One of the differences between politicians and scientists is that they have an affinity for grand plans, while we sweat the details. Life, and death, are in the details.
Construction of the Mayan Train, a 950-mile loop connecting tourist and agricultural hubs around the Yucatán Peninsula, has often changed plans because of extreme risks identified to humans, other animals, and artifacts. At no point has the project paused to consider whether Plan B, C, D, E, etc. is any less damaging than Plan A. We now think of it as The Deforestation Express, an improvisational tragedy that has displaced and sickened people, killed bat colonies, endangered jaguars, damaged aquifers, and more.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador intended the train to be part of his legacy. When his term ends in September 2024, the project will be far from complete. There are real doubts that any subsequent administration will want to bankroll the fiasco, which may come in at 70% over budget .
All of North America, indeed the globe, shares a common environmental destiny.
López Obrador should suspend construction of the train and instead establish a planning procedure for rail service to the region. That process should weigh economic development, the region’s unique cultural treasures, the many species inhabiting the forest, the rights of the Indigenous people who live in and have long stewarded that forest, and the myriad services the forest provides Mexico and the planet.
Boondoggles are the worst kind of legacy. López Obrador would do better to take the bold step of halting construction and convening an informed and equitable planning process that could serve as a model for other large infrastructure projects. You can’t put a plaque on a process; but unlike the Mayan Train, it could actually do some good.
The train is meant for moving people and freight. Yet, its importance to the tourist industry, strongly supported by U.S. citizens, is a driving force. The administration has already shown it will bend to the wishes of this industry. After the powerful Riviera Maya hotel lobby protested that the track’s placement was not providing a fast enough connection to the resorts , newly carved out of ancient forest, the train route cut even deeper into the jungle than originally planned, disturbing protected caves.
All of North America, indeed the globe, shares a common environmental destiny. The growing evidence from the ongoing construction suggests that this project will affect the Yucatán aquifer system, one of the biggest sources of fresh water on Earth and the basis for all life on the peninsula. Many of the nonhuman animals in the region quietly help to fill American supermarkets with an astounding variety of relatively cheap food.
Already, the Deforestation Express has affected more than a dozen caves, habitat for bats, bees, and other animals that humans cannot live without. Logging to clear its path collapsed a two-mile cavern called the Avispa Enojada (“Angry Wasp”) that had stood for 2 million years, where the jaguar came to drink and where the cavefish lived for so long in darkness that they eventually evolved to have no eyes.
The collapse destroyed huge bat colonies. Bats are agriculture’s best friend, a free, nontoxic means to eliminate pests and pollinate crops. Killing bats hurts the food supply. Some bats are migratory, so the very same animal who is making Mexican farms more productive will come north to provide the same service in the U.S. Even in caves that survive the construction, vibrations from the rail line will likely disrupt the bats’ breeding.
Meanwhile, the people building this railroad are already suffering. To date, more than 500 cases of Leishmaniasis, a protozoan infection from the jungle, roughly twice those reported last year, are affecting primarily the train workers. These workers are shuttling the protozoan to urban centers and throughout the peninsula.
In 2019, the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights criticized the Mexican government for not meeting international standards guiding consultations with Indigenous people on the project. In December 2022, a panel of U.N. experts again called on Mexico to ensure respect for human rights and the environment. The International Tribunal for Nature´s Rights also condemned the project, calling it an eco- and ethnocide. The United States must amplify these calls to save Yucatán’s life-sustaining biodiversity.
The train has been classified by López Obrador as a project essential to national security. This is, to be charitable, a stretch. But the administration has seized on the designation to proceed with construction in defiance of resident protests, scientific fact, and even the law. The international community must focus more attention on what is happening deep in the jungle, before a great global silence destroys Yucatán.