Parts of Mexico’s remote southern jungles have barely changed since the days of the ancient Maya.
A railroad defended by the Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador however, may change that. The new line his government is building — known as the Trena Maya or the Maya train — will bring modern connectivity to areas that have not had significant economic benefits for generations.
But scientists and environmentalists have warned that the railroad and its hasty construction will seriously endanger pristine wilderness and ancient cave systems beneath the jungle floor.
The railroad “splits the jungle in half,” said Ismael Lara, a guide who takes tourists to a cave that houses millions of bats near the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. Lara feared that the train, coming close, would disrupt wildlife routes and pull development into fragile ecosystems.
The 1,470 km (910 mi) rail line will carry diesel and electric trains through the Yucatan Peninsula, connecting Mexico’s top tourist destination, Cancun, with the ancient Mayan temples of Chichen Itza and Palenque. The route goes above a system of thousands of underground caverns that have been carved out of the region’s soft limestone soil by water over millions of years.
Crystalline pools known as “cenotes” punctuate the Yucatan Peninsula, where the limestone surface has fallen to expose groundwater. The longest known underground river in the world flows through the caves, which have also been the site of discoveries such as ancient human fossils and Mayan artifacts. A canoe recovered from the caves is estimated to be over 1,000 years old.
The railroad has deeply divided Mexicans. Mexico’s National Tourism Development Fund (FONATUR) has said the railway will lift more than a million people out of poverty and could create up to 715,000 new jobs by 2030.
But scientists and activists have accused the government of cutting back on its environmental risk assessments in an attempt to complete the railroad while Lopez Obrador is still in office.
In December, United Nations experts warned that the railway’s status as a national security project allowed the government to evade usual environmental safeguards. They called on the government to protect the environment in line with global standards.