The Mayan Train and Resistance in Times of Pandemic

Photo: Heriberto Paredes/Archive

By Daliri Oropeza

Without tourism, the return to the communities began. More 70,000 people in Cancún were left without employment due to the emergency of the covid-19 pandemic. Now that the tourist beach city celebrates its 50 years of being a model for tourism, the visitor count has fallen to 3 percent, the lowest since its inauguration. Employees and workers, many of them indigenous mayans or people from southeastern communities, went back to their communities. The hotels and luxury hotel complexes fired them.

At the exit of the city, at the crossroad of the Cancún-Merida highway that goes to Holbox,  president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, gives the starting flag for the construction of the Mayan Train megaproject. 

These large companies that for decades have exploited the workers and have enriched themselves with the work of the people, with the name, with the territory and natural wealth, did not have the will, did not want to maintain the workers’ factories in the pandemic. They are disposable. Well, now they are going to hire them back,” describes Angel Sulub, a resident of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, the municipality with the largest number of Mayan inhabitants.

He claims that the communities in his region have been protected and that is why there are fewer infections than in the cities. He is concerned about revival of activities and the president’s tour. The mobilization that he sparks in the communities where there are no infections, the comings and goings of working in Cancún, puts them in danger. The tourist megalopolis is the place with most deaths from covid in Quintana Roo: 255 cases.

Starting flag from the national capital of tourism

“They take advantage of the need in the communities to continue exploitation of labor, when they talk about the economic reactivation it is the reactivation of the exploitation. It is with that logic, that they “says Sulub, a young Maya who is also a member of the U kúuchil k ch’i’ibalo’on Community Center – Raxalaj Mayab’-.

It is symbolic that president AMLO waves the starting flag in Cancún. Residents of Yucatán and Quintana Roo that make up the communities and collectives speak of its significance. 

According to the Mayan anthropologist and historian, Ezer May, the president takes advantage of the defenselessness of the people. 

“In the face of the emergency, we are taking care of the health of the grandparents, of the community, it is a collective care,so it is difficult for us to focus on holding protests, assemblies, alongside the pandemic. The government is taking advantage of the power it has to do so,” says Ezer May, originally from the Mayan village of Kimbilá, where the train line passes and there is a planned station.

For their safety, members of the Sustainable Puerto Morelos collective prefer to remain anonymous in the interview. Where they live is one of the three most visited tourist destinations in the region. It is less than an hour from Cancún and is on the way to Playa del Carmen on the way to Tulúm. They are aware of the pollution and the damage to nature that the tourism industry causes. They have openly declared that the model of tourism in the region has been a failure for its environmental and social devastation.

“It is symbolic because it shows that it is not a train for life, but a train that seeks to export the model of mass tourism to the entire peninsula through the train. Do we want to export it to the entire peninsula? It is super serious, our diagnosis is negative, as well as his visits [the presidents’] in this pandemic,” says a member of the collective Sustainable Puerto Morelos. 

Although the Mayan communities were closed in the face of the covid 19 emergency, the people interviewed affirm that there is a continuity of legal and organizational activities to confront the train. With them they are forging alliances that will allow them, outside of the calendars of power, to defend their territory from the mega-project. In addition, they are already working on a joint legal strategy between the three states.

Cancun, the snakes’ nest

Cancun has at least 1,287 infections and 255 deaths per covid-19. It is the red light district of Quintana Roo. 

Cancún occupies a privileged place on the map of modern urban enclaves of globalization. It means “snake’s nest” in the Mayan language. It was born out of a government decision 50 years ago. In a short time it became an impressive nest of construction companies, politicians and transnational tourist chains that initially gave rise to an urban nucleus of 700 thousand inhabitants. The city grew exponentially and cast Mayan workers to the peripheries of the luxury tourist resorts. It is the main tourist destination in the Mexican Caribbean. It has fostered up to half of the country’s tourism revenue. People returning to their communities often say that they no longer want to go back [to Cancún] because it has become too unsafe.

“With this model of development, people believe that the city gives you a different status. This is changing because the people who come back from Cancun, they’ve already seen the violence, the insecurity and the wage slavery. That returning sector is a double-edged sword with respect to the train. They believe that it can be like Cancún for earnings but with safety, because here we still live it [in safety]. They have that idea, notion, vision because with those jobs they bought their car or built their house,” says Ezer May, who describes how in his community they communicate in the nixtamal line, in the plazas or in the markets.

Quintana Roo was called the “Capital of Tourism” because of Cancun. An island that was deserted, separated from the mainland by narrow channels that joined the sea with several lagoons, located on a shore surrounded by virgin forest. These beaches were converted into the most important tourist attraction in the country.

Cast aside, laid off

This place of  “economic overflow”  laid off at least 70,000 workers according to the mayor’s figure. In total, Quintana Roo registers 86,304 lost jobs, according to the IMSS (without counting the 120,000 jobs lost in the construction industry from jobs not registered by insurance). Angel Sulub sees it as a new colonialism, he describes from Carrillo Puerto:

“The president uses the pretext of the creation of jobs that the train would bring. But these are the same temporary jobs that already exist: precarious, which have nothing to do with dignified jobs for the community… And then to start right now, it’s the health of the workers! There is concern in the community because now that tourism activities are reactivated, there will be greater mobility. That won’t stop  opposition to the train from continuing.”

