April 6, 2024
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Selvame’s Fight Against Tren Maya’s Destruction of 8.7 Million Trees

TULUM, Quintana Roo – In the early hours of March 1, 2022, an excavator tore down President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s long-standing promise not to fell a single tree for the construction of one of his flagship projects, the Tren Maya. This ambitious undertaking aims to connect the southeastern region of Mexico, but its path has been marred by controversy.

One by one, the trees in the western jungle of Playa del Carmen, located in the state of Quintana Roo, succumbed to make way for Segment 5 of the mega-project, which will traverse the Riviera Maya from Cancún to Tulum.

However, the promise was broken.

The Mexican government has disregarded environmental laws and turned a deaf ear to the concerns raised by environmentalists and experts regarding the construction and operation of this railway project, all in an effort to ensure its completion before the end of the presidential term in 2024.

Throughout the Yucatán Peninsula, demands to halt the project have emerged from various quarters. In this article, we shed light on the resistance efforts of the Selvame del Tren collective in Segment 5, where progress has entailed the clearing of over 60 kilometers of pristine jungle to lay the tracks.

The Selvame del Tren collective was formed in response to the deforestation and estimates that a staggering 8.7 million trees were felled in Segment 5 South, spanning from Playa del Carmen to Tulum, based on tree density calculations per hectare.

Selvame's Fight Against Tren Maya's Destruction of 8.7 Million Trees

Nestled in the heart of the Riviera Maya in the Mexican Caribbean, Playa del Carmen is surrounded by the lush Mayan jungle, one of the largest forested areas in Latin America.

“I witnessed the devastation, and my immediate reaction was to break down in tears. We had been warning about the impending damage for months. The President’s office claimed, ‘Don’t worry, it’s just scrubland,’ but what we witnessed were trees,” recounts José Urbina, an environmentalist and founder of the Selvame del Tren collective.

When Urbina captured the fall of dozens of trees on his cellphone within what was once vibrant jungle, he believed his video would circulate worldwide. He hoped it would be enough to prompt the authorities to step back and, at the very least, reconsider the train’s route.

The first part of his expectation was met. In the days that followed, images depicting the destruction of the jungle in the Riviera Maya region flooded local and national newspapers, as well as social media platforms. However, collective outrage proved insufficient to halt the project.

In the days that ensued, a WhatsApp group brought together dissatisfied environmentalists, concerned citizens, and academics. This group gave birth to the Selvame del Tren collective.

José Urbina explains that Selvame del Tren emerged as a response to a specific project that posed a threat to the jungle. Many of its members had previously been involved in other battles advocating for the defense of local ecosystems.

Selvame's Fight Against Tren Maya's Destruction of 8.7 Million Trees

Urbina insists that the environmental collective comprises individuals with diverse political perspectives, including those aligned with the Obrador government who disagree with its decisions regarding the Tren Maya project.

“We are not direct opponents of the President. We want to tell him to do things right, for his own sake and for the sake of everyone. We are doing him a favor, but he refuses to see it. We want to place our scientific knowledge in his hands,” added the activist.

Nevertheless, the relationship between the collective and the federal government has been publicly strained.

On March 22, 2022, Selvame del Tren launched a social media campaign, joined by several public figures, urging the President to halt construction in Segment 5.

In response, the Mexican President dismissed the activists as “pseudo-environmentalists,” “conservatives,” and “hypocrites.”

As the battle for the preservation of the jungle rages on, the Selvame del Tren collective continues to fight for a cause they believe transcends political lines. Their struggle symbolizes the clash between developmental aspirations and environmental consciousness, leaving a profound impact on the ecological landscape of the Riviera Maya.

“The Train Moves Forward, Rain or Shine”

Selvame's Fight Against Tren Maya's Destruction of 8.7 Million Trees

“Come rain, come shine, come thunder and lightning, we will inaugurate the Tren Maya,” declared Andrés Manuel López Obrador on January 19, 2022, during his morning press conference in Mexico City, where he announced the acceleration of construction works in order to complete the project before the end of his six-year term.

Two days later, on January 21, official changes to the route for Section 5 were unveiled. Originally planned to run along the Cancun-Chetumal Federal Highway 307, an area already impacted by development, the original route had been a source of discontent among the business sector due to potential disruptions to tourist activities. This concern was communicated through a statement issued in November 2021.

Section 5, stretching from Cancun to Tulum, has seen numerous changes since 2019, setting it apart from Sections 1, 2, 3, and 4. Only one consortium, led by the multinational Blackrock, submitted a bid for the construction works, according to information from the National Tourism Promotion Fund (Fonatur), the government agency overseeing the project.

