April 6, 2024
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Preserving the Essence of the Maya People: The Impact of the Maya Train on Cultural Identity

“The essence of the Maya people can perish,” declares Ángel Sulub, a resident of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, through which Section 6 of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s megaproject, the Maya Train, passes.

As a descendant of one of the Maya individuals who participated in the Caste War in the 19th century, the young man accuses that the social impact of the project in his municipality, nestled between Tulum and Bacalar, Quintana Roo, is deeply felt and classified by some members of the community as a new “genocide” against the Maya people.

“Those unseen impacts are the most concerning in terms of identity… it is the demise of our inner selves because if the rituals cease to exist, it is not that the Maya people will physically perish, but rather the essence of the Maya people can indeed die,” he warns.

Concerned about the future of his culture, Sulub is one of the Maya individuals who raised their voices against the construction activities in Section 6, which will connect Tulum and Chetumal. These activities have altered life in Carrillo Puerto, with the fragmentation of rural roads, threats to the lagoons, and the transformation of landscapes, thereby infringing upon their ancestral beliefs and rituals that are deeply rooted in reverence for the jungle.

Preserving the Essence of the Maya People: The Impact of the Maya Train on Cultural Identity

With 88 communities and 4 ceremonial centers, the Maya people in the municipality governed by Morena uphold concepts and communal ways of life that are profoundly intertwined with nature. Today, they witness their connection with nature being wounded by the Maya Train, which, in their view, is not truly Maya. It is seen as part of a worldview that resists surrendering to the ideal of development that emerges in urban centers, marked by individualism and a “spiritual malaise.”

Ángel Sulub, one of the founders of the Community Center “U Kúuchil K Ch’i’ibalo’on,” argues that the development of the so-called “Maya Train,” promoted by the obradorista administration as a source of employment, well-being, territorial reorganization, and development, causes silent social impacts that have been barely explored, analyzed, and disseminated.

This detriment is related, at a deeper level, to the alteration of their belief system, the “legal” dispossession of their territory, the impacts on health, and even the blow to the spirituality of the community.

Sulub also speaks about the “substitution of identity” of indigenous peoples, linked to the commercialization of the train, and warns about the modification or disappearance of pilgrimages in places where Section 6 of the route runs.

For example, he mentions the traditional festival in honor of San Juan de Dios, which begins in early May and reaches its climax in the village of Kopchén, where representatives from the 13 Maya communities of Uh May, X-Hazil Sur, San Andrés, Nohcah, Kopchén, Chancah, Mistequilla, Chan Santa Cruz, Yoactun, Laguna K’ana, Santa María Poniente, Naranjal, and Petcacab gather.

Preserving the Essence of the Maya People: The Impact of the Maya Train on Cultural Identity

“The pilgrimage of Kopchén is a pilgrimage for the Staff of San Juan, in June, which begins in May. I believe it should start on the 9th or 10th of May. The elders of the community embark on this pilgrimage, walking through numerous communities for over a month, until they return to their village on June 24th, which is Kopchén, to celebrate the village festival.”

“That pilgrimage goes through where the train route is, through X-Hazil, along the old road, and reaches Umay where the route is. What is going to happen? Will they build a small bridge for them or will they change their traditional pilgrimage route? Will that pilgrimage disappear?” he questions.

Sulub believes that perhaps this year will be the last time the pilgrimage passes through its original route because they won’t be able to use the old road anymore due to the construction of the Maya Train. “In other words, they divided the community; that is a drastic change in your way of life. It is a tremendous deprivation of spirituality and the sacredness of a community,” he warns.

Every May 3rd, the Mayan communities venerate and worship the Speaking Cross, which, according to belief, appeared to the Maya people during the Caste War in the 19th century, urging them to fight and overcome the exploiting enemy.

The wound in the Mayan jungle

Preserving the Essence of the Maya People: The Impact of the Maya Train on Cultural Identity

In the darkness of the night, behind a thin curtain of trees along Federal Highway 307, near Felipe Carrillo Puerto, heavy machinery labors relentlessly, under pressure and without restraint, to extend the wound inflicted upon the existing jungle from Tulum to Chetumal, as part of the construction works for Section 6 of the Maya Train, dubbed the “Military Train” by indigenous communities and socio-environmental collectives.

