The Maya Train is leveling in Palenque

The home of María Antonia and her husband is next to the Maya Train tracks. Photo: Angeles Mariscal

By: Ángeles Mariscal 

Palenque, Chiapas.

“Right of way” became the words most feared by the residents who are settled along the 232 kilometers of what is known as the First Section of the Maya Train (Tren Maya). Those words are leaving a trail in their wake.

For Maria Antonia Vázquez and her husband, two elderly people over 60, those words not only mean that the water pipes that supply their house collapsed when a bulldozer broke them, and that piles of earth now make it difficult to exit their home located in Ejido Guadalupe, located a few kilometers from the city of Palenque.

Those words also mean that the main wall of their house is going to be torn down, that they are going to lose a part of their kitchen and that the bathroom and septic tank will disappear. Because, technically, the house that they have inhabited for more than two decades, is within the train’s “right of way,” a right that passes over their own rights.

Now, Maria Antonia says, they don’t sleep thinking that “the money that the engineer told us they were going to pay to be able to build our house in another place, has not arrived. And at any moment the machines can pass by and throw all this at us.”

The elderly woman and her husband don’t have any document that allows them to be certain that they will be compensated, because in these places, the Barrientos and Associates Law Office, -the company hired by the National Fund for Tourism Promotion (Fonatur) to “free the right of way,” by acquiring or vacating the land required for work on the Maya Train- has only made oral agreements. And those who have signed an indemnification agreement were not given any proof.

Since the work started last June, María Antonia and her neighbors wake up with the same uncertainty, listening to how bulldozers are knocking down trees and any obstacle to what the government of Mexico presents as a project that: “is going to detonate economic growth and social development.”

For Gregori Mendoza Mendoza, an indigenous man of the Chol ethnicity, the “right of way” not only took a few meters away from the place where his home is located; now, he and his family could lose their entire house because a part of the ejido will be at an end where the Maya Train is expected to pass at a speed of 160 kilometers per hour. This implies that in order for the residents to be able to cross from one side to the other, a uneven bridge would be built, which would pass right where their house is.

“The engineer showed us the plan, he said that the bridge will pass 18 meters inside the land where my house is. After that, they haven’t told us anything else, they haven’t explained anything to us, but my family and I are no longer at peace,” he explains while excavators and trucks are parked outside his house removing thousands of tons of earth.

What happens to Gregori Mendoza and his family is what the authorities call “collateral damage,” about which they do not speak clearly .

The same damages will be to thousands of campesinos and livestock owners, because upon erecting fences or walls along the train’s route, the transit paths of the animals that give them sustenance will be cut off.

Homero Cambrano, of Ranchería San Marcos, remembers that he was one of the people who took to the Maya Train project. “I told them that this was going to be for the good of the community, but now I no longer think the same way.”

“Right now they want us to seek alternative paths, because the Maya Train is going to pass, they already put in the work and cut off our passes. If we don’t have passage for moving cattle, we have to travel at least a kilometer and a half to cross from one corral to another.”

He also explains that these “cut offs of passes” affect “armadillos, monkeys, iguanas and even snakes” that have their established habitat. He asks: “Do these people think that the animals are also going to cross over the bridges?”

The price of land

José Luis León is the coordinator of Section 1 of the Maya Train project; he is in charge of the Barrientos and Associates Law Firm to “free the right of way” that goes from Palenque to Escárcega, Campeche. He is known as “the engineer” in the region.

For him, the work is advancing “in accordance with law (…) practically without any obstacle, without major setbacks.” He is the one in charge of negotiating with residents of the Guadalupe, Chakamax, Estrella de Belén and El Jibarito ejidos in Chiapas; and with around 200 property owners in this same state.

He is also responsible for negotiating with the Pénjamo, Reforma Independencia, Tenosique 3rd Section, El Águila, El Último Esfuerzo ejidos and Barí, in Tabasco; and El Naranjito, Candelaria, Pejelarto, among others in Campeche.

His perception about the process that he heads is different than the perception of the Guadalupe ejido owners. The ejido owners, for example, calculate that they will lose some 10 hectares of their land because of this work, and that a square meter of this land is worth about 200 pesos. Meanwhile, they also ask to repair the “collateral damage,” a just indemnification for the loss of those lands.

