Souvenir market at Mexico's "Riviera Maya" touristic hot-spot. Photo: Gabri Ruiz / Flickr

There is nothing “Mayan” about Mexico’s Mayan Train

  • January 31, 2020

Land & Liberation

Mexican president AMLO’s pursuit of megaprojects will benefit the tourism and extractivist industries, but not local people, explains Mayan activist Pedro Uc Be.

When Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) assumed the Mexican presidency on December 1, 2018, he promised the country a transformation and an end to the neoliberal politics that have led to the severe, multifaceted crisis Mexican society is facing today. In order to realize his promise of economic and social progress, AMLO and his administration have developed an infrastructure policy that focuses on so-called megaprojects: large-scale, complex ventures that would restructure whole regions of Mexico in order to open them to the national and international market and integrate the local populations into the capitalist economy.

Three projects stand out in particular:

Firstly, the Tren Maya, a railway line of more than 1,500 kilometers that is intended to make the impoverished south-eastern states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo accessible to mass tourism.

Secondly, the Corredor Transístmico, a link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans along the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, through the development of train lines, logistics centers and ports, which is supposed make Mexico a hub of international trade.

And third, the Proyecto Integral Morelos, which consists of various heat and natural gas plants and is intended to supply the industrial corridor of Central Mexico with energy.

While international corporations applaud these policies, left-wing Indigenous organizations like the Congreso Nacional Indígena (CNI) and the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) heavily oppose them, since they fear the destruction of natural resources and do not see any benefits for the populations affected.

About all this, and more, ROAR Magazine spoke to Pedro Uc Be, a Mayan poet and activist, who lives in the southeastern state of Yucatán and forms part of the Indigenous organization Asamblea de Defensores del Territorio Maya Múuch’ Xíinbal’ and is a delegate to the CNI. He has been active in the defense of Indigenous territories for several decades.

Alexander Gorski: Pedro, for you and your organization the megaprojects pushed forward by the administration of President López Obrador are nothing new. You have been defending your territories for decades against multinational companies and their intents to dispossess indigenous communities. Can you talk about this work and how it relates to the Mayan identity?

Pedro Uc Be: For more than 30 years we have accompanied different Mayan communities of the Yucatán Peninsula in their journey. That means that we have fomented a kind of reflection with them around the values of our culture, around the importance of our language and around the situation of our identity, which has to do with our ways of life, our forms of organization, our ways of dressing and relating, but above all of loving our land and everything that exists within nature.

This has been a slow and very difficult work, mainly since the Mayan culture has been left crushed by centuries of exploitation and oppression. Especially since the Caste War of Yucatán, a lengthy confrontation between Mayan peoples and the settlers of European descent that lasted from 1847 until 1901, our culture has been marginalized and suppressed by the state. Many of our ancestors were sold as slaves to Cuba and others were left to starve in what is now the state of Quintana Roo. The ones who remained alive in the Yucatán Peninsula are those who were held like slaves in the haciendas of the big landowners.

This political, military and cultural defeat made it very difficult for the Mayan people to begin to recover their consciousness, their identity and their values as a culture.

Since then, every government has made it part of their course of action to establish a clientele policy aimed at the Mayan people, for example through social programs, in order to keep them subordinate. In recent decades this was always linked to the massive dispossession of Indigenous lands by transnational corporations.

What kind of projects did these corporations try to install on the Yucatán Peninsula?

Pig farms, wind and photovoltaic parks, high impact tourism, plantations of transgenic soybeans, to name a few. These projects have one thing in common: the hostile occupation of the Mayan territory of the Yucatán Peninsula. These development projects are ultimately extremely harmful to the life of the communities, because they are displaced from their places of origin and separated from their ancestral lands. These projects not only have an environmental impact, they also have a social as well as a cultural and linguistic impact.

Many argue that these projects actually represent the opportunity for Indigenous communities to overcome poverty and marginalization and integrate into the national economy.

In reality, the Mayan people do not see any benefits from these projects. We can say this with certainty, because we have seen this scene play itself out before. Every time the propaganda of the corporations and the governments claims that the Indigenous peoples are going to benefit and that they are going to bring development to our communities. They say that they are going to create jobs, that they are going to improve our way of life and so on and so forth.

The discourse is very elaborate and it is by no means new. But in the end, the economic and political benefits have always been on their side, never on ours.

What role does the government play in the implementation of these infrastructural policies?

Theoretically, the government has the obligation to investigate the social, environmental and cultural impact of these projects. But in practice, we have witnessed the wide-spread corruption of the local, regional and federal authorities. It has become clear that there is an agreement between the government and these large companies.

For example: governmental agencies carry out fake environmental impact studies that are at the convenience of the companies. This manipulates public opinion and makes it easier for the companies to dispossess the communities of their lands and do whatever they want with it in order to accumulate more and more capital. In the end there is a complicity of all three levels of government with the transnational companies.

And what about civil society? Do the Indigenous movements work with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in order to defend themselves against this onslaught?

Yes, but there have been difficulties as well. Many of the NGOs that have declared themselves in solidarity with the communities are not willing to really confront the systemic violations taking place in our territories. They only investigate, report and document. While this information is without a doubt very useful for our struggle, it is not enough. One has to organize on a daily basis to oppose these projects.

We as communities are not organized as legal entities. We are Indigenous people coming together, reflecting and resisting collectively against this system that only brings death and destruction.

What are the modes of your resistance?

