The clearing of forest for a section of the Maya Train railroad that will run between Cancún and Tulum triggered a protest Sunday, while an online petition against the project has collected almost 70,000 signatures.
Quintana Roo-based environmental group Moce Yax Cuxtal last week denounced the clearing of virgin forest at two locations near Playa del Carmen.
Environmental activists, members of civil society organizations and others gathered at one of the denuded sites on Sunday morning to protest the deforestation, which occurred before an environmental impact study had been completed.
The protesters conducted a ceremony asking for forgiveness from Mother Earth, used stones to form the letters SOS and laid out a banner that declared that “ecocide” had been committed at the site. They demanded that the clearing of land be stopped until all relevant studies have been completed and the appropriate permits have been issued.
The SOS message was directed at President López Obrador, who on Sunday inspected the progress of the Maya Train project in Quintana Roo from the vantage point of a helicopter.
In a Facebook post that showed him looking down at the Quintana Roo coastline, the president claimed that the government’s “adversaries, with the support of pseudo-environmentalists and their spokespeople, have mounted a campaign against the Maya Train.”
“But this is our version,” his post continued.
“In 1,500 kilometers of the train, only 100 hectares [of vegetation] will be affected, mainly weeds. However, at the same time 200,000 hectares are being reforested; three large natural parks (18,000 hectares) will be created and on the edge of the tracks, rows of flowering trees will be planted,” López Obrador wrote. “… We were born and grew up in the countryside and since we were children we learned to look after and live together with nature.”
The protesters were skeptical of the government’s repeated claims that the US $8 billion project won’t have an adverse impact on the environment.
Citing estimates from Moce Yax Cuxtal, Roberto Rojo told the newspaper El Universal that more than 8.5 million trees will be cut down for the construction of section 5 of the railroad, which was recently modified due to opposition against it running directly through the resort city of Playa del Carmen.
Rojo, a speleologist, also raised concerns about the impact the project will have on the Yucatán Peninsula’s vast system of subterranean rivers, caves, caverns and cenotes, or natural sinkholes.
“We’re sad … and annoyed with the way they’re doing things. They tell us from one day to the next that the train route is now in the jungle and that it will pass over the subterranean rivers,” he told La Jornada.
Members of the organization Jóvenes por Solidaridad, or Young People for Solidaridad – the municipality where Playa del Carmen is located – said the government has not taken their views on the “mega-project” into account.
“They can’t say that the progress is for us because they’re not consulting us,” one young woman told El Universal.
“We believe that all the decisions … that require the destruction of our ecosystems behind our backs have to take into account not just the elites but all of us who live here,” she said.
Those present at the protest planned to present individual complaints about the deforestation, and a collective complaint, to environmental protection agency Profepa, El Universal said. Legal challenges against the construction of section 5 of the railroad are also being prepared.
A collective of environmental groups responded directly to López Obrador’s Facebook post, asserting that they are not pseudo-environmentalists nor his “adversaries,” but rather Mexicans committed to the protection of the environment.
“He doesn’t have any basis to discredit us,” they said in an open letter before rejecting his claim that only 100 hectares of vegetation will be affected by the Maya Train railroad, scheduled to begin operations in 2023.
“That amount of space was destroyed this week, and the worst is still to come,” the environmental groups said.
López Obrador on Monday doubled down on his defense of the project from an environmental standpoint. “We’re looking after the environment,” he told reporters at his regular news conference.
Numerous environmental and other concerns have been raised about the construction and operation of the 1,500-kilometer railroad, along which tourist, commuter and freight trains are slated to run in Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán, Quintana Roo and Chiapas. Mayan communities have claimed “there’s nothing Mayan about” the railroad, complained about not being properly consulted about the project and questioned whether they will in fact benefit from it as the government says.
The petition “No to the Maya Train over the cenotes and caves of Quintana Roo” had attracted almost 67,500 signatures by 4:00 p.m. Monday.
“This petition was created with the objective of reaching the president … [in order] to completely stop the construction of the Maya Train mega-project on the caves and cenotes in the Riviera Maya between Cancún and Tulum,” it states. “… The Maya Train mega-project involves numerous risks and environmental impacts throughout the Mexican southeast, an area of high biological wealth and importance for the conservation and protection of the Maya Forest, the aquifer and biodiversity.”
López Obrador promised when announcing the project in 2018 that “not a single tree” would be cut down.