednesday, that initial enthusiasm has dissipated for a project that would run through five southern states carrying tourists from the resorts of Cancún and Playa del Carmen to the Mayan ruins at Palenque. Many communities in the train’s path feel deceived by scarce information, while activists fear the social and environmental impacts.

But López Obrador remains laser focused on completing one of his signature projects despite the legal challenges and even a pandemic that has killed more than 10,000 Mexicans. If anything, the pandemic has made the project more urgent in the president’s mind.

López Obrador says it will create 80,000 jobs at a time that nearly a million have been lost to the lockdown caused by the novel coronavirus. The train would run some 950 miles (about 1,500 kilometers) from Caribbean beaches to the peninsula’s interior while stimulating economic development around its 15 stations. The government says it will cost as much as $6.8 billion, but others say it will be much more.

López Obrador originally conceived of it as an economic development project to help a long-neglected part of the country. But many locals are beginning to see it differently.

“The train is going to open the heart of the peninsula and bleed it dry little by little,” said Pedro Uc, a member of the assembly of defenders of Mayan Territory Múuch Xiinbal and resident of Buctzotz, a community east of Merida. “There will be (benefits), but in whose pockets?”

Uc said the project will divide communities and bring insecurity. Cancun’s rapid development as a tourist mecca led many away from their communities in search of work only to return years later as crime accelerated.

López Obrador launched the project in early 2019, shortly after taking office. From the start, critics questioned the financial viability of a tourist and cargo train. Even the man in charge of executing the project, tourism development director Rogelio Jiménez Pons, concedes the timeline was accelerated.

“Yes, we’ve skipped some steps, but we are forced to by the circumstances of the political terms,” he said last year, referring to the president’s six-year term.

Since then, the Mayan train has been the cure-all for every challenge. In addition to boosting the southeast’s economic development, López Obrador said it could help solve the region's migration problems by generating work for Central American migrants. Now, he says it will play a critical part of Mexico’s economic recovery from the pandemic.

Ezer May, an anthropologist and historian from Kimila east of Merida, said initially many people were swept up in the nostalgia for the Mayan train. His own grandparents used to ride the train to Merida. People believed it could bring tourists and higher paying jobs and they trusted López Obrador, who railed against corruption and always spoke of helping the poor.

But as they learned more, they felt the government wasn’t telling the whole story. They worried about developers taking their land for things unrelated to their way of life or needs.

“It’s not about whether we are the minority or the majority, it’s about the threat to our culture, our language, our way of producing," Uc said.

The train will run through Mexico’s largest tropical forest, yet few environmental assessments have been made public and those that have warn of significant impacts. The region is full of prehispanic archaeological sites and has a distinctive hydrological system of interconnected subterranean caverns and sinkholes that could be at risk.

“They are forcing us to enter a reality that does not consider our way of life,” Uc said.

The government says otherwise. It touts outreach it has done in these communities that culminated in public consultation in December where more than 90% of those who participated voiced support for the project. However, the United Nations criticized the way the referendum was carried out, noting that only positive information about the project was presented to people. Others pointed to low turnout.

“Very few people went to vote due to disinterest because of the bad information,” said Verónica Rosado, a pastry maker from Izamal, who says she’s not totally opposed to the project, but doesn’t like the way it’s being carried out.

But by making the inauguration of the project's construction his first trip in two months while coronavirus infections are peaking, López Obrador has made it clear that more time is not something he is willing to give.

The start of construction “arrives at a good moment,” the president said Tuesday. “It’s needed to reactivate the economy.”

In recent months, a court blocked work from starting on stations next to villages inside the Calakmul biosphere in Campeche state. Communities in Chiapas, another state it would pass through, requested a halt because they fear the coronavirus will spread if work begins, and 300 families in Campeche are fighting in court against evictions.

On Tuesday, more than 240 academics and groups said in a statement that the government “dismissed and disobeyed judicial orders” and recommendations of the National Human Rights Commission to push ahead with the project.

López Obrador denies the train will damage the areas it traverses.

“Some who don’t know the southeast could believe what our opponents maintain, that the train will affect the land, that it is going to affect the environment,” he said. “There is no effect” because it will use existing track.

