The Maya Train: the Zapatistas are right

By: Claudio Lomnitz

As in this column I’m going to speak ill of the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, I should like to begin by recognizing things: raising the minimum wage, the fight against the huachicol (stolen gasoline), the having declared himself against fracking… They are decisive, important, and very positive policies.

But, having recognized and thanked him, I must say that it’s disturbing that the government acts as if its triumph at the ballot box was an indefinite green light, which then legitimizes it to impose any of López Obrador’s ideas. Morena received millions of votes despite some of those ideas. Our President won the recent election above all because of the credibility that his promise of reducing inequality, his commitments of zero tolerance to corruption and the “hugs not bullets” (“abrazos no balazos”) inspired. His other obsessions were useful for convincing very few.

López Obrador’s economic ideas, especially, have always been problematic. Our President is an old fashioned pro-development president, as he himself has frequently explained, including in his speech upon taking the oath of office, where he adhered fully and unambiguously to the “stabilizing development” model from the times in which don Antonio Ortiz Mena was Secretary of the Treasury (that is, the presidencies of Adolfo López Mateos and Gustavo Díaz Ordaz). Perhaps there are some who would like that Mexico return to the 1960s –finally to the elderly, everything past always was better–, but the model of industrialization by import substitution that was the touchstone of “stabilizing development” is incompatible with the current free trade agreements. The Ford of Mexico in the days of Díaz Ordaz produced autos for the national market; the Mexican Ford of today makes them for the US market. They are two completely different “Fords”. It would be impossible to root the Mexican industry of today in the national market without generating a major crisis.

Besides globalization, there are two other factors that divorce us from the policies of an Ortiz Mena: the environment and democracy. Acapulco flourished during the times, possibly golden, of the stabilizing development model and Cancun, where there wasn’t even a small rural village, was also invented then. Today Acapulco –which definitely was, as they say, a pearl in the Pacific– is an urban and environmental disaster, a city in a state of emergency. Cancun, for its part, now has 630,000 inhabitants, and it’s beginning to have grave socio-environmental problems. This is due to the fact that those in favor of “development” bet on “poles of development” without incorporating an environmental thought or a serious democratic commitment.

The Maya Train is a development project that would have enchanted Miguel Alemán, Ruiz Cortines, or Echeverría. It’s true that President López Obrador has said that not “one single tree” will be cut down, but that statement, besides being rigorously false, distils the same contempt for the environmental theme that his predecessors had.

Why or where do I find that contempt? Is it fair to speak of contempt, because in the case of the Maya Train, as in any railroad, the least important thing from an environmental angle is the train: the real issue is what the train carries. And the government presumes that the Maya Train will attract 4 million new foreign tourists a year. That is a very attractive goal, of course: 4 million more foreign tourists will generate a lot of wealth. To give the number some context, Cancun receives around 5 and a half million tourists a year.

In other words the Maya Train, which will have 1500 kilometers and 12 stations, will transport a number of foreign tourists similar to what Cancun receives annually, besides the national tourists. Those travelers, will undoubtedly spend nights at the route’s most attractive points, especially in Palenque, Calakmul and Bacalar, which perhaps will be the circuit’s strongest plates, but also at other points, like Xpujil, Merida or Valladolid, so that those places will also have to develop or enlarge their hotel plant. The population of Cancun –which, we will remember, exists exclusively thanks to tourism– went from zero inhabitants around 1970 to the 630,000 inhabitants that it has today. The current population of Palenque is 110,000, that of Calakmul is 28,000, Xpujil has 4,000, while the population of Bacalar is below 10,000.

Those places will receive the more than 4 million tourists on the circuit. In order to lodge, feed and entertain them they will have to build hotels, restaurants, bars, discotheques, brothels, laundries, and a thousand other things. It’s not going to be a question of protecting trees where the train passes. They will have to extract water from rivers and underground layers, bring down jungles, and pave milpas. The train will change the region’s life, like Cancun changed [life] in its time.

The Zapatistas and all communities of the region have the right to know and discuss this development project in detail, and to resist it if the details don’t convince them. Local power exists.


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee




One Comment on “The Maya Train: the Zapatistas are right

  1. Thanks for the clear and objective comments. It is clear enough that this train will further the despoliation the the jungle and its inhabitants. Is this not clear enough based on the evidence of a hundred years of recent history? The NAFTA government will enlarge itself and the large corporations will consume all in their path. I support and encourage the resistance of the Zapatista as regards the Maya Train

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