The tone of the negotiations that he heads was placed on the table at the ejido assembly last November 22. There, Doris Ethel de Atocha Cámara Sánchez, who introduces herself as “the one in charge of monitoring the social part” on behalf of FONATUR, told the campesinos that they have no right to this land, because the train tracks were built before the town will be registered with the Agrarian Registry, and that any payment given to them is an act of consideration. “Railroads were first (to arrive in the zone more than 40 years ago), while their town wasn’t registered legally until 1996. Thus, there would be no reason to indemnify the ejido; but, because the president made a promise to support the southeast in order to get them out of the backwardness, he’s going to give this support to the ejido,” she told them during the meeting.

The “support” for the ejido, she explained, is that the only impact that will be recognized due to work on the Maya Train, is a little more than 3 hectares, whose official assigned value is 12 pesos per square meter, “but, due to being in a special situation, they will be paid at 32 pesos per square meter,” explained the officials from FONATUR and the Barrientos and Associates Law Firm.

José Luis León, justifies the appraisal they make of this land located in one of the ecosystems with the greatest biodiversity on the planet, pointing out that the price given is “based on an appraisal provided by FONATUR, and carried out by the Institute of Administration and Appraisals of National Assets. We do not set the values, a specialist in the matter does it. We are not able to make payments that are not guaranteed by the institution in charge. They are commercial appraisals, because there are lands here that are worth 8 pesos per square meter.”

Ángel Palomeque de la Cruz, one of the ejido owners who also lost part of his home due to this project, explains why the appraisal they have on their land is unfair: “here, 500 meters from the ejido, the price at which we can acquire a new plot of 200 square meters is from 80 to 100 thousand pesos; iin other words, each square meter is worth 400 pesos. Why then do they only want to pay us 12 pesos, or 32 pesos? Are we worth less? What are we going to be able to buy with that amount of money?”

The uncertainty

Inhabitants of the Guadalupe ejido are not the only ones in these first kilometers who have questioned the impact that the Maya Train is leaving.  Right at the entry gate of the first section, between kilometer zero and six, is the Barrio Los Olvidados, which according to the diagnosis of the MarketDataMéxico Inteligencia Comercial “has an estimated economic output of 260 million annually.”

“Additionally, it is estimated that 800 people work in the district, bringing the total number of residents and workers to 3,000. There are some 150 commercial establishments in operation Barrio Los Olvidados district,” the website details.

The first Maya Train station will be located in one part of this neighborhood, and a significant number of families will have to leave. At the moment they are not sure about who has to leave; the information has not been clear ot transparent for them. José Luis León is aware of that.

“People have uncertainty about knowing what’s going to happen to them. The federal government is making the diagnosis to be able to give an alternative solution, call it relocation or call it something else. There are people there who have houses, others made of wood or sheet metal…”. He explains that, for now, the work has not started there.

However, residents of Barrio Los Olvidados who are in “the right of way” already envision themselves as a displaced population, and have insistently asked to be heard.

The Union of Those Displaced by the Maya Train protests in Palenque with a banner that asks to be relocated. Photo: Angeles Mariscal

“Mr. President AMLO, we are vulnerable families and we saw ourselves in need of living on the right of way. We ask you to listen to us, FONATUR is arrogance and intimidation to throw us out,” they explain on a canvas that they are unfolding at events where public officials congregate.

The transporters who own cargo trucks in Palenque are also asking to be heard. They assure that one of the federal government’s promises was to give them work from the start of the project, a promise that has not materialized.

Elin Ramírez Betancur, a representative for the truckers, details that the local workforce has been ignored, and the companies that won the bidding have hired people from other states.

In order to hire Palenque workers, he explains, they required them to join the CATEM labor union, and set the cost of their service at more than 70 percent less than the commercial price. Elin details that the payment for a load of cargo material is valued at 2, 700 pesos, “and they want to pay us at 800 pesos.”

“The government practically left us in the hands of the Mota-Engil company, which won the bid for construction of the first section, and the authorities have not wanted to listen to us,” it laments.

Work on the Maya Train in this region started last June, in the midst of the strongest stage of the pandemic; in just five months, the impacts and disagreement in the communities are adding up.

Although just last November 26, the general director of FONATUR, Rogelio Jiménez Pons, insisted during a conference with students, that “the Maya Train will generate new development scenarios (…) and will permit improving the quality of life of the inhabitants.”

That’s not a coincidence. What happens among those who inhabit the first kilometers of the project is proof of that.

Last November 20, a letter was made public from six United Nations human rights special relators, sent to the Mexican government. In it they point to a series of human rights violations committed against people who live in the region through which the Maya Train will pass.


Originally Published in Spanish by Chiapas Paralelo

Monday, November 30, 2020

Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee

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