21. Let’s talk about the Maya Train

One of the more successful attempts to divide Mexican progressives was making a generation of ecology minded youth believe that they should oppose the Maya Train project. This essay is a friendly invitation to those dedicated to this ‘cause’ to learn more and reconsider their stance. Trains are good.

Let me start by admitting that ecology is probably the weakest progressive link in the new government’s policy agenda. While there are key policies such as the massively ambitious tree-planting program Sembrando vida, the environment has not been the key focus. The Fourth Transformation in essence resolves around two things: social welfare and anticorruption. While only the ideologically blind deny the substantive efforts made in those fields, this focus sometimes lead to tradeoffs where the 4T goals don’t match the desires of environmentalists. The investments in wind or solar parks are not what we had hoped for; and from a strict environmental perspective one could criticize the construction of a new oil refinery.

    But not the train. Before this project I had never heard environmentalists critique trains back in Europe, both having been close to the environmentalist movement and riding trains each week. In contrast, I did know various hardcore ecologists that only travel by train. Green parties all over the world support the logical expansion of trains as a green mode of transport. So why the moral outrage in Mexico? In what follows I will dispel some of the most common misunderstandings surrounding the train and highlights the benefits of this project.

We should first understand that trains are an inherent ‘green’ form of public transport, since they are amongst the most energy efficient mainstream long distance forms of travel. It is a well-established fact that trains simply pollute far less CO² than most alternatives, hence trains quasi-universal are supported by environmentalist groups worldwide. We must keep in mind that in a touristic context the main competitors of the Tren Maya would be air travel and cruise ships, both of which have a disastrously high ecological footprint. It is a fact that any road to a more sustainable Mexico leads through the establishment of long-distance passenger railroad networks as an alternative to air travel. In the best case, the Maya Train is the kickoff of a greener future.

   But maybe the above never registered because you fell victim to the ‘but the Maya train will use diesel!’ talking point. It is true: standard trains indeed run on diesel (or diesel/electric hybrid in our case), yet the energy superiority noted above is based on diesel trains. A follow up talking point is that Mexico ‘cannot produce enough diesel, so it must be imported’. This is a half-truth, as Pemex indeed cannot supply Mexico’s full fuel consumption; but a) Not being able to meet total market demand doesn’t mean it can’t produce for this train, which is assumed in the plan; b) by that logic fuel for all alternatives (including cars) is also imported, thus it doesn’t change the comparison. This is also the case in most European countries, yet nobody questions the viability of trains there. To be clear: it is possible to have even more efficient electrical high speed trains. While a high speed bullet train would be great for a bigger future network, costs, sustainable supply, reliability and infrastructure issues would make it an odd choice for this particular project, as that involves far bigger infrastructural works. Which brings us to our second point.

Many oppose the Maya Train because they read it will destroy the jungle. To start, the Tren Maya will almost completely (95%) be built over existing (abandoned) railroad tracks, and thus will not lead to the colonization of whole new parts of nature. While it does not carve (many) new paths nature through, near those old paths there are of course bushes and new trees. Additionally, stations can take up space as well. An estimated 11.000 plants will be moved and replanted elsewhere. Two notes: 1) given the governments existing push to plant hundreds of millions of trees, the promise to compensate looks credible; 2) this would be the same or worse if they build a normal road. But did people ever protest all the highways that cross to Mexico for similar reasons, like for example the (beautiful) Durango-Sinaloa highway that cuts straight through the forest? I guess it was less trendy back then.

    Next let us address the fear that the train itself will somehow destroy the environment, the water and wildlife of whole states. It is true, trails killed all animals in Canada and Colombia. We should remember that besides making noise and smoke, trains don’t really interact with their environment. Unlike rides in Disneyland, real trains simply don’t splash through water and only carve a very narrow (as mentioned pre-existing) line through the land. While the opposition cries that the train will kill the non-existing Mexican leopard, we should again keep in mind that a train does nothing that a road doesn’t do. Except that roads don’t have the forty planned wildlife corridors that will be built for the train. While not without impact, the Maya project is thus a best case scenario.

