Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has been dealt the latest setback to an ambitious plan to create a tourist train to connect the country’s southern Yucatan Peninsula.
On Monday, a judge indefinitely suspended construction on a portion of the project, known as the Mayan Train, saying the plans currently do not comply “with the proceedings of the environmental impact evaluation”.
The ruling follows a legal challenge by activists who said they were concerned the 60km (37 mile) portion of the train that would connect the resorts of Playa del Carmen and Tulum would adversely affect the area’s wildlife, as well as its caves and water-filled sinkholes known as cenotes.
The original plan for the disputed section was for an overpass over a highway, but the route was modified early this year to go through jungle at ground level.
The federal judge cited the “imminent danger” of causing “irreversible damage” to ecosystems, according to one of the plaintiffs, the non-governmental group Defending the Right to a Healthy Environment. In a statement, the group said that authorities had failed to carry out the necessary environmental impact studies before starting construction of the section.
Lopez Obrador had announced the ambitious project in 2018, with construction beginning in 2020. The roughly 1,500km (930 mile) cargo and passenger rail loop was presented as a cornerstone of a wider plan to develop the poorer states and remote towns throughout the about 181,000sq km (70,000sq mile) Yucatan Peninsula.
The railway is set to connect Caribbean beach resorts with Mayan archaeological ruins, with authorities aiming to complete the project by the end of 2023. The plan is estimated to cost about $16bn.
The project has split communities across the region, with some welcoming the economic development and connectivity it would bring. Others, including some local Indigenous communities, have challenged the project, saying it could not only disrupt the migratory routes of endangered species, including jaguars, tapirs and ocelots, but could also potentially damage centuries-old Mayan archaeological sites.
The National Fund for the Promotion of Tourism, the government agency overseeing the project, has said that it expects to “overcome” the latest challenge and that work should continue after an environmental impact statement is finalised. It said the Environment Ministry was currently reviewing its environmental application for the project.
For his part, Lopez Obrador has insisted the railway will not have a significant environmental effect and has accused activists of being infiltrated by “impostors”.