The Maya Train and the rights to health and life

By: Giovanna Gasparello * and Jaime Quintana Guerrero **

Last May 8, the response to the demand for an amparo [a protective order, in this case a suspension] filed by members of the Ch’ol Maya indigenous people of the municipalities of Palenque, Salto de Agua and Ocosingo was announced, in which was pointed out the violation of the rights to health and life that the initiation of construction work on the Maya Train megaproject implies in the context of the health contingency due to Covid-19. The lawsuit is in opposition to the April 23 presidential decree that declared the Maya Train, the Trans-Isthmus Corridor, the Felipe Ángeles Airport and the Dos Bocas Refinery megaprojects, among others, as “priority programs” and, therefore, exempt from the suspension of activities. The same indication is found in the April 6 agreement of the Ministry of Health, which considers the production of supplies for construction of said works indispensable. Given this, the judgment issued by the judge of the second district court for amparo and federal criminal trials in the state of Chiapas determined the provisional suspension of the railway megaproject, since the right to health has “preponderant value.” At the same time, the judge affirms that: “if this work continues, numerous people will be exposed to activities in public areas in full confinement, placing their right to life at risk.”

The National Fund for the Promotion of Tourism (Fonatur, its Spanish acronym) announced that the start of construction on the train’s first stretch, which goes from Palenque to Escárcega, would be in early May. It said that 850 people would be employed in this first stage. Along with the expected number of indirect employees, it anticipated 2, 975 people mobilizing in the middle of phase 3 of the pandemic. “That increases the risk of accelerated contagion and the probabilities of death in our municipality,” the text of the amparo reads.

Stopping the advance of the work and adopting precautionary measures is the pressing need of the complaint filed with the National Human Rights Commission by Maya organizations on the Yucatan Peninsula last May 6.

Respect for the right to health is not a conjunctural demand, since the lack of access to basic services is structural in indigenous and rural regions in Chiapas. Palenque, with 120,000 inhabitants, has one hospital with 30 beds; that is, one for every 4,000 inhabitants. In Ocosingo there are two hospitals and 65 beds for 219,000 people, a similar situation. There are no intensive care units, although in Palenque, because of the emergency, a center with 12 beds and two respirators was installed.

Added to this are the general lack of piped water and the contamination of the surface and underground waters, as well as of the habitat in the areas interested in the cultivation and processing of African Palm and other agro-industrial products. The group of conditions in the region represents a resounding violation of the “adequate standard of living” that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights demands in Article 25.

The institutions in charge affirm that the Maya Train megaproject had general approval in the questioned “consultation” held in December 2019. Comments from the agrarian representatives of the communities that participated in the Regional Consultative Assemblies express “support” for the work together with the request for basic services, among which stand out the repeated demand for clinics, offices, hospitals, medical personnel and medications. As in the case of the Trans-Isthmus Corridor, the Welfare Secretariat offered a resolution of such demands conditioning it, indirectly, on consent to the project.

The health emergency highlights the need to ensure respect for basic health guarantees, in the context of extreme vulnerability of the indigenous and rural population to the pandemic. The promotion of works aimed at the tourist industry, like the Maya Train, has no relation to the right to health and life.

Indigenous peoples know that mutual care is at the heart of health. Zapatista autonomy and its health system, which includes promoters, bonesetters, herbalists and its own infrastructure, has allowed a great advance in the quality of life, says Saul Hernández, coordinator of Health and Community Development AC. The Zapatistas anticipated the “healthy distance” measures and, since March, closed access to their territory. In the Jungle and Northern Zones, they have produced guides and orientation manuals for preventing contagion.

Stopping the megaprojects that bring violence, marginalization and death: the demand, breaking the barriers of sanitary isolation, gradually transforms into actions. The legal instrument of the amparo “against death” requires the government to respect nature, Mother Earth and native cultures: in substance, respect for life.

* Professor-Researcher, direction of Ethnology and Social Anthropology, INAH

** Journalist


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee



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