Tren Maya project draws legal challenges


Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in Campeche state, with its Mayan ruins and tropical forest, is among the protected areas where critics of the Tren Maya project fear railway construction and tourism development could degrade environmental and cultural resources. (Photo by Shutterstock)

Well before taking office on Dec. 1, 2018, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador made clear what his signature public-works initiative would be: a 1,500-kilometer (930-mile) railway. The US$8 billion Tren Maya project, for which construction has been proceeding on a limited basis since last June, aims to link resort- and cultural-tourism destinations on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula with hybrid diesel and electric train service. Running in part along existing right of way, the trains would trace a circular, 19-stop route connecting López Obrador’s home state of Tabasco with the states of Campeche, Quintana Roo, Yucatán and Chiapas. Some 70% of the train service would be devoted to tourist transport and the rest to local freight.

For López Obrador, the project represents a springboard not only for tourism development, but also a range of other economic activities in southeast Mexico—a region he has described as “left behind by neoliberal policy.” Said the president in a pre-inauguration, November 2018 speech about the project: “The southeast is a wealth of natural resources with great potential. It holds 70% of this country’s water, oil, gas, jungles and some of the world’s most beautiful archeological sites, but the region is abandoned.”

Yet concerns about impacts that could be caused in the pursuit of that wealth have fueled a heated legal battle over the Tren Maya project. While supporters argue the railway would bring economic opportunity to local Mayan communities and create a climate-friendlier means of transport in the process, opponents counter that it will fragment and degrade the environmental and cultural resources those communities prize. State by state, local opponents and allied advocacy groups have taken to the Mexican courts to block the project, scoring some early successes.

“The government sells the Tren Maya as a project to carry tourists and cargo,” says a project opponent who is active in the litigation but declined to be quoted by name for fear of reprisals. “What our suits are bringing to light is that this is a lie. The project is to create new cities and urban developments that would seriously impact the peninsula on an environmental and social level. Failing to recognize this constitutes a lack of public information.”

President López Obrador inaugurated work on the railway last June despite the pandemic and a nationwide lockdown, waving a blue starting flag as he stood in front of large yellow construction vehicles in the Quintana Roo municipality of Lázaro Cárdenas. The work, overseen by Mexico’s state-run National Tourism Development Fund (Fonatur), is taking place in seven sections. In a process opponents have criticized as opaque, contracts for four sections have thus far been bid out to private contractors and construction of the three others has been put in the hands of Sedena, Mexico’s national defense agency.

The plan calls for replacing existing track from Palenque, in Section 1, to Valladolid, which is halfway along Section 4. But between Valladolid and Escárcega, at the end of Section 7, land-use permits must be obtained for construction along some 790 kilometers (490 miles) where no rail line yet exists. Once in full operation, the railway is slated to carry visitors to and from stations near popular tourism sites including Palenque, Mérida, Chichén Itzá, Cancún, Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Along the way, they will traverse residential property, communal lands, and conservation and cultural reserves. President López Obrador says the first train will run by the end of 2023, but has not specified how much of the route will be built by then—a particularly hard question to answer given the lawsuits hampering the project.

The litigation centers on accusations of flawed government assessment and disclosure of environmental and social impacts. Project organizers conducted two referendums on the Tren Maya. The first was a nationwide vote that López Obrador’s political party, the National Regeneration Movement, held in 2018, a week before he took office. The second, in December 2019, was limited to the five affected states. In both polls, the project was approved by large margins, respectively winning 89.9% and 92.3% of the vote. But both also drew condemnation in Mexico and internationally for their extremely low turnout—with just over 1% of Mexico’s registered voters casting ballots in the nationwide poll and fewer than 3% in the five-state referendum.

Proponents’ aggressive pro-approval framing of the referendums also came in for criticism, with observers charging that virtually no information was presented on potentially negative effects. Not until June 16, 2020, did Fonatur file a regional environmental-impact statement with Mexico’s Environment and Natural Resources Secretariat (Semarnat), the country’s lead environmental agency. The document only addressed the railway’s first three sections—and incompletely at that, Semarnat officials acknowledged. Even though impact statements on the four other sections have yet to be filed, the agency approved the statement covering the first three once it received the information it had requested.

