Proposed Tourist Train Could Threaten Mexico’s Fragile Jaguar Populations

Scientists are pushing for environmental mitigation of Yucatán Peninsula's controversial Mayan Train project.

As a scientist, you can't always just be a spectator. That's what Dr. Gerardo Ceballos has come to realize over the past few years. The President of Mexico's National Alliance for Jaguar Conservation has, somewhat unintentionally, become involved in the planning of the country's latest infrastructure megaproject in order to protect the elusive subject of his life's work.

photo of jaguar
A new 1,500-kilometer train route would pass through important jaguar habitat on the Yucatán Peninsula, which is home to about half of Mexico's jaguars. Photo by Robert Pittman.

Christened the Mayan Train after the region's Indigenous people, the $7.8 billion Central American transportation project would involve the construction of 1,500 kilometers of railway line across the Mexican states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatan, and Quintana Roo, and the operation of a biodiesel-powered train to carry freight and passengers through the region.

The most promoted aspect of the project, and the reason many local businesses and transnational corporations were in a hurry to jump on the bandwagon when the train was first proposed, is that it’s expected to catalyze tourism in currently marginalized zones on the Yucatán Peninsula further inland from the Caribbean coast. The new line, which loops eastward from an existing north-south train route, will be able to carry some 8,000 passengers to its 15 stops. Though the current version of the project was proposed just last year and is still undergoing adjustments, it is expected to be completed as soon as 2022, within the current government’s tenure.

But as Indigenous rights and environmental activists have made clear, the project is not risk-free. As currently conceived, it would entail the social and territorial reorganization of the entire Yucatan peninsula, with the objective of “consolidating the Mayan Region” and creating urban centers modeled on those of the ancient civilization’s to decrease “disorder and anarchy.” Although no evaluation of expected environmental or social impacts has been undertaken, the project is likely to encroach on areas high in biodiversity, as well as on agricultural lands.

One animal, in particular, could face a particularly high risk from the new train. Some 2,000 jaguars, 1,000 of which live in Campeche's Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, are at risk from the construction of the Mayan Train, which would pass directly through their habitat. Moreover, the construction of the train would involve building physical barriers around the tracks, causing introgression in the species, a phenomenon which essentially means that genetically distinct individuals would be unable to meet and breed. This is because the jaguar has a very wide radius of activity — between 30 and 50 kilometers per individual — and the train would break the usual flow of migration within its ecosystem.

The National Alliance for Jaguar Conservation succeeded in increasing the country's jaguar population from 4,000 in 2010 to 4,800 in 2018 according to surveys undertaken in that time. This was thanks to collaborative work with institutions such as the National Commission for Areas of Natural Protection (CONANP), the Secretariat for Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT), the National Commission for the Understanding and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO), the WWF-Telmex/Telcel Foundation Alliance, and the Mexican Fund for Natural Conservation. Jaguars are protected nationally under SEMARNAT regulations for endangered species, as well as listed by the IUCN as near-threatened.

“Our Alliance has put Mexico at the vanguard of conservation, with the largest feline studies in the American continent — a fact which is especially remarkable considering that we are currently facing an era in which biodiversity is under siege around the world,” Ceballos says.

The continuation of this progress is in jeopardy however, as environmental protection has taken a back seat to unfettered economic and industrial development under Andrés Manuel López Obrador's presidency. The left-wing leader is accused by detractors of having a Trump-like anachronistic political vision, while he is lauded by supporters as a Robin Hood hero of the pueblo. Winning with the biggest democratic mandate in Mexican history, and with an allied majority in both houses of Congress, he is perhaps the country's most powerful President in thirty years, and the Mayan Train is his signature project. The project, like the President, has been very popular among the public, especially among those who hope to benefit economically.

The original blueprint for the new railway, which had it passing through the Calakmul Biosphere reserve, did not comply with national environmental legislation preventing development in protected areas. As a result of concern from researchers, conservationists, and scientists representing 25 organizations nationwide that make up Ceballos’ Alliance, a meeting was held the end of October 2018 with the head of the National Fund for the Promotion of Tourism (FONATUR), Rogelio Jimenez Pons.

