The Mayan Train Raises a New Leviathan in Mexico: Civil Society Organizations

David Lovatón Palacios*

Versión en español aquí.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador recently embraced an unfounded smear campaign against civil society organizations (CSOs) and international foundations that have supported initiatives and decisions that—on legal grounds—challenge or oppose the “Mayan Train” mega-project in the Yucatán Peninsula and other states in southeastern Mexico. It seems that the president is beginning to suffer from the binary and decidedly authoritarian political syndrome seen in many Latin American rulers: either you’re with me or you’re against me.

At an August 28, 2020 press conference, the President of Mexico mentioned—complete with names, charts, and figures—the donations that some civil society organizations (CSOs) receive from international foundations, implying that our support for initiatives that question or oppose the “Mayan Train” mega-project is based not on a genuine desire to protect the human rights of potentially affected indigenous communities, the right of access to public information, or the environment, but on mere financial interests. The president repeated similar accusations in his press conferences of September 3 and 4, 2020.

This stigmatization effort follows a script that is well-known in Latin America: CSOs that challenge the interests of those in power are accused of receiving resources from abroad and of doing everything they do for money rather than out of a commitment to human rights, the rule of law, and democracy. Fujimori in Peru, Uribe in Colombia, Correa in Ecuador, Chavez and Maduro in Venezuela, Ortega in Nicaragua, Bukele in El Salvador, and Bolsonaro in Brazil are some of the presidents who have availed themselves of this narrative in recent Latin American history.

These campaigns also have the advantage of diverting attention and hiding the real problems that the current president offered to solve, but—after a few years in office—failed to deliver on, at least not on the scale or at the speed expected. So, the administration manufactures foreign and domestic enemies who supposedly reject development by obstructing its policies or mega-projects. It begins to blame these enemies for its own mistakes in the typical morning or Saturday broadcasts or on television programs like the late President Hugo Chavez’s Alo Presidente: “It’s their fault, not ours.”

It is unfortunate that a president like Andrés Manuel López Obrador has lent himself to this type of campaign, since he himself had to contend with a colossal media and business machine that did everything in its power to try to keep him from winning the 2018 elections. That machine only ceased operations when his landslide electoral victory was imminent.

Many of his current authorities and officials come from the ranks of civil society and have also been stigmatized or attacked in the past, so he knows—or should know—full well that for decades now, long before the “Mayan Train,” Mexico has had a mosaic of social organizations working to improve workers’ conditions, combat violence and discrimination against women, improve the quality of life of children, fight poverty and hunger, defend freedom of expression, condemn serious and massive human rights violations, defend the rights of indigenous peoples, protect the environment, promote academic research, and so on.

The president also knows or should know that CSOs have been receiving donations from prestigious international cooperation institutions from the United States, Canada, and Europe for decades, allowing them to pursue their institutional aims. Donations are not only received by civil associations, but also by unions, churches, and universities. All of this takes place in compliance with Mexican law, with total transparency and annual audits.

This is the situation that the president now claims to have discovered and revealed, precisely when a notable group of organizations and journalists have questioned or opposed his “Mayan Train” mega-project—not criminally or by subterfuge, but through amparo [petition for a constitutional remedy] proceedings, research, public statements, and international condemnation. And they have no shortage of reasons for their discontent. Let’s take a brief look:

  • From the beginning, the Mayan Train was shrouded in a veil of opacity that is unacceptable in a democratic society. When some CSOs have filed requests for access to public information about this project with federal offices such as FONATUR (National Fund for the Promotion of Tourism), they have often been told in response that such information does not exist. This lack of transparency has been reflected, for example, in the months-long suppression by the CONACYT (National Council for Science and Technology) of a critical report commissioned from more than 30 scientists, “so as not to influence” the supposed prior consultation that took place in December 2019.[1]

