By Yásnaya Elena A. Gil
I’d like to start by making a concession: behind the implementation of the Mayan Train, one of the most promoted projects by the new Government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the best intentions lay the foundations for its execution. After centuries of abandonment in which the Mayan people have been dispossessed and pushed into a process of indolent impoverishment, the new government intends, at last, to implement an integral project that has as its main objective to create “social welfare for the population that inhabits the Mayan zone” and “to integrate territories of great natural and cultural wealth to the tourist, environmental and social development in the region” as described in the official page of the project.
Why should anyone oppose it? The inclusion and development of the Mayan peoples of the peninsula is necessary if the new government wants social justice to reach the most disadvantaged sectors in the history of this country. It would not be fair to leave them out of the Fourth Transformation project. I make this concession in order to start from a common ground that allows me to expose points that I find problematic in the discussion that has taken place around the Mayan Train. Many other people, openly against the execution of this project, have presented data, reports and arguments to debate all its implications and even legal instruments such as amparo have been used to stop its implementation. I will do no such thing here. Respecting the same initial concession, I will avoid discussing the fact that Alfonso Romo, the current head of Mexico’s presidential office, founded a company that has obtained concessions to exploit the maximum amount of underground water in the Yucatan Peninsula.
What are the implications and possible relationships of this with the Mayan Train? None of this will be questioned because, I insist, for the purposes of these lines, it is conceded, at least for a moment, that this project has been created with the best intentions: social welfare, the inclusion of a vulnerable sector long excluded from the country’s development. With such good intentions, it seems even foolish to ask that the indigenous peoples involved be consulted along the lines of International Labour Organization Convention No. 169, which requires consultation when indigenous peoples’ territories may be affected by a project. Having conceded the above, I would like to argue that the best intentions behind the execution of the Mayan Train are, in fact, the basis of the problem.
One of the most advantageous arguments in the debate is to state the absence of the State as the reason for the current situation of indigenous peoples. The neglect of the State that has always kept them excluded from the development of the rest of the country has caused poverty and backwardness among the indigenous population in general, and the Mayan population in particular. However, I would like to argue that it has not been the absence of the State that has caused the impoverishment of the indigenous peoples, but precisely the opposite. It has not been the exclusion of these peoples from the ideal of development proposed by the government that has impoverished them, but rather the violent processes of inclusion. The Mexican Constitution itself is based on the inclusion of peoples and nations in a Creole project that was never consulted upon. The fact that the very diverse indigenous peoples have been encapsulated within the Mexican State was not the result of a confederate pact between these diverse nations and cultures but of the imposition of the project of a privileged minority. For this reason, because the indigenous peoples predated the creation of Mexico as a country, whatever the State intends to do in their territories should be consulted upon.
The so-called second transformation of Mexico’s public life, as named by the current president, was one of the main causes of the poverty that indigenous peoples have suffered. In the mid-19th century, it is estimated that more than half of the Mexican population was indigenous, and in that context, a large part of the peoples had communal land ownership. As an effect of the Reform Laws and especially the Lerdo Law, communal property was severely hit and multiple indigenous communities suffered catastrophic losses of property and land. In many cases they even had to buy back their own land when they could, but in general this was one of the major drivers of the impoverishment of indigenous peoples.
As a response to this problem generated by the State due to the concentration of land in a few hands, came the third transformation that over time implemented one of the most aggressive projects against the languages, culture and very existence of indigenous peoples by promoting their linguistic and cultural integration. Much of the post-revolutionary project was aimed at including and integrating what was left of the indigenous peoples into a desirable ideal: the Mexican mestizo, a single cosmic race, the bronze race. This integration and inclusion in terms of state power is responsible for the current situation of Mexico’s indigenous peoples.
Now, under the promise of inclusion, the Mayan Train presents itself as relief to a situation precisely provoked by those desires to include. It has not been the absence of the State that has been the problem, but its excessive presence. The discourses of inclusion oppose the autonomy and self-determination to which indigenous peoples have a right, a right which has even been recognized in the 2nd article of the Mexican Constitution. The Mayan Train is not a project that the Mayan peoples have proposed to the federation as an exercise of their autonomy, but the implementation of what the federal government considers to be the best means of ending a situation created by the state itself. The Mayan Train, since its birth, is not Mayan, it is the State dictating again, once again, what the solutions to the problems of the indigenous peoples are. Logically, the project that the state proposes is not the only possible solution to the problems faced by the indigenous population. The Mayan population is not in the current situation because of the lack of a train, but because of the structural violence that has been exerted on them. Is it possible to think of other alternatives? Wouldn’t it be better to dismantle the system of oppression that produces poverty in the indigenous peoples? Wouldn’t it be better, in any case, to return the historically dispossessed lands, to stop the businessmen who monopolize water and territory?