Which raises the question what the nation gains from this impact? Besides hopefully laying the groundwork for a future of greener transportation, what would be the advantage of this train? According to an assessment of UNO Habitat (U.N.), it would regenerate around a 945.000 new jobs, of which 46% would go to original inhabitants. This would lead to a 15% reduction of poverty (-1.1 million people!) in the region over a period of ten years. I always encourage my readers to be skeptical of claims that investments bring X amount of jobs, or the idea that jobs always reduce poverty. Yet in contrast to previous era’s, today the minimum wages are higher and are flanked by social policies. Why would anyone be against this? Hopefully not because you are that type of jealous communist that wants to keep people poor to retain support –nah , I know you’re not. Hopefully not because you fell victim of a meme warning that a touristic project due in 2023 (!) is a waste because of Coronavirus. Also hopefully not because you fear the ecological effects of increased economic activity and consumption, and paternalistically rather see people stick to subsistence farming – which the government is simultaneously investing in. That would in essence mean the South may never develop even in a non-industrial way (the alternative), which is a more comfortable thought when you live in the industrialized North. As I argued last month, there is a historic debt towards the poor, and this region deserves these kind of investments. Today more than ever.

Lastly, some might think resisting the train is a progressive duty because it goes against the will of the local Southern people, oppressed by this ruthless government. Let us start by recognizing that that same government enjoys its strongest support in exactly this region, having won all states and all but Yucatan with absolute majorities. Nationally, the Tren Maya was also up for vote in the unofficial November 2018 referendum along with other proposals, and won with 89,9% of votes. But, you say, this referendum wasn’t binding and didn’t concern the local people in specific. That is true. Which is why in December 2019 a longer consultancy process involving town meetings in various indigenous communities cumulated in another referendum that only concerned the local population. The train won with 92.3% of the vote. I’m sure one could find some disparaging comments about this vote, including the absurd argument that locals didn’t know when it was, while El Extranjero in Nuevo León somehow marked the date months ahead. The question is at what point one stops asking for more proof that most (not all) don’t object before becoming paternalistic. It is also important to learn about the reasons of the minority that opposes the project. In some instances this has little to do with the train as such, as in the much publicized case when recently an indigenous community asked in court to stop the construction near their land. They did so out of fear of Covid19 contagion by the workers.

Let us circle back from discussing train tracks to more general political reflection by doing a small experiment. Mentally raise your hand if you believe that the Tren Maya was built without the commission of an official environmental effects study. The popularity of such statements is unsurprising, since it is much easier to parrot talking points than to read the thousand nine hundred seventy one pages of the environmental effects study that you heard wasn’t conducted. I hope that by now most readers noticed the extend of the fake news campaign against this green transport and southern development project. It has indeed turned many people to be hostile towards a project that they would in other times or countries either support or ignore. There is much more fake news stories and sponsored confusion that I won’t address here, but I invite people to look at the official FAQ of the Tren Maya itself, which tackles most directly. We should also follow the above argument in the other direction: of how many past and present important environmental issues is this opposition sponsored drama distracting you? If you think that opposing a train (of all things) is the environmental fight of your generation, it is indeed a sad day for the cause.

We can agree that the next Morena presidency should be greener. We can also share a concern for correct procedures and sensitivity to all the risks involved in big projects. Raising and signaling critical questions probably contributes to this goal. But hopefully we can also agree that none of that should be confused with the need to oppose this project as a whole, as compared to alternatives, the Tren Maya is an exciting opportunity.

    Or maybe not. Maybe you are amongst the five readers that simply insist that no bushes can be felled, no jungle spiders disturbed and no diesel burned for whatever reason, no matter how good the project. If you never fly for pleasure, eat meat or drive an SUV, and apply the same criteria to roads, the airline industry and any local development project, I really respect such consistency. Chances are though, I’m now talking to a single person: Hi!