However, before the bidding process concluded, Andrés Manuel López Obrador publicly rejected Blackrock’s proposal, citing his dissatisfaction with the public-private investment model, which would have resulted in long-term debt for the Mexican government. As a result, on September 20, 2020, the bidding process was declared “unsuccessful.”

Selvame's Fight Against Tren Maya's Destruction of 8.7 Million Trees

Following this decision, Fonatur opted to divide Section 5 into two parts: Section 5 North (from Cancun to Playa del Carmen) and Section 5 South (from Playa del Carmen to Tulum), each with independent bidding processes.

On January 29, 2021, the consortium Grupo México-Acciona was announced as the winner of the bidding process for Section 5 South, while the construction works for Section 5 North were entrusted to the Secretariat of National Defense (Sedena).

To begin the preparatory works, Fonatur cleared 20,000 trees from the central median of the Cancun-Chetumal Federal Highway 307, where the tracks were originally planned. However, with the change in route, these efforts proved futile.

With the new defined route running parallel to the highway, construction work commenced in the Playa del Carmen area to make way for the train amidst the jungle.

The Tren Maya continues to forge ahead, overcoming obstacles and adapting to the needs and concerns of various stakeholders. While challenges and changes have characterized its development, the project’s determination remains unwavering. The Tulum Times will closely follow its progress as this monumental infrastructure endeavor paves the way for new opportunities and connectivity in the region.

Illegal Logging: Environmental Impact and Legal Challenges Surrounding the Tren Maya Project

Selvame's Fight Against Tren Maya's Destruction of 8.7 Million Trees

In a stunning revelation, it has come to light that the federal government initiated jungle clearing for the Tren Maya project without obtaining the required Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) permits outlined in the General Law of Ecological Equilibrium and Environmental Protection (LGEEPA).

According to Article 28 of the LGEEPA, any construction related to the development of transportation infrastructure necessitates an evaluation of its environmental impact. This entails the preparation of a technical document, known as the Manifestation of Environmental Impact (MIA), which is submitted to the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat) for evaluation and authorization.

However, in clear violation of this legal requirement, the jungle clearing work began without obtaining the necessary permits. It was only on May 18, 2022, that Fonatur submitted the MIA for the Southern Segment of Section 5 to Semarnat’s General Directorate of Impact and Risk, a staggering two and a half months after the jungle clearing had commenced.

Following a review period of a mere 95 days, shorter than the previous four sections, Semarnat issued a favorable resolution for the project on August 20, 2022.

Selvame's Fight Against Tren Maya's Destruction of 8.7 Million Trees

Curiously, the Environmental Impact Assessment document explicitly states, “Construction work is planned to commence once the environmental impact authorizations have been obtained.” However, the jungle clearing had taken place months prior to the authorization.

According to the data presented, the Southern Segment of Section 5 spans a length of 67.6 kilometers, stretching from Playa del Carmen to Tulum.

The construction works encompass a total area of 605 hectares, of which 405 hectares are allocated to the double-track railway right-of-way, along with an additional 30-meter strip on each side. The project also includes the construction of pedestrian footbridges (2), vehicular crossings (20), drainage systems (6), and wildlife crossings (30).

Of the affected area in this section, a staggering 485.4 hectares are classified as forested lands, prompting a request to Semarnat for a change in land use. The existing vegetation, according to their own data, consists of medium semi-evergreen jungle, characterized by trees measuring between 12 and 18 meters in height, typical of humid climates, as well as secondary vegetation.

Selvame's Fight Against Tren Maya's Destruction of 8.7 Million Trees

In the case of the Northern Segment of Section 5, Semarnat granted authorization on August 19, 2022, in a record-breaking time of 36 days. This segment is expected to span 43.5 kilometers, connecting Cancun to Playa del Carmen, with an impact on 340.2 hectares of land, 282.7 hectares of which required a change in land use due to their forested nature.

When the jungle clearing commenced without proper environmental impact documentation, José Urbina was the first to file a legal injunction, which was admitted by the First District Court based in Mérida, Yucatan, under the case number 884/2022.

As per the information available from the Federal Judicial Council, this indirect injunction was filed on March 30, 2022, with the act being challenged identified as the “Planning, construction, development, and/or conditioning of the Tren Maya,” citing the violation of Articles 4 and 6 of the Constitution, which pertain to the right to a healthy environment and the right to information, respectively.

On May 27, the court granted Urbina a definitive suspension of the construction works as a means to protect his rights.