Tren Maya opponents charge this piecemeal approach is intentional. “Environmental law stipulates projects must be presented in their entirety [before being decided on],” says Gustavo Alanís, director of the Mexican Center for Environmental Law (Cemda), a nonprofit advocacy group. “By fragmenting the project in stages and sections, you avoid measuring cumulative impact and the synergy of the combination of all the elements. This is a deliberate strategy to minimize the appearance of environmental impact.”

Fonatur’s point person on Tren Maya environmental issues, Luis Miguel del Villar, says his agency is working with government and community stakeholders along the project route to seek the “best use of the land.” Claiming environmental restoration is a key priority, he notes protected areas in the region suffer from a lack of funding for enforcement and other operational needs. Says Del Villar: “We want the synergy created by the train to translate into an improvement in the operation and conservation of the protected areas.”

Alanís counters that the government is superimposing a rail project onto the Yucatán Peninsula that conflicts with existing land-use laws and agreements. “You can’t design a project as you wish and then bend the land-use laws around its needs,” he argues. “By failing to take into account existing local, national and international legislation, this project is making a total mockery of them. This creates doubt, concern, mistrust and has led to legal action.”

Indeed, over a dozen lawsuits have been filed to block work on different sections of the railway, with plaintiffs including Mayan communities and environmental and human rights groups. Thus far, the courts have been receptive, issuing partial work stoppages pending resolution of the litigation. While they have allowed the replacement of existing track to continue, they have suspended work on infrastructure outside of existing rail right-of-way.

Legal challenges have multiplied since project opponents secured a pair of suspension orders in late 2020 and early this year. In December, a Campeche state court ordered work unrelated to track replacement halted on the second section of the train route, from Escárcega to Calkiní, while a complaint addressing that stage of the project is heard. Then in February, a Yucatán state court issued a similar order for the railway’s third section near Chocholá, Mérida and Izamal pending resolution of the case. In requesting the suspension, Kanan, a Mérida-based human-rights group, argued the environmental-impact statement is incomplete.

The government is expected to appeal any adverse rulings while continuing track-replacement work. Yet new cases are cropping up on a monthly basis. In March, a Yucatán state court issued suspension orders in connection with work that project opponents challenged in three different areas of the third section. The court cited Article 15 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which urges governments to take a precautionary approach, erring on the side of environmental protection. Said the court: “It is the public administration’s duty to warn, regulate, control, oversee and restrict certain activities which pose risks to the environment.”

Southeast Mexico is known worldwide for cultural and natural riches including Mayan ruins, biodiverse jungle, networks of freshwater aquifers and limestone sinkholes, or cenotes, and extensive Caribbean beaches. Tren Maya proponents say their aim is to make the region’s natural and archeological riches more accessible to visitors—currently 17 million annually, Fonatur estimates. President López Obrador is also banking on the project to provide an important conduit for freight service to Yucatán Peninsula tourist centers and the rest of Mexico. Said the president on Oct. 9, 2020, during a visit to Palenque: “Food, game, fruit and other products from the southeast can be transported to the tourist centers such as Cancún and also out of the region. Rail freight is cheaper than road freight, so it will bring huge benefits.”

An ongoing flashpoint for debate is the project’s potential effect on cultural resources. The rail route traverses numerous areas of archeological riches, linking five Unesco World Heritage Sites—Uxmal, Palenque, Chichén Itzá, Calakmul and Campeche’s fortress. President López Obrador insists that by helping showcase such sites, the Tren Maya will promote their preservation, but many experts worry rail construction will damage undiscovered sites.

Fonatur reports project crews have come across 11,000 pre-Hispanic archeological “monuments,” insisting work is being slowed to ensure their proper conservation. Experts such as Felipe Echenique, a historian at Mexico’s National History and Anthropology Institute, are deeply skeptical. Says Echenique: “Archeological sites are of the greatest importance, and they are going to be destroyed with no mercy, silently, by construction of the Tren Maya.”