    This report is now available and the negative environmental impacts it warns of include the following: “the TM [Mayan Train] will have an adverse impact on the environmental services provided by the affected ecosystems, particularly in areas critical to the recharge of groundwater aquifers in the YP [Yucatan Peninsula]: (i) the ring of cenotes [natural water wells] designated in 2013 as a geo-hydrogeological reserve, and (ii) the forests of the Calakmul region, where harvested waters are transported and collected, eventually flowing into the main coastal systems of the Yucatan Peninsula and feeding six of the nine sub-basins located in the YP. The capacity of these forest ecosystems to capture atmospheric carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, i.e. to serve as carbon sinks, will also be affected” (p. 12).[2]
  • The prior consultation of the indigenous communities affected by this mega-project was carried out only between November 15 and December 15, 2019 and did not meet the relevant international standards; in other words, it was not a process of prior, free, informed, and culturally appropriate consultation, as documented by the Mexico Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which “call[ed] attention to the indigenous consultation process on the ‘Mayan Train Development Project,’ held from November 15 to December 15, 2019, which has so far failed to meet all international standards in this area.”[3]
  • This mega-project has also not been particularly thorough with the Environmental Impact Studies or Statements (EIS). Although nearly all the sections or phases of the train have been awarded at this point, the only known EIS is the one that FONATUR submitted to SEMARNAT (Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources) just last June 18, 2020, and only in relation to section or phase 1 of the project.[4] On August 21, 2020, various CSOs and environmentalists formally called on SEMARNAT to deny the environmental impact authorization “because it falls within the three clauses of the environmental law under which the requested authorization must be denied.”[5]

    Similarly, the Latin American Geopolitics Observatory (OLAG) and the Laboratory for Studies on Transnational Corporations (LET) of the Economic Research Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) published an advance summary of research on the Mayan Train in December 2019, warning with respect to its environmental impact of “the potentially devastating effects (ecological, social, cultural) of an infrastructural intervention like the one proposed by the Mayan Train-Transisthmus Corridor mega-project,” based on a wealth of scientific and other evidence. If implemented, this project, with its “development poles” and industrial parks, would intensify the damage already caused in the region by progress in its many forms. The immediate foreseeable impacts are already so historically severe that they will lead to ecological realignments that may even be impossible to predict. Both the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and the Yucatan Peninsula are known sites for the crossing and diversification of species that would be “irreversibly damaged by the passage of the train…” (pp. 8-9).[6]

No one opposes development let alone the fight against poverty in Mexico. But the development of southeastern Mexico doesn’t necessarily have to feature steel and concrete; it doesn’t necessarily have to mean millions more tourists, the overexploitation of natural resources, or a negative impact on biodiversity. The president’s notion of development should also encompass the much more socially and environmentally sustainable models that are being pursued in the Yucatan Peninsula, such as export-oriented beekeeping with the support of CSOs, international cooperation, and academia.

Sure, these sustainable development models generate fewer millions of dollars than public or private mega investments, but isn’t that also the new economic approach that the president has been trying to promote for all of Mexico for the past two years? Isn’t it the case that the president is considering the possibility that Mexico could grow a little less, as long as income distribution improves? Why is it that what is good for the rest of Mexico—according to the president—is not good for the Yucatan Peninsula?

When asked by a journalist at a press conference on September 3 about the failure to comply with the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in several projects that the federal government has been promoting, including the “Mayan Train,” the president insisted that all the environmental requirements and standards in these projects would be upheld, because, he said, “We comply with the law.” We welcome this and hope that it will be so, because CSOs also comply with the law. Compliance with national and international law is what has motivated CSOs and journalists, from the beginning, to question or oppose the way in which this mega-project is being implemented—especially since it endangers the Mayan forest, Latin America’s “green lung” second only to the Amazon.

*DPLF Legal Advisor


[1] https://www.eluniversal.com.mx/nacion/conacyt-oculto-informe-critico-con-el-tren-maya-ven-riesgo

[2] https://interactivo.eluniversal.com.mx/online/pdf-20/PDF-RESUMEN-EJECUTIVO-GCTTM.pdf

[3] https://www.hchr.org.mx/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=1359:onu-dh-el-proceso-de-consulta-indigena-sobre-el-tren-maya-no-ha-cumplido-con-todos-los-estandares-internacionales-de-derechos-humanos-en-la-materia&Itemid=265

[4] file:///C:/Users/David%20Lovat%C3%B3n/Downloads/Extracto-TM-Fase-1-Espan%CC%83ol.pdf

[5] https://www.cemda.org.mx/piden-a-semarnat-negar-la-autorizacion-de-impacto-ambiental-al-proyecto-tren-maya/

[6]http://geopolitica.iiec.unam.mx/sites/default/files/2019-12/OLAG-2019-TrenMaya-Avancesdeinvestigación.pdf

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