Selvame's Fight Against Tren Maya's Destruction of 8.7 Million Trees

Two additional injunctions were subsequently filed, both by the organization “Right to a Healthy Environment” (DMAS), in support of the Selvame del Tren collective, under case numbers 923/2022 and 1003/2022. However, the suspension was not granted in the latter case.

The two definitive suspensions resulting from these injunctions halted the Tren Maya works in Section 5 for at least two months. However, once Fonatur obtained the environmental impact authorization from Semarnat, the judge decided to overturn these guarantees, thereby allowing the resumption of construction.

Presently, the cases are being handled by the Collegiate Court in Labor and Administrative Matters of the Fourteenth Circuit, based in Yucatan.

“This is far from over,” claims José Urbina.

According to Article 57 of the LGEEPA, in cases where construction or activities proceed without the corresponding environmental impact authorization, Semarnat, through the Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection (Profepa), is responsible for implementing corrective measures, administrative penalties, and civil or criminal actions, as applicable.

Thus far, Semarnat has not taken any of the measures mandated by the law. Since 2020, the institution has positioned itself as a supportive entity for the project, emphasizing a vision of care and conservation of life.

With the construction delayed by several months and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s intention to inaugurate the project by mid-2023, the winning consortium for Section 5 South, Grupo México-Acciona, announced the premature termination of the contract in November 2022, citing technical impossibility in meeting the project’s deadline.

Following Grupo México-Acciona’s exit, President López Obrador announced during his press conference on November 29, 2022, that the military would be tasked with calculating the compensation owed to the private consortium and completing the works in that section.

Consequently, the Mexican Army assumed responsibility for Sections 5 North and South, as well as Sections 6 and 7, which will connect the Riviera Maya with Palenque, Chiapas. Additionally, the military has been entrusted with associated works, such as the new Tulum Airport.

The controversy surrounding the Tren Maya project continues to intensify, with environmental concerns and legal battles casting a shadow over its progress. As the judicial process unfolds, the fate of this ambitious infrastructure endeavor hangs in the balance, while stakeholders await a resolution that reconciles the needs of development with the imperative of environmental protection.

“No Merely Trees”: The Environmental Consequences of the Tren Maya

Selvame's Fight Against Tren Maya's Destruction of 8.7 Million Trees

In a resolute defense of the controversial deforestation practices associated with the Tren Maya project, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador exclaimed on March 22, 2022, “We are not going to destroy the jungle; we are not the same […] We are planting fruit trees along the entire route of the Tren Maya. Here’s a fact for these pseudo-environmentalists: there is no reforestation program in the world like the one being implemented in Mexico through Sembrando Vida.” However, renowned biologist Roberto Rojo, a member of the Selvame del Tren collective, vehemently refutes the notion that it is as simple as chopping down forests and replacing them with fruit trees.

“The jungle is a vibrant and diverse ecosystem that comprises not just trees, but also plants, fungi, insects, felines, birds, and more. Each element plays a crucial role in nature, contributing to what we know as ecological balance,” asserts Rojo.

He highlights one of the principal risks of deforestation, which is the loss of habitat for endangered or endemic species. Among them are the jaguar and spider monkey, both listed as endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and protected under the Official Mexican Standard NOM-059-SEMARNAT-2010.

In the technical comments submitted by the Selvame del Tren collective during the Public Consultation process for the Southern Section of Segment 5, reference is made to the report titled “Conservation of the Jaguar in the Protected Natural Areas of Quintana Roo and their Influence Zones.” This report, prepared by the National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (CONANP), an institution under the umbrella of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat), asserts that the survival of the jaguar is dependent on the preservation of extensive connected habitats, an abundance of wild prey, and strict control of human activities that exert direct pressure on the species.

Selvame's Fight Against Tren Maya's Destruction of 8.7 Million Trees

Rojo emphasizes that habitat connectivity is essential for the feeding and reproduction of this magnificent feline. However, the ecological impact assessment conducted by the Institute of Ecology, A.C., responsible for the Environmental Impact Studies, reported no evidence of jaguar presence in the area. To mitigate potential harm to wildlife, the document proposes the placement of signs mandating the protection of fauna for construction personnel.

Another concern associated with the construction of the Tren Maya, according to Rojo, is the ensuing commercial speculation and new settlements in the jungle. The Riviera Maya is already grappling with rampant deforestation and contamination of the underground aquifer due to unbridled growth. Rojo argues that a genuine analysis of the impacts generated by the Tren Maya in terms of real estate development and tourism is sorely lacking.

