This is the vast jungle of Mexico with millions of species and animals. But soon, this biodiversity could be disrupted by a massive high-speed railroad. Construction had already begun, cutting the jungle in half, and destroying thousands of ancient Mayan sites along its path. Today, we’ll be looking at the Tren Maya: a huge megaproject in the jungle that nobody seems to want. Do you think anyone will manage to stop it? Let us know in the comments below. The Yucatán Peninsula, in southern Mexico, is a richly jungled stretch of land with a beautiful, white-sanded coastline.
The Riviera Maya — a row of tropical resorts between Cancún and Tulum — attracts millions of tourists every year. But these tourists aren’t only coming for the beautiful beaches. Hundreds of years ago, the Yucatán Peninsula was home to the Mayan civilization — an advanced society of mathematicians, astronomers, and builders. They filled the region with astonishing constructions, including the famous Chichén Itzá pyramid — one of the seven wonders of the world. But the peninsula’s thick, cave-pocked jungle makes it hard to travel between the tropical coast of the Riviera Maya and the ancient ruins of the Mayans. It takes three hours in a bus, on winding roads, to travel from Cancún to Chichén Itzá — and this is one of the shorter journeys. Other sites are so remote that they’re rarely visited at all. The Mexican president wants to change this by building the Tren Maya, ignoring international law, and fierce protests, along the way. But what even is the Tren Maya? Before we dive deep into this, we want to take a brief moment to thank Surfshark VPN for sponsoring this video. If you’re someone who loves to travel to beautiful places like Mexico, you may find yourself connecting to public Wi-Fi networks. But public Wi-Fi networks are not secure and make it easy for hackers to steal your passwords, credit card numbers, and personal information. That’s where Surfshark VPN comes in. Surfshark VPN helps you stay safe on any public Wi-Fi network, even when you’re connecting to unknown networks with your phone. This way your online data is always encrypted, keeping you safe from potential threats. And Surfshark VPN also lets you change your virtual location by connecting to one of over 3200 servers in over 100 countries. So when you are in Mexico, you could still access all the websites & Netflix content that are available in your home country. With our promo code “TOPLUXURY” or by clicking the first link in the description, you can check out their service and get 83% off + 3 months for free. And by the way, with one subscription you can use as many devices as you want, and even share the account with your friends! Thank you for supporting our videos! Now, let’s get back to the Tren Maya. The Tren Maya is a high-speed railroad and is expected to stretch a total distance of 1500 kilometers, cutting through the thickest parts of the Yucatán jungle, and connecting the beaches of the Riviera Maya to historical Mayan ruins. It will also link to other potential tourist attractions, like the charming ‘Yellow City’ of Izamal, and the fortified city of Campeche. The Mexican president — López Obrador — wants the Tren Maya to breathe new life into the Yucatán Peninsula. As tourists flow from place to place, they’ll spread their wealth wherever they go, drastically improving the lives of the people in poorer, less accessible regions. It’s something he’s very passionate about: giving social support to impoverished towns and cities. He described the train as “an act of justice”, because this region has been the most abandoned. So when will the project be built? López Obrador’s predecessor announced a similar train-line in 2012, then canceled the project three years later when he realized it was too expensive. Most people thought the Tren Maya would suffer a similar fate — yet another ambitious project that never got off the ground. But those people were wrong. Construction of the Tren Maya began in June 2020, as workers began to slash a path through the Yucatán jungle. A year later, 10% of the rail line had already been built, and six months after that, that number had risen to 25%. It’s an expensive process. The project was originally estimated to cost in the region of $7 billion, but that number has already started to rise, and could balloon as high as 25 billion by the time construction is over. Despite these rising costs, the president is desperate to finish the Tren Maya in the next two years — a final gift to the Mexican people before leaving office in 2024. But do the Mexican people even want this train? According to a recent survey, almost half of Mexico’s population disagrees with the train’s construction.
