Mexico’s president says Mayan Train project to move forward

Gov’t claims overwhelming support despite low voter turnout in region where referendum on contentious project was held.

Mexico Mayan Train
A woman casts her vote during a referendum for the Mayan Train project [Lexie Harrison-Cripps/Al Jazeera]

Campeche, Mexico – Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Monday said his controversial Mayan Train project would move ahead after residents in the five states where the train was proposed to run through voted in favour of the proposal.

The government reported overwhelming support in the region, with 99 percent voting in favour in Campeche. The lowest level of support was in Quintana Roo with 85 percent voting in favour. Just 100,000 people of the region’s more than 11 million voted, however.

The proposed 1,525km (950-mile) train would connect communities and natural reserves in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. It is expected to cost between $6-8bn, but bring more than three million visitors and tourists to the region annually.

Flora Maria Estrella lives by the pre-existing stretch of line in Tenabo, Campeche, which is currently only used for freight. Recalling the advantages of the previous passenger line that used to allow her family to sell fruit and vegetables outside of their small town, Estrella said she supports the Mayan Train project. 

The project has faced some pushback, however, from environmental groups that worry about the effects of the train on the region’s vast biodiversity, and indigenous groups who fear they will not be properly compensated or consulted throughout the process.

Mexico Mayan Train
Officials check identification and hand out voting cards [Lexie Harrison-Cripps/Al Jazeera] 

Sunday’s referendum, which was not a legal requirement, was part of Lopez Obrador’s new style of governing “with the people”. It coincided with a weekend full of open-ended consultations with indigenous groups in the area.

More than 5,000 people, representing more than 1,000 indigenous groups, met government representatives during the consultation assemblies, officials said. 

Adelfo Regino Montes, director of the National Institute of Indigenous Communities (INPI) said that the consultation meetings showed unanimous support for the construction and implementation of the Mayan Train project. But some at the assemblies expressed opposition or concerns about the plan.

Indigenous leader Ignacio Cruz of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Campeche, said he supported the project for the “advantages that it will bring to Campechanos and all that their villages can offer”.

Mexico Mayan train
Hundreds of people attended the consultation in Felipe Carillo Puerto, Mexico [Lexie Harrison-Cripps/Al Jazeera]

Despite the support, many also expressed concerns over the potential effects of the train on road conditions and wildlife. Questions also remain about how communities and residents would be compensated if the route ran through or affects their land or territory.

Oscar Alarcha from the community Miguel Allende Champoton Campeche said that the government needed to address the “question of health”. He said that “everything [to do with health] is expensive” with services “too far away”.

Some participants, including Alarcha, also said they supported the project simply because they believed it would go ahead regardless of their views.

INPI and FONATUR, the Mexican department for tourism responsible for the Mayan Train, reiterated that the dialogue between the government and residents would remain open as the project developed. Officials were not immediately available for comment about the low voter turnout. 

Lopez Obrador said on Monday that tenders for the next stages of the project would open in January. It remains unclear to what extent the opinions and suggestions from this weekend’s consultations would be taken into account.

Source: Al Jazeera