The key for us is information and organization. In our own communities, but also for the society as a whole. Furthermore, we also have used legal means in order to challenge specific projects. With this combination we have successfully stopped several companies from installing development projects on our land. And this is precisely what is bothering the companies. The threats against us and the campaigns of misinformation about our struggles show that the capitalists are worried, because they have seen that there is determined resistance from our territory.

Now the Tren Maya is threatening the territorial integrity of Indigenous communities on the Yucatán Peninsula once again. What is your assessment of this project?

The Tren Maya starts its aggression with its name. There is nothing Mayan about it. It was not a project developed by us, nor was it a project requested by us. And even though the train is one of the core projects of the current administration, there is no reliable information available to the affected communities about its impact.

What we know so far about the project is only what the propaganda by competent authority, the Fondo Nacional de Fomento al Turismo (Fonatur), wants us to believe. They say the train is going to be for tourists and cargo. That means: not for Mayan people. Because our impoverished communities don’t have the money to go traveling around. And we also don’t have factories, so we don’t need trains for cargo.

But the problem is not just the train. According to Fonatur the government is planning to build cities at each of the train’s stops with up to 50.000 inhabitants. Firstly, this will lead to an uncontrolled urbanization, which will only benefit the real estate companies and corrupt government officials. The effects for the ecosystems will be totally negative. Until now, there are no independent environmental impact studies. And secondly, we have seen what has happened in Cancún and the Riviera Maya, where mass tourism has lead to a situation of violence and social degradation. We don’t want to live this way.

That’s why for us, the Tren Maya threatens everything: our traditional ways of life, our nature, our language, our culture and our future as a Mayan people.

On December 15, 2019 the government carried out a consultation on the Tren Maya, which was not only criticized by opponents of the projects, but also the United Nations and several human rights organizations. What happened?

The governmental consultation was a mockery of the Mayan people. Just like any consultation any government has ever made on the Yucatán Peninsula when it comes to the question of megaprojects.

First, the ballot only includes a long list of benefits and is silent about any kind of possible negative impact. Secondly, only a little more than 90.000 people participated in the consultation, not even three percent of the electorate. The large absence from the ballot boxes reflects the opposition of the great majority of Mayan people. Thirdly, there was no effective participation of Indigenous women, because in many communities only the, mostly male, authorities were called to vote. And lastly, we documented a long list of irregularities during the electoral process, ranging up to threats and intimidations.

In summary, this consultation was a farce. It was only a justification for a decision that has already been taken by the government. It is, as the Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez wrote, “a chronicle of a death foretold.”

One of the strategies employed by governments and companies in the context of megaprojects is the division of communities in struggle. What have you witnessed in this sense so far?

There definitely have always been intentions to divide us. In the end, that is the basis of every government: divide and conquer. Now, with everything that has happened, there are difficulties in our communities. There are confrontations and conflicts. We see a wound in the social fabric due to the confrontations between the people who want to preserve their lands and those who want to offer it to the government and the transnational corporations.

You spoke about threats against critics of the Tren Maya in the context of the consultation. You yourself have been targeted — can you talk about that?

Two days after the consultation I got a message via WhatsApp. In a vulgar language I was threatened with death if I didn’t stop bothering the interests of the developers. They gave me 48 hours to get out of here and stop everything I’m doing, or they were going to kill me.

We, as an organization, have faced many threats and always made them public, since we think people should know about this. Fortunately, the news spread very quickly and there was an avalanche of solidarity statements in our favor. We put a complaint in the federal mechanism for human rights defenders and journalists as well. Now, due to this social pressure, the federal and state police patrol my house and the house of my son, who was also threatened. They also gave me an alert button to call the police if anything happens.

Do you think that a dialog with the government of López Obrador is still possible?

I believe that the government at present, due to the commitments it has with the business class, is difficult to dialogue with. The administration of López Obrador has been insensitive to us and has disqualified us by comparing our criticisms with right-wing positions. AMLO himself told us that we are “reactionaries” and “ultras.” He has also denied these megaprojects are neoliberal. He says they are social measures. But we see that the Tren Maya is a continuation of neoliberal politics and that many officials of AMLO’s government formers member of the right-wing parties PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) and PAN (National Action Party.) So if you look for reactionaries, you should look on the government’s side, not ours.

So, no, I don’t believe that there is going to be any serious dialog. We are going to continue organizing ourselves and denouncing the abuses of the government and the transnational corporations. At the appropriate time, if the assembly considers it, we are also going to take legal actions against the Tren Maya.

You are not only an activist in defense of Indigenous lands, but also an accomplished writer, poet and professor in the Mayan language? What role do culture and the arts play in the Indigenous resistance?

I think the role of culture, poetry and literature is fundamental. Art cannot be alien to what is happening in our communities. Literature that does not denounce the pain that we live on a daily basis, can hardly be literature. But also the love of nature and of human beings is inherent to literature and all forms of artistic expression. Having forms of beauty in the exposition and construction of the word before this sad reality is part of our struggle for life.

We are not fighting for personal interests, we are fighting for nature itself. And this, we also do through poetry, literature, music or theater, because art is a channel where we can share what we feel and what we think.

Alexander Gorski

Alexander Gorski is a freelance journalist living in Berlin and Mexico City. In his reporting he focuses on the resistance of Indigenous and autonomous movements against megaprojects.

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Pedro Uc Be

Pedro Uc Be is a Mayan writer, poet and activist. He lives in Buctzotz, 90 kilometers northeast of Mérida, Yucatán.

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