“The Environmental Impact Assessment merely reflects the limited understanding of the project’s stakeholders and the authors of the document regarding the significance of habitats and biological corridors, the behavior of species inhabiting them, and the imperative to prevent their reduction and destruction. It fails to recognize that habitat loss results in species loss,” reads Selvame del Tren’s response to the Environmental Impact Assessment submitted by the National Fund for Tourism Promotion (Fonatur).

Aracely Domínguez, leader of the Ecologist Group of the Mayab, an organization at the forefront of the collective fight against jungle deforestation, questions the promise of economic development for indigenous communities. Domínguez asserts that past experiences with large-scale developments in the region have invariably led to the enrichment of a privileged few at the expense of natural resources.

As the contentious battle between proponents and opponents of the Tren Maya rages on, it becomes increasingly evident that the implications of this megaproject extend far beyond the surface appearance of trees. The intricate web of life in the jungle, with its delicate balance and rich biodiversity, hangs precariously in the balance. The protection of habitats and the preservation of species must be central considerations in any project of this magnitude, for it is not just trees but the very essence of our natural heritage that is at stake.

The Path of Resistance

Selvame's Fight Against Tren Maya's Destruction of 8.7 Million Trees

In the face of mounting frustration and a prevailing sense of disillusionment, Roberto Rojo, a key figure in the collective, recognizes that their voices have not only gone unheard but have also been publicly denigrated.

“It has been deeply disheartening and demoralizing to witness the deception and falsehoods perpetrated by the government. Experiencing this firsthand has shattered our spirits. We are not paid for this; there are young people, children, and individuals with jobs who are fighting to protect the jungle. When I see them cry, my heart breaks, for they understand the immense value at stake,” he recounts.

The only course of action left for them is to persist in their resistance, he asserts.

“Now, all that remains is to call upon society to join us and witness what is transpiring in this region of our country. In states like Veracruz, 90% of the original vegetation has already been lost. In Quintana Roo, we still have our jungle, and it is imperative that we safeguard it.”

“We must unite and embark on the defense of our nature, for if we lose it, we lose everything,” concludes Aracely Domínguez.

The words of Roberto Rojo and Aracely Domínguez reflect the sentiments of a collective grappling with a pervasive sense of disappointment and betrayal. As the custodians of an endangered natural treasure, their frustration has reached a breaking point, as their calls for action and preservation have fallen on deaf ears.

The distressing realization that their efforts have been met with lies and duplicity from the government has left them dispirited. What was once a noble endeavor, driven by a profound love for the land and its invaluable resources, has been marred by deceit. It is a heartbreaking situation for those involved, who tirelessly dedicate their time and energy, unpaid, to protect the jungle they hold dear.

Roberto Rojo’s poignant words carry the weight of firsthand experience, witnessing the tears shed by young and old alike who understand the significance of their cause. Their tears, symbolizing the knowledge of the immense riches that lie within the embrace of the jungle, strike a chord deep within his heart. The emotional toll is undeniable, as he bears witness to the heartfelt despair of those who comprehend the urgency of the situation.

Undeterred by the challenges they face, Roberto Rojo firmly states that the path of resistance lies ahead. It is a rallying cry to mobilize society, urging them to acknowledge and respond to the critical events unfolding in this corner of the country. Veracruz serves as a stark warning, where a devastating loss of 90% of the original vegetation has already occurred. The fate of Quintana Roo hangs in the balance, with its precious jungle remaining, for now, as a testament to the natural beauty that must be preserved.

The collective’s plea for unity is essential to their cause. Only by joining forces can they stand a chance against the relentless forces threatening their natural heritage. The defense of their nature must become a shared endeavor, for it is the foundation upon which their very existence rests. The realization of Roberto Rojo and Aracely Domínguez is a clarion call, resonating with the urgency and gravity of the situation. If the battle for nature is lost, the consequences will reverberate far beyond the boundaries of the jungle, affecting every aspect of their lives.

Selvame's Fight Against Tren Maya's Destruction of 8.7 Million Trees

In these trying times, when disillusionment threatens to erode the spirit, the collective’s unwavering determination serves as a beacon of hope. Their unwavering commitment to their cause, rooted in a deep love for their environment, resonates as a call to action. As they embark on the path of resistance, they beckon society to join them, to recognize the value of what stands to be lost, and to contribute to the defense of our shared natural heritage. Only through collective action and unwavering resolve can they hope to protect the invaluable treasures that lie within the embrace of the jungle, for the repercussions of their loss would be immeasurable.

By Alejandro Castro, for Expansión Política.

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