Mexico’s Mayan train suspension divides Indigenous community

Like many of the villages in Calakmul in the south of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, the sleepy, modest town of Xpujil lies alongside the area’s only federal highway. It is this road that is its main source of activity – heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) roar past open buildings; water trucks trundle about, relieving the arid, thirsty town.

Queues of women and children form outside the hospital and, late at night, at the bus station. Some here feel that Xpujil (pronounced Ish-pu-hil) lacks infrastructure.“There are no banks, and the ATMs always run out of cash. I have to go to Chetumal [the nearest city] to get a good phone service,” says Anita, a 26-year-old mother. Many have placed hopes for a better-connected, better-resourced future on a train.Located on the edge of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, in the heart of the second-largest expanse of tropical forests in the Americas, Xpujil is on the blueprint for a new railway project – the Tren Maya – that will connect different locations in Mexico’s touristic Yucatan Peninsula.

But a recent suspension of the construction on the project has caused a bitter conflict in Xpujil, the majority of whose 4,000 or so inhabitants are non-Indigenous migrants and descendants of wood and gum merchants who settled in the 20th century. Mayan and other Indigenous groups live in surrounding communities with no public transport connections.

“I have been subject to personal attacks and victimization,” said Romel Gonzales, a founding member of the Regional Indigenous and Popular Council of Xpujil (CRIPX) which fought for the suspension. “Our opponents have been to the houses of our colleagues and tried to pressure them into desisting.”

In January, CRIPX successfully filed an amparo, or constitutional protection, against the government’s consultation process on the Tren Maya, which would stretch 1,502km (933 miles) and is estimated to cost almost $16bn. The temporarily suspended second section of the line would cut through Calakmul horizontally, running parallel to the highway.Construction of the Calakmul section of the railway, which has not yet begun, has been suspended since February while the state courts decide whether the public consultation held at the end of 2019 excluded the Indigenous communities and thus violated the international Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989.


“The suspension relates to everything to do with the project,” Gonzalez told Al Jazeera via video call. “Not only the consultation. That is to say, it does not suspend only the consultation decision, but the whole project.”

Dzib accuses the CRIPX of being a small group of people who, despite not living in Calakmul, “claim to represent our Indigenous people when they do not”.

He claims that they and other anti-train activists are able to acquire cash from international NGOs, “who act in good faith”, by telling them that the Tren Maya will “raze down the whole jungle”.

“CRIPX has never claimed to legally represent the people who live in Calakmul,” Gonzales said, adding that members of Mexico’s governing party Morena as well as the National Fund for Tourism (FONATUR) have put pressure on local people to abandon their support for his group’s legal action to block the building.

He noted that his group’s actions do not come without risks. In 2020, eight attacks were committed against anti-Tren Maya activists, and 18 environmental defenders were murdered in Mexico, according to a report from the Mexican Centre for Environmental Law, an NGO.

FONATUR, the government agency which manages the project, has denounced CRIPX’s amparo, releasing a statement following its court acceptance saying “the grievances aired by these civil society organizations do not represent the general sentiment of [the Indigenous] communities”.

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