Tania Ramírez, researcher and activist, looks disconsolately at the felled trees to make way for the Mayan Train between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, where the Mexican government’s mega-project stumbles upon an oasis of jungle, cenotes and sea.
Naked eyethe bulldozers only razed a portion jungle of the Riviera Maya, one of the jewels that made Mexico the second most visited country in 2021.
The works on this section, suspended by court order, also threaten a unique treasure: the underground network of caves, rivers and cenotes (crystalline freshwater wells) that flow into the Caribbean Sea.
“It’s suicide,” Ramírez tells AFP42-year-old speleologist. “It is to cut the veins from one side to the other”adds the cave expert next to a couple of machines parked near Playa del Carmen.
Although it goes unnoticed due to the cut trunks and branches, a cave that environmentalists named White Lady -for an endemic fish- stands in the way of the tourist train in that area, where a 60 km route is being built.
The grotto leads to an underground river and is covered with stalactites (rock formations) among which bats fly.
Environmentalists assure that the works of the railway -of 1,554 km- severely impact this ecosystemincluding its rich wildlife and cenotes.
These turquoise-colored wells number in the hundreds in the lush Mayan jungle and are connected to the aquifer that supplies populations through cisterns.
The last cavern discovered, which Ramírez named the hiding place, keep archaeological remains, that have appeared by the thousands during the works and are being preserved, according to the government. The researcher believes that the Mayans kept food in this small cavity.
“Every step you take you can find a cave, and many times they tell me ‘it’s not in the line, it’s next to it,'” but in reality everything is connected, he explains.
Because of its size and porosity, activists they describe the area as one big “gruyere cheese”.
“It is a hollow area that would not support the weight of a train,” says Vicente Fito, a 48-year-old diver who travels through these rivers almost daily.
The section that confronts environmental groups with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador would initially run along the highway that connects Playa del Carmen and Tulum with the resort of Cancún (state of Quintana Roo, east).
But at the beginning of this year the layout was modified because the area near the coast is more vulnerable, since it houses a greater number of cenotes and rivers, according to the leftist president, who hopes to inaugurate his flagship work at the end of 2023.
“What was sought was to go (…) to the (jungle) lands from behind, where there is more firmness in the ground and fewer cenotes or there are not, or fewer rivers, ”says López Obrador.
The original route bothered the hotel industry due to the congestion generated by the works in the urban area.
At the end of April, a federal judge ordered the provisional suspension of the works on section 5, one of the three being built by the Army, after an injunction from the environmental movement Save me from the Train.
That front includes artists like the actr Eugenio Derbez and Rubén Albarránvocalist of the band Café Tacvba.
The judge argued that the work lacks environmental impact studies, which the government promises to refute in upcoming hearings.
“The train will not affect cenotesit will not affect underwater rivers, that is an invention,” says López Obrador, who denounces that “among environmentalists there are impostors” and that some NGOs are financed by hotel companies and the United States.
The president also defends that almost 500,000 hectares in the region.
In the midst of the controversy, the government disseminates testimonies in favor of the work, such as those of residents of the Jacinto Pat ejido, in Tulum, who were not available to speak to AFP.
López Obrador bets that the train, in which the State invests about 10,000 million dollars and that will tour the Yucatan Peninsula, promote development in one of the most impoverished regions of Mexico, with a more social tourism approach.
“Legacy of Destruction”
Lenin Betancourt, president of the Business Coordinating Council of the Riviera Maya, sees in the project an opportunity to reduce poverty in Cancun and Tulum, which has grown despite the economic downturn in this area where the world’s large hotel chains operate.
“We need to generate this type of projects and above all of this magnitude (…). We have to fight that poverty”, he says, pointing out that the work must be carried out “with the least environmental impact”.
Tourism represents almost 9% of Mexico’s GDP.
However, for Otto Von Bertrab, speleologist and activist, there is only one solution: “get back on the road and make a viable train that stops at hotels and towns, that serves tourists, workers.”
Otherwise, he warns, “the legacy of this president is going to be one of destruction.”