Mexican scientists sound alarm on Mayan train

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By Cassandra Garrison and Jose Luis Gonzalez

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Parts of the remote jungles of southern Mexico have hardly changed since the days of the ancient Maya.

In the eyes of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a railroad his government is building – known as the Tren Maya – will bring modern connectivity to areas deprived of significant economic benefits for generations.

But the railroad and its rushed construction also critically threaten untouched nature and ancient cave systems beneath the jungle floor, say scientists and environmental activists.

The railway “is splitting the jungle in half,” said Ismael Lara, a guide who takes tourists to a cave that is home to millions of bats near the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. Lara fears that the nearby train will disrupt wildlife routes and draw too much development into fragile ecosystems.

Over nearly a year, Reuters photographed construction at points along the entire length of the planned railroad, documenting the evolution of the flagship project that Lopez Obrador has pledged to finish by the end of 2023.

The 1,470 km (910 miles) of track is expected to carry diesel and electric trains across the Yucatan Peninsula and connect Mexico’s top tourist destination, Cancun, to the ancient Mayan temples of Chichen Itza and Palenque.

The railroad has deeply divided Mexicans, and the controversies surrounding its construction exemplify the struggles developing countries around the world face to balance economic progress with environmental responsibility.

FONATUR, Mexico’s tourism agency in charge of the project, said the railroad would lift more than a million people out of poverty and could create up to 715,000 new jobs by 2030. Construction costs are estimated at up to $20 billion, Lopez said. Worker in July. .

But with the project already billions of dollars over budget and behind schedule, scientists and activists say the government has cut costs on its environmental risk assessments in a bid to complete it while López Obrador is still in office.

In December, United Nations experts warned that the railway’s status as a national security project allowed the government to circumvent usual environmental safeguards and urged the government to protect the environment in line with global standards.

FONATUR defended the speed with which the studies were produced. “Years are not needed, experience, knowledge and integration skills are needed,” he said in response to questions from Reuters. He declined to comment on the UN statement.

CENOTES

The Tren Maya route cuts a swath up to 14 meters (46 feet) wide through some of the world’s most unique ecosystems, bringing the modern world closer to vulnerable species such as jaguars – and bats.

It will pass over a system of thousands of underground caverns carved into the region’s soft limestone rock by water over millions of years.

Crystalline pools known as cenotes dot the Yucatan Peninsula, where the limestone surface has fallen away to expose groundwater. The longest known underground river in the world passes through the caves, which have also been the site of discoveries such as ancient human fossils and Mayan artifacts such as a canoe estimated to be over 1,000 years old.

If poorly constructed, the railroad risks breaching fragile soil, including yet-to-be-explored caves below, says Emiliano Monroy-Rios, a Mexican geochemist at Northwestern University who has extensively studied the area’s caves and cenotes.

Diesel, he adds, can also leak into the network of underground pools and rivers, the main source of fresh water on the peninsula.

With less than 20% of the underground system believed to have been mapped, according to several scientists interviewed by Reuters, such damage could limit important geological discoveries.

The government’s environmental impact study for Section 5, the most controversial section, says the environmental impacts are “insignificant” and have been adequately mitigated. The study says that the risk of landslides was taken into account in the engineering of the runways, and that the area will be observed through a prevention program.

Dozens of scientists disagree, writing in open letters that the assessments are riddled with problems, including outdated data, the omission of newly discovered caves and a lack of input from local hydrology experts.

“They don’t want to recognize the fragility of the earth,” said Fernanda Lases, a scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mérida, calling the identified problems “highly concerning.”

The names of the 70 experts who participated in the government study were removed from the publication.

Some of the research used by the government to support its conclusions was taken from a blog by Monroy-Rios, who says he was never contacted by the report’s authors. His research highlights the need for extensive surveillance and monitoring of any infrastructure project in the region. He says that didn’t happen.

“I think their conclusions were pre-formatted,” said Monroy-Rios. “They want to do it fast and that’s part of the problem. There’s not enough time for proper exploration.”

An expert who participated in the reporting and spoke to Reuters on the condition of anonymity said the job was done quickly.

“There was pressure, mainly due to delivery times”, said the expert.

The expert expressed concern that the government is not adequately mitigating the risks that experts highlighted in the government’s impact studies or devoting the necessary resources to maintaining the train.

FONATUR reported that the project will have resources and follow-up services in the future, including established programs for environmental protection.

“The Trem Maia project is safe, monitored and regulated by environmental authorities, as has been the case until now,” the agency told Reuters.

Inecol, the ecology institute in Mexico that produced the reports, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. A spokesman for Lopez Obrador did not respond to a request for comment.

FORGOTTEN SOUTHEAST

Despite concerns about the railroad, it has the support of many in villages that for decades were overlooked in national development plans.

In Xkuncheil, a dusty little town of about 140 people on Section 2 of the train that runs through Campeche state, Luz Elba Damas Jimenez, 69, owns a small shop selling soft drinks and snacks near the tracks. Many of her neighbors, especially the young men, are working on the project, she said. She also has more clients now.

“The government is working on good things for the country… Sometimes there are just no jobs in these small towns, but now they have jobs,” she said. “The truth is, we benefited.”

Martha Rosa Rosado, who was offered a government payment to move when an earlier plan for the tracks was set to run past her home in the Camino Real neighborhood of Campeche, echoed those sentiments.

“No government ever remembers the southeast. Everything goes north, and the southeast is forgotten,” she said as she grilled pork outside her 40-year-old home.

About 450 kilometers away, in Playa del Carmen, near the resorts teeming with tourists, a group of volunteers – wearing helmets and flashlights – descends into the caves on weekends to monitor their condition.

Roberto Rojo, a biologist with the group, says the train will endanger the entire ecosystem above and below ground.

“They are doing studies now that needed to be done at least four years ago,” Rojo said inside a cave just below where the train is due to pass.

Behind him, tree roots descend from the cave ceiling like a thick rope, stretching out to be doused by the water pooling at his feet.

“This is our life. We are endangering and endangering the stability of this ecosystem,” she said.

($1 = 19.2527 Mexican pesos)

(Reporting by Cassandra Garrison and Jose Luis Gonzalez; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)

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