Like many of the villages in Calakmul in the south of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, the sleepy, modest town of Xpujil lies alongside the area’s only federal highway. It is this road that is its main source of activity – heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) roar past open buildings; water trucks trundle about, relieving the arid, thirsty town.
Queues of women and children form outside the hospital and, late at night, at the bus station. Some here feel that Xpujil (pronounced Ish-pu-hil) lacks infrastructure.
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“There are no banks, and the ATMs always run out of cash. I have to go to Chetumal [the nearest city] to get a good phone service,” says Anita, a 26-year-old mother. Many have placed hopes for a better-connected, better-resourced future on a train.
Located on the edge of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, in the heart of the second-largest expanse of tropical forests in the Americas, Xpujil is on the blueprint for a new railway project – the Tren Maya – that will connect different locations in Mexico’s touristic Yucatan Peninsula.
But a recent suspension of the construction on the project has caused a bitter conflict in Xpujil, the majority of whose 4,000 or so inhabitants are non-Indigenous migrants and descendants of wood and gum merchants who settled in the 20th century. Mayan and other Indigenous groups live in surrounding communities with no public transport connections.
“I have been subject to personal attacks and victimization,” said Romel Gonzales, a founding member of the Regional Indigenous and Popular Council of Xpujil (CRIPX) which fought for the suspension. “Our opponents have been to the houses of our colleagues and tried to pressure them into desisting.”
In January, CRIPX successfully filed an amparo, or constitutional protection, against the government’s consultation process on the Tren Maya, which would stretch 1,502km (933 miles) and is estimated to cost almost $16bn. The temporarily suspended second section of the line would cut through Calakmul horizontally, running parallel to the highway.
CRIPX and a number of Yucatan’s environmental and Indigenous groups are concerned that the 160km/hour (99mph) cargo and passenger train will affect the migratory routes of endangered species, including jaguars, tapirs and ocelots, as well as cause social disruption and potentially damage centuries-old Mayan archaeological sites.
But for a community that has long suffered hunger, injustice and inequality, Eleazar Dzib, a Mayan community leader told Al Jazeera “the train will mean economic development.”
“All projects affect the environment, and unfortunately this has a lot to do with what we want in this municipality. We are against environmental damage; in fact, we live from the conservation of this environment,” said Dzib, who also leads the Pro-Tren Maya Committee, adding that measures are being taken to minimise disruption to the reserve. He maintains that “about 90 percent” of Calakmul’s residents want the train to be built.
In line with results from official government surveys, Xpujil residents interviewed by Al Jazeera generally spoke favourably of the train, citing increased tourism, cheaper freight, rapid transit and tunnels to facilitate fauna migration among expected benefits.
While tourism is not a key driver of its economy, for a handful of visitors Xpujil is the launchpad to some of the 100 or so imposing archaeological sites nestled in the surrounding jungle; vestiges of the powerful Mayan empire that ruled here until around 900 AD. The train could increase the number of tourists to 8,000 per day, according to government estimates.
Maria Tum, a Mayan seamstress who makes traditional huipil garments, cannot read or write. She said while it may bring tourism, the Tren Maya may not benefit people like her, who are unable to promote their small businesses through official channels. “The tour groups may arrive, but they will go to the established artisan workshops instead of stopping here,” she told Al Jazeera.
Construction of the Calakmul section of the railway, which has not yet begun, has been suspended since February while the state courts decide whether the public consultation held at the end of 2019 excluded the Indigenous communities and thus violated the international Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989.
“The suspension relates to everything to do with the project,” Gonzalez told Al Jazeera via video call. “Not only the consultation. That is to say, it does not suspend only the consultation decision, but the whole project.”
Dzib accuses the CRIPX of being a small group of people who, despite not living in Calakmul, “claim to represent our Indigenous people when they do not”.
He claims that they and other anti-train activists are able to acquire cash from international NGOs, “who act in good faith”, by telling them that the Tren Maya will “raze down the whole jungle”.
“CRIPX has never claimed to legally represent the people who live in Calakmul,” Gonzales said, adding that members of Mexico’s governing party Morena as well as the National Fund for Tourism (FONATUR) have put pressure on local people to abandon their support for his group’s legal action to block the building.
He noted that his group’s actions do not come without risks. In 2020, eight attacks were committed against anti-Tren Maya activists, and 18 environmental defenders were murdered in Mexico, according to a report from the Mexican Centre for Environmental Law, an NGO.
FONATUR, the government agency which manages the project, has denounced CRIPX’s amparo, releasing a statement following its court acceptance saying “the grievances aired by these civil society organizations do not represent the general sentiment of [the Indigenous] communities”.
Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in February called the latest legal process “petty”, adding “if this is how it’s going to be, best not start it at all, because I won’t leave behind an incomplete project”.
This marks a U-turn for the president after a statement he made in September 2019 on his administration’s signature project: “Come rain, thunder, or lightning, the Tren Maya will be built – whether people want it or not.”
Gonzales accuses the president of imposing a “neocolonialist, paternalistic vision” on Mexico’s Indigenous people. “As a so-called saviour of the poor, he has his vision of what development is, and wants us to sign up to it,” he says.
How long the amparo will go on for is still up in the air – it could take months, according to Gonzales – but both sides are optimistic.
Dzib believes the result will come out in his favour, saying he has been organising with the communities to appear before the court and the railway line will be built. “We are making it known that we have a lot of support, so they will have to listen.”
Gonzales also has faith: “We believe we are right. With further legal proceedings, we hope things will open up a bit more […] and we will be granted a permanent suspension.”