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La Semana: Monday, Aug 8
The week in Tren Maya controversy
Welcome to the Monday edition of The Mexpatriate.
In today’s newsletter:
Tren Maya: “a matter of national security”
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“The more airports we build, the fewer we have…it’s an incredible thing.”
—Héctor Aguilar Camín (author, historian) commenting on the problems at Benito Juárez international airport in CDMX
“There was a festival of fraud.”
—Gibrán Ramírez (journalist, morenista) on the internal elections of Morena candidates on July 30-31
Tren Maya: “a matter of national security”
“It has been decided that this is a matter of national security and that we will not allow the interests of a group of corrupt people and pseudo-environmentalists to stop a project that is for the benefit of the people.” On July 19, President López Obrador defended his government’s decision to continue work on the controversial Tramo 5 Sur of the Tren Maya despite a court-ordered suspension. Then on August 3, Fonatur (National Fund for Tourism Promotion) announced that the three suspensions against Tramo 5 Sur had been lifted. According to the director, Javier May, “the project has always been legally valid, but now we’ve met all the judge’s requirements to remove any doubt.” Representatives from various community and environmental non-profits have announced they will appeal the rulings.
The route changes of the Tren Maya project have stirred up whirlwinds of controversy since construction work began in 2020. This year, the decision to stop work on the elevated track going through Playa del Carmen and instead plow through the jungle has provoked lawsuits, Twitter protest campaigns and warnings from environmental watchdogs. According to a Greenpeace Mexico technical review of the Environmental Impact Study (MIA) for this section (Tramo 5 Sur), there are numerous oversights in the document, which was presented over 2 months after construction had already begun. “It does not take into consideration the possible effects on the subterranean waters in the region, and the environmental value provided by karst systems as carbon sinks, nor the surface biodiversity, agricultural production or water for human consumption.”
The MIA analyzed 37 possible environmental impacts of the project and concluded only one was “critical” (the deforestation of 500 hectares of jungle), 7 were “severe”, 11 “moderate” and the remainder were deemed irrelevant.
To avoid further legal complications and keep the project on schedule, the government announced on July 26 that the Department of Defense (Sedena) will now be in charge of construction of Tramo 5. President López Obrador stated on August 6 that the Tren Maya will also be operated by the military once complete. “We don’t want it to be privatized and fall into the hands of businesses,” explained AMLO. Just this morning (Aug 8), the president announced that the National Guard (GN) will be placed fully under the control of the military, bypassing the “legislative moratorium” initiated by opposition parties in Congress to halt his proposed constitutional reform bill. This militarization of public works and public safety has been a hallmark of the sexenio, expanding the presence of the armed forces in public life that began during Felipe Calderón’s administration (2006-12).
Even fans of the Tren Maya would find it hard to deny that a lack of comprehensive planning has led to unforeseen challenges and costs. Once the project met protests from hoteliers in urban areas, from Playa del Carmen to Tulum, who stood to lose business during construction, the routes were changed to areas “where there is less resistance and where building causes the government fewer political problems: in the jungle, where those affected have no voice or vote—the jaguars, monkeys, tapirs and bats.” The project has also entailed expropriation of 36 private properties (1,093,118 sq meters), requiring compensation to landowners. The stratospheric costs of the project could make it the most expensive of the administration’s trifecta of megaprojects: recent estimates from the president indicate a price tag of up to $20 billion dollars. The original budget was approximately $5.8 billion dollars. The lawsuits have been partly to blame for the rising costs, as well as the decision to put the Sedena in charge of Tramo 5, which meant the government had to pay out $800 million dollars to private contractors for early termination of contracts.
In the midst of reading about all the environmental and financial pitfalls of the Tren Maya, I think it is important to try to balance the scales. Could the project bring the promised benefits of economic prosperity to the region?
According to 2021 government documents, the Net Present Value (NPV) of the project (based on budget estimates of the time) was calculated to be 190 billion pesos with an internal rate of return (TIR) of 19.6%. However, according to the same document, the project could only cost up to 352 billion pesos ($17.3 billion dollars) before the NPV would fall to 0. If recent budgetary projections are correct (as much as $20 billion dollars), the Tren Maya will well surpass the upper limit of its profitability—unless of course, the returns far exceed expectations.
While there has been much concern about the impacts of the Tren Maya on the biodiversity and cultural heritage of the region, the construction work has unearthed a wealth of archaeological artifacts and ruins: a mind-boggling 24,067 sites according to the National Institute of Archaeology and History (INAH). It has been described as the most significant archaeological excavation ever undertaken in the region. Discoveries also include ancient burial sites and cave paintings, which the government has assured will be protected, even while the railway is built at breakneck speed. In the words of a Slovenien archaeologist who has worked in the region for years, echoing the sentiments expressed by cave divers worried about the region’s cenotes, “it would be a paradox if a project like Tren Maya, whose purpose is the development of tourism in the region, brought the destruction of heritage that could have great value to tourism.” Diego Prieto, director of INAH, has said there are plans to build 11 museums along the train route to house the treasures they have excavated.
The dogged determination to finish the project on schedule (by December 2023)—no matter the cost—brings to my mind images of another massive logistical feat in the jungle, in Werner Herzog’s infamous film, Fitzcarraldo. A wild-eyed Klaus Kinski, portraying eccentric would-be rubber baron Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, will stop at nothing to move a steamship overland through the jungle from one river to another.
The film itself was notorious for injuries and even deaths of crew members as Herzog was determined to recreate the journey of the ship in the depths of the jungle, rather than on a film set. He later described himself, the quixotic navigator of the folly, as the “conquistador of the useless”.
It may not be a wholly fair comparison, but it’s a vivid one. The president is resolute in the face of all opposition: “the truth is, those who want to stop the train, will end up getting on board.”