Many communities and individuals of Mayan people have proposed other ways of building and making a dignified life possible, and should be considered within an exercise of self-determination that cannot be exercised in abbreviated consultations like those implemented by the government. In an interview with Heriberto Paredes for Pie de Página, Romel González, the legal advisor of the Regional Indigenous and Popular Council (CRIPX), the organization from which an appeal was filed against the execution of the Mayan Train, gives an account of the colonialist vision of pretending that this project is the only option for the problems of the peninsula: “We are seeing from the beginning a colonialist vision, ‘I come from the city, I come with all the knowledge and I come to end poverty with a train’. It is a modern colonialism, as Comte and the positivists said, ‘I come to bring you order, I come to bring you progress, I come to bring you civilization’.
The discourses of inclusion show from the outset a relationship of power involved: those who speak of inclusion show that they have the power to do so. The directionality of inclusion is telling: who wants to include whom? The discourses of inclusion are the opposite of the autonomy and self-determination of indigenous peoples, paradoxically enshrined in the Mexican Constitution itself at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Every time the State has turned its eyes to the indigenous peoples in the name of development, too often, catastrophe has struck. In the name of modernity and the development of the country, in 1954, the Mexican State displaced approximately 20,000 Mazatecos for the construction of the Miguel Alemán Dam in Oaxaca and between 1974 and 1988 it displaced 26,000 Chinantecos for the construction of the Cerro de Oro Dam. Both projects impoverished the population and generated a series of terrible affronts, in spite of the discourses of progress, well-being and development in which they were packaged. In other cases, the intervention of the State through assistance has also had the effect of creating and strengthening clientelist networks that make it difficult to exercise autonomy and self-determination. The State creates the problems through its intervention and its integrationist pretenses, which has been an ethnocidal exercise of mestizo erasure, and then it tries to solve those problems with more projects born of inclusion.
All this also calls into question the idea of progress and development, which has not been discussed when the Mayan Train is mentioned. The different ways of understanding “quality of life”, “dignified life”, “good living” are often opposed to the notions of progress and development that the state discourse handles. In an honest exercise, it would be necessary to discuss what is understood by development and what are the indices of well-being to be considered from different and contrasting points of view, cultures and conceptions. And this has not happened. At most, consultations have been made to comply with a necessary requirement without observing the standards of Convention 169 as they should be. These consultations do not specify the methodology and justification for determining the consultation units (not all indigenous peoples are organized in a community manner, nor are all ejido assemblies representative of an indigenous population, to cite one example), nor have they provided the consultation units with the information for and against that is a necessary condition for adequate consultation. In the best assembly traditions, it is customary to listen to those who are in favor of a proposal and immediately afterwards to those who are totally against it; both positions have the same attention, the same exposure time, and the same resources.
In the consultation on the Mayan Train this elemental condition has not been fulfilled, so the results of the consultation are, by origin, misleading. It would be necessary to listen to the strongest detractors, as well as to the enthusiastic people of the official project, it would be necessary to listen to those who have fallen under the clientelist networks that with time have created the state as well as to those who propose other ways to attend to the poverty in the peninsula. Once information is heard and discussed in both directions, decision making can become an honest exercise based on good faith. Arguing that Mayan communities have not demonstrated against the train project, if true, becomes a fallacy. The lack of positions against it could be due to many factors, including the fact that not enough information has been guaranteed with arguments for and against it. Without sufficient prior information and clear determinations of the units to be consulted, the results of the consultation are simply not reliable.
Inclusion for indigenous peoples has meant death and impoverishment. Sophia de Mello, a brilliant Portuguese poet, expresses in a poem a good wish for someone she loves: “May no God remember your name” recites the verse that can be read in the light of what happens every time the gods of classical tradition remember those who inhabit the earthly plane: Io turned into a calf because of Hera’s jealousy, Daphne turned into a tree as the only way out from the sickly passion of Apollo, the terrible and bloody war of Troy unleashed by Hera, Athena and Aphrodite in their dispute for the apple of discord. With such evidence, I understand the verse of Sophia de Mello as the expression of the best of wishes: It is better “that no God remember thy name”. Given the evidence of the effects of the state each time it remembers the name of the indigenous peoples in the implementation of its great projects, it only remains to wish for the best: that no state remembers your name. It is better.
Originally published in Spanish by El País on March 10, 2020. https://elpais.com/elpais/2020/03/10/opinion/1583849731_517412.html?fbclid=IwAR05gK8dRnw7TzsyM-IOUigtt95H-gt9g07Mtn1JrC8le4z32Ojry3eUEiM . This English interpretation has been re-published by Caminar Preguntando and Schools for Chiapas.