Sustainable Tourism

The Mayan Train – Environment or Economy?

Controversy: the construction of an environmentally friendly transport method destroys the environment.

Mexico – stereotypically the land of cacti, tacos and tequila, but, in fact, it has a lot more to offer – is currently involved in a big, national controversy. The government is building a new passenger train line, the so called Tren Maya. It connects the famous beach resort city Cancun with Palenque, known for its archeological site. Stops at various popular destinations are included in the route, like Tulum, Playa del Carmen, Chichén Itzá and Mérida, among others. In total, the railway will cover a distance of 1,470 kilometres in the south-east of the country, linking the states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo.  

The new train line is advertised as an environmentally friendly transport system, not just for tourists but also for locals (up to date there is only one other comparable passenger train line in Mexico). So, in theory the building of a railway would be praiseworthy. However, the project is very controversially discussed because the train line is supposed to run through the jungle. By doing so, it is destroying the environment and the ecosystem there. This jungle is one of world’s most unique one since it has, for most parts, not been changed since the time of the ancient Maya. 

Environmental concerns

Scientists and environmental activists in Mexico say that by constructing the Mayan train, very valuable habitats and vulnerable species are being damaged. In order for the train to pass through, it is necessary to cut down large parts of the jungle without regarding the vulnerable species that live there, such as bats and jaguars. 

Jaguars live in this jungle

On top of that, just in that same region, there are underground caves and natural pools, so called cenotes. These are made up of fragile limestone, which could easily break down under the weight of a passenger train. Next to caves and pools there is more to be discovered underneath the surface: the world’s longest underground river, called Sistema Sac Actun (Spanish/Mayan for white cave system). Scientists assume that only a fraction of these existing subterranean systems in the region has so far been explored, mapped and researched. 

In the area, environmental activists and other concerned people are protesting, claiming that if the train were truly Mayan, it would respect the Earth. Scientists criticise the project for being rushed. The government did not take enough time to plan, research and mitigate existing risks. 

They don’t want to recognise the fragility of the land.

Fernanda Lases
Merida-based scientist with the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM)
Underground caves

Economic benefits

The government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, president of Mexico, wants the railway to be completed at the end of this year, while he is still in office. And he has got supporters. Many Mexicans also see the benefits it brings to them: jobs, more visitors, connectivity. Especially the poorer south of the country is mostly in favour of the project; it is usually left out when it comes to national development projects that result in business and work opportunities.

The government claims that it did conduct studies about the environmental impacts the construction would have and that there is nothing to be concerned about. Accordingly, all environmental risks have been mitigated and data has been considered in their construction plan so as not to destroy the fragile environment. However, the speed with which the results of the studies were obtained and the budget was overspent is raising more and more suspicions. In order to preserve the underground system of caves and rivers, the Mexican government then also proposed to elevate the train tracks in that specific section.

The latest Mexican media releases state that for the most controversial and discussed section of the Mayan train line the court put a temporal suspension of the construction into place. The judge ruled in favour of this decision because forest has been cut down without the needed authorization. However, construction continues and other sections of the railway (in undisputed areas) are due to be completed by the end of 2023.

One thought on “The Mayan Train – Environment or Economy?

  • Mexico had a very extensive passenger railway system that was closed in the 1980’s .As far as I know the only remaining bits are the Copper Canyon,a few lines out of Mexico City and the Metro in Mexico City.The Mexican rail system that remains is pretty extensive and freight only.

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