Mexico’s Mayan Train: the perceived monopoly of legitimacy and the criticism from the periphery

By Nelson O. Puc Cruz, MPP 2021, Fulbright Scholar, former consultant for the Quintana Roo State Government in México.

Announced in September 2018, the Mayan Train has been one of the flagship projects of the Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, AMLO, government. It has been hailed as a development-detonating project that would target Mexico’s southern Yucatan Peninsula, an area that, other than the touristic hotspots that cities like Cancun and Playa del Carmen represent, has been long-forgotten by previous federal administrations.

Several opinion pieces, both for and against, have been written about the project and its 1,525 km, distributed between three routes that would encircle the Yucatan Peninsula. What most of them share, though, is that they are written from the perspective of privileged, often white, people, who live and work in the country’s capital and whose opinions stem 1,000 kilometers away from the people they are trying to make decisions for.

Just a couple of days ago, Katu Arkonada, a very vocal and often controversial AMLO supporter, tweeted “[The people] In the southeast want development, jobs, highways, electricity, cellphone coverage”[1].  He would later double down: “Nor nahuatl people, nor Chontales, nor Zapotecos, nor Tarahumara want a state of their own. They are Mexicans and want to be included in this project called Mexico” [2]. And it’s not only him. This sentiment of being spokespeople of the indigenous peoples of Mexico is, seemingly, shared by several supporters of the current administration. “Reality is that the #MayanTrain is an impeccable project of regional development which is widely supported by the indigenous peoples”, tweeted Renata Turrent [3].

At which point do these people with white, evidently foreign ascendance claimed the right to speak in the name of those who have lived in the Peninsula since before the modern state of Mexico came to be? And, more importantly, how well do their statements stack up against the voices of these people? Because herein lies the real issue: it’s not about whether the indigenous peoples agree with the project or not. It’s about the way this supposed consensus was formulated.

The voices of actual inhabitants of the Peninsula have been collected and shared by some –local– academics committed to bringing these experiences to the conversation. “A Chemax young man says that the Train information has been mostly distributed among those who own land, he does not feel that the campaign is focused on Mayan people. For him it’s about merchants and tourism”, shares Joed Peña, among other similar testimonies [4].

Now let’s make things clear. The current administration did make approaches to get the indigenous Mexican peoples’ approval for the train. These approaches, however, were not nearly enough. The same day the government proudly announced a “favorable response from the people on the Mayan Train’s democratic exercise” [5], Mexico’s Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights declared that the same exercise “had not complied with international standards for human rights in the matter” [6]

In Izamal, writes Ezer May, “only around 410 people voted, out of around 20,000. These 410 people cannot represent ‘most of the community’, as the official discourse sustains” [7]. And he is right. The democratic exercise fell short of providing the Mayan people an adequate way of exercising their right to self-determination. And this problem predates the Mayan Train. 

“About 10 kilometers south of Chablekal (…) indigenous people and other neighbors have mobilized to prevent real-estate developers from keep on building without even informing how the townspeople’s lives will be affected”, wrote José Angel Koyoc in Pueblo Común, a Yucatec publication around 8 months ago [8]. “Will the Mayan Train project accentuate this dispossession processes in the planned stations?”

Let’s not allow his question turn into a gloomy omen. The president, and his supporters too, should not gloss over the details on how to “turn their gazes to the south” and listen to the people’s voice. Most important, all of us would do well by rethinking “what being with the pueblo” means. 

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