TULUM, México – In early July, the residents of Bacalar were reminded of a past environmental disaster when they discovered that the Army was filling up the Chac Estuary to construct Tramo 6 of the Tren Maya. Memories resurfaced of the government’s actions 25 years ago, when the Quintana Roo government closed the estuary’s mouth to build a road, causing the water level of the lagoon to rise above the docks.
Concerned about a repeat of history, a group of citizens decided to protest until they secured a meeting with the National Defense Secretariat (Sedena), seeking an explanation of the Tren Maya project. Up until that moment, the population of Bacalar had never been informed, let alone consulted, about the details of the railway’s construction.
During the meeting with Sedena, the inhabitants discovered that the Army was constructing a path for a drilling machine to cross the Chac Estuary and set the pilings for the Tren Maya bridge. A recent visit to the estuary on July 14 confirmed the presence of a drilling machine working on the estuary’s shore, while excavators worked tirelessly on the project’s layout.
According to Josafat Casasola, representative of the Association of Nautical Services Providers in Bacalar, Sedena’s initial response was to claim that the estuary’s filling had been a human error, but the scale of the operation goes beyond any simple mistake. Sedena verbally committed to dredging the estuary again once the pilings were in place, aiming to restore it as close as possible to its original state.
However, this situation has deeply divided the population of Bacalar. Some believe that the construction will irreparably damage the delicate ecosystem and are calling for the suspension of the Tren Maya’s construction from Chetumal to Bacalar, as its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was approved without the necessary studies.
In an investigation conducted by Luis Alberto Rojas Castillo and Juan Roberto Calderón Maya from the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico, it was revealed that the tourism-driven urbanization of Bacalar began in the 1960s when local entrepreneurs and politicians seized ejidal lands to build their vacation homes.
Over the last decade, Bacalar has become an important tourist hub. According to the Quintana Roo Tourism Secretariat (SEDETUR), the municipality experienced an 800% increase in visitor numbers in the ten years leading up to the pandemic. The crystal-clear colors of its waters became the talk of the town, and with the influx of seaweed on the beaches of the Riviera Maya, tourists sought out new destinations, leading to a rapid growth in tourism-related employment, doubling from 2013 to 2018, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI).
Today, the western edge of the Bacalar Lagoon is lined with expensive bars and restaurants, significantly restricting public access, leaving only a few docks for the locals to sunbathe and swim. A few blocks inland, Bacalar retains its small-town charm, with tamale vendors, michelada stalls, and cows grazing in the few unsold lots. Since the construction of the Tren Maya began, the Army now patrols the town in the afternoon, despite a lack of significant security issues.
“The communities and towns are being militarized, and this alarms us. Moreover, the influx of outsiders is impacting local dynamics; there are communities where construction workers outnumber the residents. People complain because they harass women and drink alcohol in the parks where children play,” says Aldair T’uut’ of the Assembly of Maya Múuch’ Xíinbal Land Defenders.
Environmental concerns are also high on the list, as Sedena’s actions have raised alarm. Mangroves are being cut, wetlands filled, and the Chac Estuary dredged, all without any consequence for the Army. One of the areas of concern is the Ichkabal archaeological site, located about 40 km from Bacalar. The site holds the ancient Maya city with a pyramid even more imposing than Chichen Itzá’s, but negotiations between the federal government and the Bacalar ejido for the site’s transfer have stalled. The federal government offered an indemnity of 470,000 pesos per hectare, which failed to satisfy the ejido members who also want to be involved in the project, offering transportation, parking, restaurants, and hotels.
It remains uncertain when the archaeological site will be open to the public, as currently, there are no services available at the location, and the roads are only dirt tracks.
Critics of the Tren Maya construction in Bacalar fear that institutions will be unable to provide the necessary public services to protect the environment from the inevitable impact of increased tourism. Existing open-air dumps, fertilizers used in agriculture, and untreated wastewater have caused excessive nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the lagoon, altering its characteristic shades of blue to greens and browns.
Despite these concerns, the midday hours still offer the best opportunity to appreciate the beauty of the Laguna de Bacalar, also known as the Laguna de los Siete Colores (Lagoon of Seven Colors). A kayak ride during these hours allows visitors to bask in the sunlight while trying to discern the various shades of blue in its waters.