TULUM, Mexico – The Southern region of Mexico stands witness to a pressing confluence of ecocide and ethnocide, a damning pronouncement from the International Tribunal for the Rights of Nature. The focus of their scrutiny is none other than the contentious “Tren Maya,” currently under construction within the Yucatán Peninsula. In an unequivocal decree, the panel of judges has castigated the Mexican state for its transgressions against both the natural world and the biocultural heritage of the Maya people.
The momentous hearing, dissecting the intricacies of the Tren Maya case, unfolded in early March of 2023, within the backdrop of Valladolid, Yucatán. Here, the quintet of judges from the Tribunal lent their ears to the region’s inhabitants, scientists, scholars, and non-governmental entities. They ventured into the very communities affected and explored sites where the railway, a flagship venture championed by the administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is being realized. Come to the culmination of July, the judiciary presented a comprehensive 74-page dossier outlining the rationale behind their verdict, coupled with an array of pragmatic recommendations.
This polarizing initiative is manifested as an expansive 1500-kilometer railway line, boasting a constellation of 19 stations, 12 halting points, and strategic “development hubs.” Moreover, the project entails the establishment of three airports and six hotels within the vicinity. Notably, these hotels, as disclosed, fall under the purview of the National Defense Secretariat, an entity intricately intertwined with the railway’s construction.
This endeavor is taking shape on the Yucatán Peninsula, a terrain profoundly enmeshed within the expanse of the Maya Jungle. The Tribunal’s attention, for instance, is firmly drawn to the fact that the railway will intersect or encroach upon 15 protected natural areas, including the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve.
“In the wake of the Tren Maya, an intricate territorial reordering scheme is unraveling across the Yucatán Peninsula, imperiling ecosystems and Maya communities alike,” assert the Tribunal’s assembly of five judges: Fray Raúl Vera, a seasoned human rights advocate within Mexico; Maristella Svampa, a renowned Argentine researcher; Yaku Pérez, an Ecuadorian politician and lawyer; Francesco Martone, an Italian activist; and Alberto Saldamando, a dedicated champion of indigenous rights.
Within the documented verdict, co-endorsed by an assemblage of 23 honorary justices, the railway’s consequences are underscored: “The Tren Maya will exacerbate ecological disconnection among conservation areas, contributing to deforestation, isolating flora and fauna populations, disrupting biological corridors, altering microclimates, transforming habitats, and driving species toward extinction.”
The Tribunal’s membership voices a clamorous plea for the immediate cessation of this colossal undertaking. Additionally, they implore the demilitarization of indigenous territories, coupled with an end to the persecution, threats, harassment, and intimidation of those devoted to safeguarding nature.
Outlined as restorative measures, the Tribunal mandates an array of actions, including the pursuit of an independent, inter- and transdisciplinary, and intercultural audit, with the engagement of affected communities. This is to be accompanied by the comprehensive reparation and restoration of ecosystems adversely impacted by the Tren Maya’s implementation, alongside its ancillary installations.
In a candid dialogue with Mongabay Latam, Natalia Greene, the Secretary of the International Tribunal for the Rights of Nature, delves into the genesis of this international instrument, its scope, the evidential underpinnings that led to the verdict concerning the Tren Maya, and why it is now an imperative for nations to honor biocultural rights and recognize nature as a “rights-bearing entity,” a living being and wellspring of life.
An Interview Unveiling the Truths of Tren Maya
In an exclusive conversation, a key figure behind the International Tribunal for the Rights of Nature reveals insights into the origins of the tribunal and sheds light on the dire repercussions of the Tren Maya project.
Q: What led to the creation of the International Tribunal for the Rights of Nature?
A: The genesis of the Tribunal dates back to Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2010. A diverse group of individuals from around the world convened, sharing a resolute belief in the imperative of championing nature’s rights. This collective conviction birthed the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, the precursor to the Tribunal.
The Tribunal materialized four years later, mirroring the framework of the Russell Tribunal (established in 1966), which sought to hold governments accountable for war crimes that were being overlooked. Ecuador had already enshrined nature’s rights in its constitution by the time the Tribunal came into being, yet the full realization of these rights remained incomplete. Moreover, other states had yet to embrace nature’s rights.
We operate under the assertion that nature possesses inherent rights unrecognized by states, a predicament that reflects the tardy recognition of these rights by governments. Our stance centers on the premise that nature, being alive, inherently possesses these rights. This forms the foundation, urging states to establish a binding Tribunal. Our approach is anchored in ethics; our judges are chosen for their ethical and moral character, making them ideal representatives to preside over cases, ensuring verdicts that resonate with civil society. The bedrock of our jurisprudence is the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.
Q: Why has the recognition of nature’s rights been such a challenge?
A: Our Tribunal contends that a systemic issue prevails, treating nature as a subservient entity. We endeavor to shift this paradigm, advocating for a systemic change.
Those who benefit from exploitation resist nature’s transition from an object to a subject, as such a shift necessitates ceasing exploitation and forfeiting gains. Similar dynamics played out during the abolition of slavery and the recognition of women’s rights. Powerful entities vested in exploitation resist change.