The train route will also traverse at least 10 natural reserves, Fonatur’s Del Villar acknowledges. Environmentalists worry that the rail line itself—and the tourism-industry growth it could spawn—will cause ever-greater fragmentation of these and other natural areas. Government plans to build 200 underpasses to allow animals to cross under the tracks do not mollify project critics, who point out that numerous species in the region are under threat and in some cases in danger of going extinct in the region. Among these species are the jaguar, howler monkey, spider monkey, crocodile and certain parrot species. Further degradation of their habitat, Cemda’s Alanís says, could undermine Mexico’s ability to meet the terms of international agreements it has signed on flora and fauna conservation.

Water supply is another concern. Despite southeast Mexico’s unique formations of aquifers and cenotes, many of the region’s rural communities lack adequate water service. Communities fear the region’s water supplies, already impacted by encroaching industrial agriculture, will be further taxed by tourism development, making it hard for local residents to meet their basic needs.

Fonatur’s Del Villar insists this will not be the case. “We will not rely on community water supplies,” he says. “We are conducting studies to see how much water the communities need and how much more can be sustainably extracted for tourism. Only once we have water figures will we be able to project visitor numbers.” The water studies have not been completed, but Fonatur is clearly counting on the Tren Maya to spur substantial tourism growth, calculating a net 50-billion-peso (US$7.5-billion) economic benefit from increased visits to the region during the 30-year period 2023-53.

A related worry is contamination of water sources due to tourism-driven increases in waste volumes and expansion of agrochemical-intensive farming. With tourism development and large-scale agriculture likely to benefit from passenger and freight rail service, small-scale farmers worry their lands will come under increasing pressure in this and other ways. “The change of land use and vision ... associated with the Mayan train project is challenging because our cultural identity is rooted in our interaction with our environment and natural resources,” says Leydy Pech, a beekeeper. (See "Campeche beekeeper honored for efforts to curb transgenic crops" —EcoAméricas, January 2021.)

While many indigenous communities view the Tren Maya as an appropriation of their cultural identity for the benefit of an alien economic model, Rogelio Jiménez Pons, Fonatur’s director, insists the railway will improve—not threaten—their communities. Says Pons: “We will integrate communities into production chains to increase the value of their products, and incorporate small-scale rural producers into new markets, reduce their transport costs, increase their digital connectivity, facilitate their access to labor markets and generate new economic opportunities.”

President López Obrador argues that it is the ongoing lack of economic opportunity that most threatens the region’s environment, since people often have no option but to harm natural habitats for survival. “But if there is work,” he says, “there is well-being, and people will be able to protect the environment.”

Critics such as the Mexican Center for Environmental Law, for their part, acknowledge the need for investment, but they contend plans for it must be shaped and guided by local stakeholders in a transparent process—not imposed, preformed, from on high. Noting large stretches of the rail route have been militarized, the group says: “When development is carried out respecting human rights and adhering to the law, it is not necessary to use the armed forces.” Adds Alanís, Cemda’s director: “This project will accentuate social inequality, and will end up tearing the social fabric, provoking divisions within communities.”

- Lara Rodríguez

In the Index: Rendering of station planned for Palenque (Courtesy of Fonatur)

Gustavo Alanís
Mexican Center for Environmental Law
Mexico City, Mexico
Tel: +(52 55) 5211-2457
Felipe Echenique
National History and Anthropology Institute (INAH)
Cuernavaca, Mexico
Tel: +(52 777) 381-0198
Kanan Human Rights Group
Mérida, Mexico
Rogelio Jiménez Pons
Mexico City, Mexico
Tel: +(52 55) 5090-4212
Leydy Pech
Hopelchén, Campeche, Mexico
Luis Miguel del Villar Ponce
Mexico City, Mexico
Documents & Resources
  1. Mexican Center for Environmental Law analysis of the Tren Maya project: link

  2. Mexican government environmental impact statement covering first three sections of the Tren Maya route (Impact statements for the remaining phases have yet to be issued): link

  3. Report on privatization and impact on Yucatán Peninsula communal lands, by the Mexican Civil Council for Sustainable Silviculture: link