Chinese-backed Mayan train chugs ahead despite environmental fears

With a process questioned by environmentalists and indigenous people, CCCC is set to begin construction of the Mayan Train in biodiverse southern Mexico

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Environment protest Mayan Train

A protestor holds a placard that reads: "I don't want a refinery. I don't want the Mayan Train. I want a planet to live in" (image: Francisco Colín Varela)

The Chinese partner that will build part of the Mayan Train (Tren Maya) in southern Mexico is involved in more than 50 projects in at least 19 Latin American and Caribbean countries, thanks in large part to capital from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. Yet on the train’s official website, no details are given about the company or its other works in the region.

In late April, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, it was announced that the Mota-Engil Mexico Consortium had won the tender to build the first section of the Mayan Train, and would work with China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), Grupo Cosh, Eyasa and Gavil Ingeniería. The section of the route will require total investment of US$15 billion pesos (US$630 million).

CCCC has a chequered record. In 2011, it was blacklisted by the World Bank for fraudulent practices in projects in the Philippines. It has also been suspected of corruption in a railway project in Malaysia. In Bangladesh, government officials accused one of its subsidiaries, China Harbor Engineering Corporation, of paying commissions illegally. The company was also accused of corruption during the construction of a port in Tanzania.

In Latin America, there have been no major scandals but there have been signs of irregularities. In São Luís, Brazil, where the company is building a large port, local prosecutors are investigating whether the company irregularly profited from the sale of property titles. In Panama, local authorities discovered irregularities in the construction contract for a bridge. There were also problems with the contract for the building of a university in Ecuador.

Pierpaolo Bottini, a criminal lawyer who has defended construction company executives accused of corruption, recently told Diálogo Chino when asked about CCCC's record that past indiscretions don’t mean a company can’t change and that a structured internal compliance mechanism is what really matters.

Mayan Train opposition

The Mayan Train, one of the mega projects promoted by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO), will run 227km from Palenque, Chiapas to Escárcega, Campeche in southern Mexico and will cost an estimated 150 billion pesos (US$6300 million). Private finance will cover 90% of the project.

As well as the controversy stirred by CCCC’s past, the president has faced strong opposition from civil organisations and communities in the area, who claim they don’t benefit from foreign investment in tourism projects.

“Based on the information available up to now … we can see that it is a project that is much more than a transport link, it contemplates the construction of development hubs, agro-industrial parks, stations, new cities and new tourism developments,” said Sergio Madrid, director of the Mexican Civil Council for Sustainable Forestry (CCMSS), an institution that works with rural organisations in defence of their territory.

For Madrid, megaprojects in the Yucatán Peninsula have been accompanied by the dispossession of land from indigenous communities.

It has always been an opaque project, where pertinent public information has not been provided

Salvador Anta Fonseca, head of forestry at NGO Policy and Environmental Legislation (POLEA), said:

“The train itself is not the most complicated part of the project, but rather what is behind it, which are several new towns … that are going to generate strong pressure on some areas that still have important biodiversity.”

Those areas include the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, a national park that is home to panthers, other iconic species, and the most emblematic Mayan ruins in Central America. Local communities manage conservation there.

Work suspended

There has been a lack of transparency on the impacts of the Mayan Train, according to Jorge Fernández, a lawyer at Indignation, a human rights NGO.

“It has always been an opaque project, where pertinent public information has not been provided, from the outline and its environmental impact to the implications of the project itself, because it is not just the construction of railroads in the five states,” he said.

Fernández added that before any irregularities emerged, indigenous communities and residents of Palenque, Salto de Agua and Ocosingo had filed an appeal challenging two agreements that allowed work on the Mayan Train to continue despite the pandemic. On 22 June, local courts suspended the first of the railway’s seven sections.

Fernández said the trial revealed three new points that led communities to expand demands for protection: “The first is the assertion by Fonatur that there is no environmental impact statement, something that has already changed because the agency presented the document. The second is that Fonatur has no legal authority to carry out tenders. And the third is the peoples who were not consulted, violating their right to self-determination.”

On the last point, the Mexican office of the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) said that the indigenous consultation process on the Mayan Train carried out in 2019 failed to comply with every international standard relating to the rights of indigenous peoples. This includes the right to prior consultation. UNHCHR emphasised that neither the call for the project, the consultation process, nor the information that the government gave to the community had complete information on the potential impacts on the area.

Moreover, some environmentalists and activists who have openly opposed the project have received anonymous death threats. Pedro Uc, who dismissed the results of the consultation, was one of them.

80,000

jobs will be created by the Mayan Train, according to the Mexican government

The Mexican government claims that Section 1 of the Mayan Train, built by CCCC, will employ the first batch of a total 80,000 jobs it says the project will create by the end of this year.

“What kind of jobs are going to be generated?” asks Jorge Fernández, questioning the state’s criteria for bidding and claiming it only sees communities as potential construction workers.

When AMLO took office as president of Mexico on 1 December 2018, he made 100 promises. Number 68 was to build the Mayan Train. Number 78 was that no environmentally damaging project would be allowed. For those living in the Mayan jungle, the two seem incompatible.