Mexican tourist train raises fears of underground treasures

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Playa del Carmen (Mexico) (AFP) – Bulldozers idle next to tree stumps along the contested route of a new Mexican tourist train. Beneath the jungle, conservationists warn that a magical labyrinth of underground rivers and caves is also under threat.

The rail link under construction between popular Caribbean resorts and archaeological ruins is at the center of a legal battle between authorities and activists.

Last month, a judge suspended work on part of the roughly 1,500-kilometre (950-mile) Mayan Train, a flagship project of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Opponents fear a section between the resorts of Playa del Carmen and Tulum could cause irreparable damage to an underground network of caves, rivers and freshwater sinkholes known as cenotes connected to the Caribbean Sea .

“This is suicide,” said Tania Ramirez, a 42-year-old activist and cave expert.

“It’s like cutting your wrists,” she told AFP.

Often filled with stunning emerald or turquoise water lit by a beam of light from above, cenotes are a major attraction for tourists visiting the Riviera Maya in the Yucatan Peninsula.

The sinkholes number in the thousands in the lush Mayan jungle and are connected to a giant aquifer which is a source of drinking water for local communities.

The original plan for the disputed rail section called for an overpass over a highway, but the route was changed to run through the jungle. Pedro PARDOAFP

The most recently discovered cave contains archaeological remains, said Ramirez, who believes the Maya natives once stored food there.

“You can find a cave at every step,” she said.

While authorities often insist that the caves are not on the planned line but rather next to it, in reality everything is connected, Ramirez added.

‘Gruyere’

Activists describe the underground area as “gruyere cheese” because of all the holes.

“It’s a hollow area that wouldn’t support the weight of a train,” said Vicente Fito, a 48-year-old diver who ventures into the underground world almost daily.

The line “will pass through places where everything is like that, with or without water, but hollow”.

The original plan for the disputed section called for a viaduct over a highway, but the route was changed earlier this year to cross the jungle at ground level.

Activists describe the southeastern region of Mexico as "Gruyere" because of all the holes
Activists describe the southeastern region of Mexico as ‘gruyere cheese’ because of all the holes Pedro PARDOAFP

Lopez Obrador, who hopes to inaugurate the railway in late 2023, said the reason is that the land is firmer in the jungle further inland with fewer cenotes and rivers.

The original route also disrupted the hospitality industry due to congestion caused by construction works in the urban area.

In April, a court in the southeastern state of Yucatan ordered a halt to work on the disputed section – one of several being built by the military – pending resolution of the dispute. an injunction requested by activists.

The judge cited a lack of environmental impact studies – grounds the government plans to challenge in future hearings.

“Imposters”

“The train won’t affect cenotes. It won’t affect underwater rivers. It’s an invention,” Lopez Obrador said.

He alleged that environmentalists had been infiltrated by “imposters” and that some non-governmental organizations were funded by hotel owners and the United States.

Lopez Obrador said the government has reforested nearly 500,000 hectares in the area.

The Mexican president is betting that the $10 billion train project will help economic development in one of the country’s poorest regions.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador bets the train will help economic development in one of the country's poorest regions
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador bets the train will help economic development in one of the country’s poorest regions Pedro PARDOAFP

Lenin Betancourt, president of the Riviera Maya Business Coordinating Council, sees the railroad as an opportunity to alleviate poverty that has deepened in the beach towns of Cancun and Tulum despite the benefits of tourism.

“We need to create this type and scale of project,” he said, while also calling for the lowest possible environmental impact.

Tourism represents almost nine percent of the Mexican economy.

Cave explorer and activist Otto Von Bertrab thinks the only answer is to return to the original route with a train on the highway ferrying tourists and workers to hotels and towns along the way.

Otherwise, “this president’s legacy will be a legacy of destruction,” he said.

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