The pandemic has made it more difficult to organize and protest the government’s plan, said May, the anthropologist.

“People are not focused these days on the train, nor Andrés Manuel’s visit, but rather on having something to eat today, having something to eat tomorrow and not getting infected with the virus,” he said. “I’m afraid to say it but I believe they’re going to build the train and the conflict will come after.”

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.


Eye on the Industry: A Tourist Train in Mexico, Plastics Banned on Everest, and Employee Happiness

Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) team members frequently share breaking news, helpful information, and trend highlights with each other. Below is a curated list of the industry news, global updates, and operational ideas we’ve been reading and discussing over the past several weeks that we think you’ll also find informative, inspiring, and intriguing.

Industry News

Could Bali Learn Lessons from Bhutan? (Gapura Bali) – Bali is struggling with the weight of mass tourism, and Bhutan’s land conservation measurements, cultural tax, and other sustainable initiatives may offer a better blueprint for tourism development.

Travel: An Extreme Sport for Africans (GlobalVoices) – The difficulty Africans face to get visas highlights the institutional racism underpinning the notion that African professionals and creatives cannot be trusted to obey the law.

Art, Exercise or a Nap? All Could Be Yours During a Long Layover (New York Times) – Airports in the United States, in particular, are incorporating more cultural and fitness amenities.

A Modest Proposal to Make Air Travel Obsolete (CityLab) – Germany’s Green Party has put forth a proposal to expand train lines and eliminate domestic flights by 2035.

Mexico Wants to Run a Tourist Train Through Its Mayan Heartland – Should It? (The Conversation) – Development of the rail system would expose marginalized populations to tourism revenue, but there are social and environmental consequences to consider.

Global Issues

Indigenous Communities, Nat’l Parks Suffer as Malaysia Razes Its Reserves (Mongabay) – Between 2001 and 2018, Kelantan lost around 28% of its tree cover, and the trend shows no signs of slowing any time soon.

Nepal Bans Single-Use Plastic on Everest (SNEWS) – The ban, which begins January 2020, comes after a 45-day clean-up effort removed 24,200 pounds of garbage from the mountain.

World’s Forest Animal Population Sinks Drastically: WWF Report (Deutsche Welle) – The study, Below The Canopy, found the numbers of birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles have dropped by an average of 53% since 1970.

Turning Europe Into a Giant Wind Farm Could Power the Entire World (World Economic Forum) – A research team recently mapped Europe’s potential for harnessing wind energy.

Scientists May Have Just Saved the Northern White Rhino from Extinction (TreeHugger) – Could a successful egg harvest and fertilization bring the species back from the brink of extinction?

Business Tips

Four Ways to Become a More Self-Aware Leader (Quartz at Work) – To grow as decision-makers, managers, and colleagues, leaders need to learn how to honestly assess their strengths and weaknesses.

The Surprising Psychological Reasons You’re Procrastinating – And How to Fight It (Thrive Global) – Clarifying what you’re avoiding and how you’re wasting your time can help alleviate the tendency to procrastinate.

Five Ways for Workplaces to Support Employee Happiness (Greater Good Magazine) – The happiest employees feel engaged and like their work matters.

5 Incredible Content Marketing Examples From Travel Brands (Contently) – From branded print media to quizzes on vacation styles, these travel brands offer information while exposing readers to their expertise.

Great Mentors Focus on the Whole Person, Not Just Their Career (Harvard Business Review) – A holistic approach to mentorship does a better job at helping people reach their full potential.


Moctezuma’s Crown

This Headdress the “Mona Lisa of anthropology” may be returning to Mexico for the first time in 500 years

Mexico and Austria may be nearing an agreement which would allow this stunning crown to be returned to Mexico. This feaethered headdress, or kopilli ketzalli currently sits in the Vienna Museum of Ethnology. It was sent there by Hernán Cortés in the mid 16th century as a gift to Charles V, the Kindg of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. There are over 400 Quetzal feathers in the headdress. The gold helmet attached to the feathers was melted down. But there are obstacles to the return of the headdress: