She walks in the middle of a deforested forest for the needs of the “Mayan train” in the Yucatan peninsula (southeast of Mexico), emblematic site of the president of which she has just obtained with other activists the partial suspension, at the name of the protection of trees and an underground network of pre-Hispanic wells.
⋙ Mexico: in the Yucatan, a colossal tourist train project to link Mayan archaeological sites
Speleologist, Tania Ramirez, 42, advances in the middle of two stationary bulldozers which have cut the forest massif at the exit of Playa del Carmen towards Tulum (64 km). “A suicide“, she blurts. And still it is only a question, according to Ms. Ramirez, of the part of the damage visible to the naked eye in this tourist window of Mexico, country among the most visited in the world (and even second world destination in 2021 according to some sources).
A threat to the peninsula’s subsoil
In addition to the forest, the train site mainly threatens the subsoil of the peninsula, the kingdom of the gods of death and disease in Mayan beliefs. The Yucatan is based on a network of underground waterways unique in the world: caves, rivers and freshwater wells, the mysterious cenotes.
Nestled in natural sinkholes, these reservoirs of turquoise water number in the thousands. A passageway to the “underworld” of the Maya, the cenotes are of great ecological and archaeological value. And even touristy: some are equipped for family swimming. It is these wells and chasms that are threatened by the construction of the Maya tourist train – 1,554 km in total, including 60 km on the disputed section, according to the speleologist.
⋙ Mexico: exploring the caves and cenotes of the Yucatan Peninsula
“At every step you can find a cave“, according to Tania Ramirez, who leads the AFP team into one of the cavities discovered on the route of the train. The entrance is barely visible between the felled trunks and the dead branches. Inside, bats fly between stalactites.The cave leads to an underground river.
In another natural vault, Tania Ramirez claims to have discovered archaeological remains, perhaps a pantry from the Mayan era according to her. These discoveries on the sidelines of the site are protected, says the government, which also claims to have planted 500,000 hectares of trees on the surface.
Tania Ramirez is often told that the caves are not on the train route. But the argument does not convince the specialists, who compare the subsoil of the region to a vast Swiss cheese. “It’s a hollow area that wouldn’t support the weight of a train“, says Vicente Fito, a 48-year-old diver.
Between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, section number 5 of the tourist train has sparked an open battle between conservationists and President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Initially, the train was to follow the route of the Tulum-Cancun route. The course was finally modified in early 2022 towards the interior where the ground is firmer, according to the president.
The ace ! A federal judge ordered the temporary suspension of work at the end of April, after an appeal by Tania Ramirez and other activists from the “Save me from the train” collective. The judge found that the site had not been preceded by environmental impact studies.
⋙ Mexico: work on the “Maya train” suspended due to a risk of environmental destruction
Society needs this public transport, but also that its construction is done “in accordance with the legal provisions on the environment that prevail in Mexican law“, wrote the magistrate. As recently as Monday, another environmental NGO claimed that another judge had also asked for the suspension of the works.
Turning his back on environmentalists, the president on Monday visited the Alstom-Bombardier factory which has signed a contract to build “42 trains with 210 wagons for the Mayan train“, he said on Twitter. AMLO (his initials, his nickname) denounced in April the presence of “impostors” among the defenders of the environment, some of whom are, according to him, the henchmen of political campaigns financed by the United States.
The Head of State estimates that his train, at a total cost of 10 billion dollars, will allow the development of the Yucatan peninsula. Nearly half of the population lives in poverty in the hinterland of the state of Quintana Roo, behind the shining showcases of international tourism (Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum).
“We need this kind of projects“, assures Lenin Betancourt, president of the Coordinating Council of Riviera Maya entrepreneurs.”We must fight this poverty“. For another speleologist and activist, Otto Von Bertrab, the only viable solution, according to him, is for the train to find its route along the road. Otherwise “destruction will be the legacy of this president”.
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