The movement championing nature’s rights is experiencing exponential growth. Within the United Nations, the Secretary-General has acknowledged the Earth Jurisprudence movement as the world’s fastest-growing social movement.
Presently, 37 countries, in varying capacities, acknowledge nature’s rights—Ecuador is the sole nation to enshrine them within its constitution. Recognition is manifested through national laws or municipal ordinances.
This movement’s rapid expansion is driven by a mounting societal interest in acknowledging nature’s rights, especially as states often prioritize corporate needs over citizen well-being.
Q: Is the Tren Maya project an illustration of disregard for nature’s rights?
A: Indeed, despite Mexico having four states—Colima, Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Mexico City—that acknowledge nature’s rights. During my visit to Mexico, I was surprised by the limited awareness of nature’s rights. Furthermore, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the country’s authorities have demonstrated resistance to embracing this concept.
In the Yucatán Peninsula, a region now swathed in movements advocating for the recognition of rights for cenotes and caverns, we witness a glaring manifestation of how Tren Maya undermines nature’s rights.
Q: Compared to other cases handled by the Tribunal, what set the Tren Maya hearing apart?
A: The Tren Maya Tribunal was sui generis, organized with remarkable swiftness. Our typical caseload entails almost a year of preparation before a hearing. The Tren Maya hearing was expedited due to the urgency dictated by the project’s progression; construction was underway, and an expeditious hearing was essential.
Distinguished by the participation of international judges, this Tribunal was distinct. Ordinarily, local judges preside over hearings, but this time, we had international jurists. Beyond attending the hearing, they visited and engaged with the Pisté community in Yucatán and Tihosuco in Quintana Roo.
During the hearing, 23 testimonies were presented, culminating with judges and Tribunal members visiting a segment of the fifth phase (Cancún-Tulum), affording firsthand exposure to Tren Maya’s consequences, which were undeniably apparent.
One unique aspect was the unification of Maya communities, academia, and civil society—an amalgamation that had previously eluded cohesion. The Tribunal’s significance lies in bolstering and empowering a fragmented local movement.
Q: What factors influenced your verdict?
A: The inadequacy of consultation processes was evident; these lacked authenticity and merely constituted gatherings with promises of reciprocation. The project was insufficiently socialized with affected communities.
Furthermore, the comprehensive environmental impact of the megaproject remains uncharted territory due to an absence of a complete assessment. This undermines the public’s right to information. Therefore, the Tribunal demands the presentation of the megaproject’s master plan.
The militarization of the project is another issue. The presence of a military-backed train has led to the militarization of the region, inducing a climate of fear and repression. The human rights violations and nature rights violations associated with this militarization are alarming.
The Tribunal also weighed expert testimony regarding forest fragmentation, impacts on fauna, cenotes, caverns, and water access. The evident consequences underscore the Tribunal’s staunch determination to hold the Mexican state accountable for these transgressions.
Q: Supporters of Tren Maya argue that the project is meant to drive development in southern Mexico. What is your perspective?
A: The train’s route does not even cater to the communities it claims to benefit. These routes are not aligned with their needs. The design serves a specific tourism model that predominantly benefits foreign conglomerates rather than the local communities.
Moreover, this project encompasses a larger system intertwined with extractivist and migration constraints. The government envisions this train not solely for tourism but also to underpin an economy rooted in extractive industries, agro-industrial ventures, and military and tourism conglomerates.
Q: Over the past decade, deforestation linked to pig farming and soy cultivation has afflicted the Yucatán Peninsula. Does the Tren Maya project connect with these activities?
A: These endeavors are indeed interlinked. The Tribunal’s verdict seeks to emphasize the intricate choreography behind these projects, illuminating a meticulously devised development that is incongruous with the delicate ecosystem of the Maya Jungle—an ecosystem of exceptional biodiversity and vulnerability.
Q: Has violence against defenders increased since the inception of the Tren Maya project?
A: The Tribunal underscores the Escazú Agreement, recognizing the jeopardy faced by communities and individuals opposing the Tren Maya project.
Though the Yucatán Peninsula was historically considered safer compared to other regions, defenders within this territory feel increasingly threatened—subjected to criminalization and stigmatization.
Q: What actions will the Tribunal take, especially given the absence of authorities at the hearing?
A: Indeed, no Mexican authorities attended the hearing, nor did representatives from international organizations like UNESCO or UN-Habitat, which have either participated in or enabled this project. We do not anticipate a response, although we remain receptive to alternative perspectives.
For now, this verdict stands as evidence of the project’s consequences, a foundation for presenting these findings to various national and international bodies. The intent is to empower legal actions by Mexican citizens.
Q: What are Mexico and the world losing with the construction of these megaprojects?
A: Tragically, Mexico and the world are forfeiting an irreplaceable legacy. The Yucatán Peninsula harbors a megadiverse jungle. Fragmenting biological corridors, depleting aquifers, and eroding cenotes and cave networks result in an ecosystem’s irrevocable loss. Mexico relinquishes an immense conservation potential, while the world loses a sanctuary of life.
The verdict aims to alert not only Mexicans but the global community to this endangered natural treasure. Rapid and facile destruction, driven by a project that primarily benefits a select few while negatively impacting numerous human and non-human lives, compels attention.