They don’t care that this project has the noble aim of regenerating towns and redistributing wealth. They’re more concerned about all the damage it’s causing. Beneath the thick vegetation of the Yucatán jungle, the land is scattered with Mayan ruins. The path of the train will cut through thousands of these ancient sites, many of which have never been seen by modern eyes. During the first two years of the train’s construction, more than 25,000 Mayan builds were discovered for the very first time. Legally speaking, the construction workers can’t damage these ruins if they’re deemed to hold significant historical value. Some might say that all of these ruins hold historical value, but the Mexican authorities disagree. They’ve given archaeologists the impossible task of deciding which ruins to keep. These archaeologists must rank the sites on a scale of 1 to 4, from minor value to profound historical importance. Anything that scores a 4 will be protected, while everything else is knocked down. To make this decision even harder, the archaeologists are working under difficult time constraints. On one stretch of railway, they were given 18 days to assess 60 kilometers of jungle, when the task really needed two years. They were told that, if they didn’t finish their assessment in time, construction would continue anyway. So far, less than fifteen sites, with just a few hundred buildings between them, have earned the right to legal protection. One of these is the ancient city of Paamul II: a sprawling complex of more than 300 unexplored buildings, including several well-preserved pyramids. The government agreed to elevate the train line, traveling over the city instead of passing through it, leaving the site mostly untouched. But Paamul II is the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of these Mayan sites will be steamrolled, then replaced by the Tren Maya railtrack. This isn’t the only reason why people are protesting against this project. It has also drawn severe criticism from environmental groups, who believe the work is causing irreversible harm to the Yucatán Peninsula’s ecosystem. In 2018, when the project was announced, the president said “we won’t uproot a single tree,” but this was an empty promise. Construction workers have already felled almost 150 hectares of forest — the equivalent of 200 football pitches.
Of particular concern to environmentalists is the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, one of Mexico’s largest and most valuable ecological areas, which could be cut in half by the project. Just like important Mayan ruins, areas of special ecological importance are meant to have legal protection. But in 2021, the Mexican government passed a national decree which granted the Tren complete immunity from environmental regulations. In an act of protest, a group of Greenpeace organizers tied themselves to heavy machinery at one of the project’s construction sites, but the government ignored their objections. One government official said the following: “People go first. We do not gain anything as a country having fat jaguars, but starving children.” But this argument assumes that the Tren Maya will actually benefit impoverished areas. That was always President López Obrador’s noble goal, but many people think the Tren Maya will have the opposite effect. This, perhaps, is the biggest controversy attached to the project. Not the historical cost, nor the environmental cost, but the effect it will have on people. According to international law, the Mexican government can’t build this train without the prior consent of the indigenous communities which the project is likely to affect. President López Obrador held a public referendum in 2019, in which 90% of the total voters declared their support for the project. But this public referendum has come under fierce scrutiny. First of all, the voters weren’t given all the facts about the project — they were only told the positives. Second, some of the materials weren’t properly translated into indigenous languages, making it hard for voters to make an informed decision. Third, the voting stations were in major cities, which rural populations couldn’t access. Of the 3.5 million potential voters in the affected areas of the Yucatán Peninsula, only 2% were able to place a vote. These issues meant that the public referendum fell short of international standards. Valid consent from the indigenous communities had not been received, which meant the Tren Maya could not be built — not without breaking international law. And yet the Mexican government went ahead with the project anyway, insisting the vote was valid, and refusing to hold another. The indigenous communities aren’t happy. In an open letter, one group declared: “This project isn’t planned for us, the common people. It’s a tourism project that will only benefit the wealthy and foreigners.” They’re worried about damage to the local environment, plus the ruthless destruction of their Mayan cultural heritage. Some of them are also at risk of eviction, where the path of the train comes into conflict with their homes.
Maybe, in the long term, they’ll receive some gains from increased tourism, but they aren’t convinced that those gains are worth the losses. A year after the referendum, a local council delivered a petition, with 250,000 signatures, asking for the project to be halted. This number dwarfed the original referendum, which received less than 100,000 votes. But still, the government refused to listen. Now, a number of indigenous groups have taken the project to court. There are currently more than twenty injunctions working their way through legal channels. A few of these have managed to halt the train’s construction, but never for more than a few weeks. These legal disputes are heard in the region’s major cities, which makes it hard for people in remote communities to attend the hearings and defend their case. All the while, the Tren Maya continues forward — whether the locals want it or not.
There’s a cruel sense of irony here. The train is meant to make the wonders of the Yucatán Peninsula more accessible to tourists. But will tourists still want to visit Yucatán if the ruins have been destroyed, the jungle spoiled, and the local communities displaced? What do you think? Should this train be built?