“There was no declaration about complying with environmental law and that's why we needed to talk,” Ceballos says, referring to the original route. “The route should respect the limits of federal, state, and municipal areas of natural protection. He adds that the project “should under no circumstances impact the core [or] buffer zones of areas of natural protection” on the Yucatan peninsula.

He is pleased with the results of the October meeting — Pons, who is charge of the execution of the infrastructure project under López Obrador, agreed to carry out environmental impact studies and guaranteed that the railway line would not pass through any national reserves. FONATUR had been notoriously difficult to work with in the past, so for Ceballos, Pons' willingness to collaborate has been mildly surprising. In November, FONATUR announced that the project would be “holistic, incorporating forest restoration through containment, mitigation, and compensation. Furthermore, it will create jobs for local people in sustainable industries to avoid illegal logging and deforestation due to agriculture.”

FONATUR estimates that these environmental impact studies for the new line will begin within the next couple of months, alongside a consultation with Indigenous populations.

As a core campaign promise of the President’s, and with preparations well under way, Ceballos believes it will be impossible to U-turn entirely on the Mayan Train. At this point, he intends to keep a close eye on developments, indicating that the studies should be particularly rigorous in verifying the project's feasibility, since the Calakmul Biosphere reserve, the jaguar's natural habitat, is one of the three most vital masses of forest left in the country (the others being Chimalapas and Lacandona).

“Calakmul is one of the twenty most extensive rainforests left on the planet, and the conservation work that has been done is so important. Hence the concern,” he says. “For us it's fundamental to evaluate and mitigate the impacts on the jaguar and regional biological diversity.”

Ceballos also explained to Pons and his team the importance of establishing mitigation and conservation measures in zones that maintain extensive rainforest but that are not in protected areas, as they function as biological corridors for jaguars and other species.

“Depending on the characteristics of the train, the number and locations of fauna passages elevated throughout the train's route need to be determined, for major fauna like jaguars and tapirs. Moreover, viaducts, drain and passage systems need to be adapted so that they function as fauna passages for smaller species such as ocelots and ant eaters,” allowing them to pass safely under the tracks.

The Alliance now serves as an environmental consultancy to the project, working with the government to make sure its ecological footprint is minimized. “The project will go ahead regardless, no one will stop it,” says Ceballos. “Our job is to make sure it complies with environmental law and is constructed with natural areas in mind. The publicity about this issue now is such that it would be politically damaging for the President not to.”

The project has been marketed as a boon for sustainable tourism and commerce, reducing the need for road and air freight, which have historically been used to supply the region and contributed to the country's greenhouse gas emissions. But the expected impact the train will have on national emissions is yet to be officially modeled and evaluated. Moreover, Ceballos argues that the anticipated economic benefits of the train are mostly exaggerated, and that the positive impact it will bring for marginalized communities has been overstated. Additionally, the intended “reforestation” program put forward by Sembrando Vida, a government program for sustainable communities, which will be based on monoculture and export-oriented agriculture, has been criticized by environmental NGOs as unfeasible.

The government will also be left to pay for much of the project out of pocket — for the train to be profitable, it was hoped that 90 percent of the estimated $7.8 billion price tag would be funded privately. Such investment has not reached 50 percent of the total cost, so it seems the rest will be shouldered publicly. This is at a time when the government is implementing austerity measures and budgetary cutbacks that will adversely affect NGOs and civil society, who are at the forefront of holding the government accountable for its actions.

Ceballos and his colleagues hope that Mexico’s new Secretary for Environment and Natural Resources, Victor Toledo, will make good on his talk about working with indigenous communities against “predatory projects” and with scientists for “sustainability with ethics and conscience” as they proceed with the project, and with others.

“We are talking about UNESCO World Heritage sites and areas of natural beauty,” he says. “There should be international pressure [on the Mexican government] to minimize the potentially destructive impact the train could have on the region's biodiversity.”

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