The length of this section, which runs alongside Federal Highway 307 towards Chetumal, spans 255.50 kilometers, including a connecting loop with Section 7 in Bacalar.

In the dim light, one can barely make out one of the bodies of water that has been partially filled within the route, beside Federal Highway 307, where the glow of fireflies fades in front of the machinery’s headlights.

For the development of the construction works, whose estimated cost by the National Fund for Tourism Development (Fonatur) amounts to 70,173,701,206 pesos, surface water bodies are being filled, either within or flanking the railway route.

In another location, at a deviation from the same highway towards Laguna Ocom, the sunlight reveals the filling of a waterhole in a flood-prone area, where a gap has been opened following the trajectory of the route. The water body, according to the inhabitants of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, is interconnected with that lagoon system.

Preserving the Essence of the Maya People: The Impact of the Maya Train on Cultural Identity

In this region, as well as in Section 5, the construction works fragment nature, with a high risk of interrupting the water currents that flow from Campeche and supply Quintana Roo localities. However, unlike that route, in Section 6, in addition to the environmental impact, the identity and traditions of indigenous communities are being destroyed, undermining their right to preserve their ways of life and beliefs.

There, the local people believe that when “grandmothers and grandfathers” pass away, they become the soul of the trees, the same ones that succumb to the machines and pile up alongside the route.

Ángel Sulub adds that another impact of the Maya Train project in Felipe Carrillo Puerto is the increase in interaction with “outsiders” who have come to work on the construction, demanding services such as housing, healthcare, and leisure. Moreover, insecurity and criminal activity have escalated, ranging from minor thefts to drug dealing and the disappearance of individuals.

In the main square of the municipality, Sulub also mentions the deep division experienced by the indigenous population, which has been divided ever since the development of the megaproject became a reality.

It can be observed that day or night, the machines have stripped the land of vegetation to level the path, destroying the trees within the route and fragmenting a rich interconnected ecosystem that is home to jaguars and a diverse range of species such as spider monkeys, howler monkeys, pumas, ocelots, and white-tailed deer.

Preserving the Essence of the Maya People: The Impact of the Maya Train on Cultural Identity

Under the condition of anonymity, a 26-year-old man from Chiapas, hired six weeks ago as a “responsible for the rescue and relocation of fauna,” admits that his job involves monitoring the appearance of “snakes” or “lizards” during the progress of the construction, and capturing them to be released “in another jungle.”

For this work, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week, he receives an average of 12,000 pesos per month, without any benefits, according to the three-month contract he signed with the Ministry of Defense (SEDENA).

After reiterating that they are prohibited from speaking to the press or providing information, he admits that working for a project of this magnitude means nothing to him. When asked if he will ride the train when it starts operating, he responds, “I don’t care.”

The Tulum International Airport and UNESCO

The train, in Section 6, is linked to the construction of the Tulum International Airport and a Military Base on 1,521 hectares of jungle land owned by ejidatarios (communal landowners) of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, 10 kilometers from the northern boundary of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve (SKBR), a Natural Protected Area (NPA) shared with Tulum.

In the Muyil area, where the entrance to the airport is presumed to be, signs for the buying and selling of land are abundant, aiming to take advantage of the urban, real estate, and tourism “development” that the megaproject will bring.

The construction and operation of the airport have been seen as a threat by environmental organizations in the region, such as the Mayab Ecological Group (GEMA) and Friends of Sian Ka’an (ASK), as they will force the process of urban expansion in the vicinity, affecting the ecological and landscape integrity of the Reserve with organic water pollution and potential eutrophication (stagnation).

At the end of 2022, ASK collected over a hundred signatures endorsing the content of a letter it sent in early 2023 to the World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), confirmed Gonzalo Merediz, the organization’s executive director.

In the main square of the municipality, Sulub also mentions the deep division experienced by the indigenous population, which has been divided ever since the development of the megaproject became a reality.


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