The Mayor’s Office of Benito Juarez in Quintana Roo estimates that one billion dollars worth of matching airplane seats did not reach their coffers. The lack of tourism due to the pandemic during the famous gringo vacation period called “spring break” left 700 rooms out of the 36,000 hotel rooms occupied.

“Everything is becoming easier for the president, because that economic model based on tourism has already been internalized by many people. Because of the Cancún model, they think that tourism is the only way to make money. That was established by the neoliberal model. In thinking that they are going to take more advantage of that, that imaginary is being used very well”, assures Ezer May.

It seems instead of a train, an anaconda disguised as a feathered snake.

Chronology of the seeds of resistance

According to Mayan historians of the region, the northern part of the peninsula has been mostly inhabited by the Mayans at different times during the last 3,000 years. This is where mega-projects are concentrated: wind power plants, pig farms, and tourism.

The train project has been going on for some time and the communities had already defended their territory. 

During the administration of PRI member Ivonne Ortega as governor of Yucatan, she tried to carry out the Transpeninsular Rapid Train backed by Calderon, although in 2011 the SCT decreed that it was an economically unviable project. 

In 2012, with PRI Governor Rolando Zapata Bello, former President Enrique Peña Nieto inaugurated his Transpeninsular Train project in 2012 and even toured for it. By 2015 it was cancelled. It had the same intention as AMLO: to unite the regions of the peninsula and the isthmus by train and connect the transit between refineries. It was not until AMLO proposed it that it acquired the name of Tren Maya.

Legal resistance

Over the course of his government, these are the actions that have been presented in defense of land and life due to the mega-project: 

The first protection was presented on January 6, 2020 by the Regional Indigenous and Popular Council of Xpujil (Cripx) with the support of Diálogo y Movimiento A.C. (DIMO). It obtained a suspension, first provisional, then definitive. Fonatur filed a complaint, which limited the agreement to the place of the complainants, even though they were all over the peninsula: Calakmul. 

In these legal processes, there are also several complaints before the National Commission of Human Rights.

In early 2019, human rights promoters and the Diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas collected more than 6,000 signatures against the mega-projects and the Mayan Train. They presented them to the ILO and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The first week of May, members of the Ch’ol Mayan people presented a petition for protection and a federal judge ordered a halt to the construction of the “Mayan Train” in the municipalities of Palenque, Salto de Agua and Ocosingo, Chiapas. This, because continuing the work during the covid-19 pandemic puts the population at risk. The government responded that the work will not be stopped.

For its part, the second week of May, the Assembly of Defenders of the Múuch Xíinbal Mayan Territory, in which Mayan defender Pedro Uc is participating, together with the Mexican Civil Council for Sustainable Forestry, requested precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to protect the underground aquifer of the Yucatán Peninsula. They consider that the “Tren Maya” mega-project will cause irreversible damage.

Hidden water

The aquifer of the entire peninsula is a system of cenotes interconnected by the subsoil that makes the region where there are no lakes or rivers unique. 

A week before the confinement [due to Covid], in early March 2020, there was a Peninsular Socioenvironmental Assembly in Puerto Morelos, where the central theme was the aquifer and water.

There is an important precedent in 2018 by the National Assembly in Defense of Corn, in Hopelchen where the repercussions of the Mayan Train on the territory and on the crops were discussed.

On the peninsula, the peoples and organizations that participate in the National Indigenous Congress have met in Xpujil, Hopelchen and Mérida to analyze the train and articulate the construction of a collective defense network. They meet on a permanent basis.

In Carrillo Puerto alone, in 2019, there were 5 general assemblies to define the defense of the territory and inform the communities about the train and its impact on the region.

History of dispossession

At the end of 2019 in Tikul, an important assembly was held in which Marichuy was present. There, a pronouncement against the train was issued. The communities explained the problems they face because of wind farms, industrial parks, and the dispossession of pig farms. They concluded that the construction of the train would exacerbate all their problems.

“If we are in favor of life, we necessarily go against mega-projects that come to affect life, in each of the assemblies in communities and on the peninsula there is a position of rejection of the train. In the end the train project is connected to the transisthmus. That is why they try to make it invisible,” says Angel Sulub, a member of the U Kuchil K’i’ibalo’on Community Center. 

It is no coincidence that the President, together with the Mayan Train, is supervising the work of the Transisthmus [Corredor] in Sayula de Aleman.

According to organizations, groups and communities consulted, the period of the pandemic serves to weave alliances and strengthen the legal strategy between the three states.

Historian Ezer May describes that with the wind farms, resistance was born when they already realized the damage that the companies did to nature and the unfulfilled promises. He believes this can happen with the 4T project.

From his position as a historian, Ezer recalls: “The assembly mode was completely erased in the northwest [of the state]. It is historical, it was erased especially in the henequen zone, and so there is an effort to cover up what was concealed by the ejido, this consciousness is just now being developed. Now there is the seed of resistance.

In spite of the enormous Mayan presence on the peninsula, the form of land ownership is the ejido, and this format still leaves a large number of people out of its decision-making, such as young women and the elderly, and leaves everything in the hands of the ejido authorities.

This article was published in Spanish on May 31, 2020 in Pie de Pagina. . This English interpretation is re-published by Caminar Preguntando.

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