The Mexican government has invoked national security authorities to proceed with a tourist train along the Caribbean coast, threatening extensive caves where some of the oldest human remains in North America have been discovered.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is racing to complete the Maya rail project in the remaining two years of his term, over objections from environmentalists, cave divers and archaeologists.
The government had halted the project earlier this year after activists won a court injunction against the route because it cut swathes of forest for the tracks without previously submitting an environmental impact statement.
But the government on Monday invited the National Security Authority to resume laying tracks. López Obrador said Tuesday that the delay was too costly and that the ruling would prevent the interests of a few from being placed above the common good. In November, his government issued a broad order requiring all federal agencies to give automatic approval to any public works project the government considers “in the national interest” or “involves national security.”
“I didn’t know we lived in a country where the president could do whatever he wanted,” said diver Jose Urbina Bravo, who filed one of the court challenges.
Activists say the heavy, high-speed rail project would rip through coastal forest and run over the roofs of fragile limestone caves known as cenotes — because they are flooded, twisted and often incredibly narrow — that could take decades to explore.
Inside those water-filled caves are archaeological sites that have been undisturbed for millennia.
Cave systems are mainly worked through the efforts of volunteer cave divers hundreds of yards (meters) inside flooded caves. Caves along the Caribbean coast have yielded treasures such as Naia, the complete skeleton of a young woman who died about 13,000 years ago.
She was discovered in 2007 by divers and cave enthusiasts who were mapping water-filled caves north of the city of Tulum, through which the railroad runs.
“In this sprawling 60 kilometers (36 miles of planned railroad tracks), there are 1,650 kilometers of flooded caves filled with pure, crystalline water,” said Octavio del Rio, diver and archaeologist. decades. In 2004, Del Rio himself participated in the discovery and cataloging of The Woman of Naharan, who died at the same time as, or perhaps before, Naya.
“I don’t know what could be more important, right?” Del Rio said. “We’re talking about the oldest ruins on the continent.”
The 950-mile (1,500-kilometer) Maya Railroad runs in a rough loop around the Yucatan Peninsula, connecting beach resorts and archaeological sites.
The government’s National Institute of Anthropology and History is tasked with salvaging ruins along the route but its experts are often unable to take the deep, long, extended dives required to reach the flooded caves. Even near the surface, where most of the government’s archaeological work took place, astonishing discoveries were made along the railway’s intended route.
Government archaeologist Manuel Perez has acknowledged that a small, perfectly preserved Mayan temple — complete with a wooden roof — is located in a cave near the railroad tracks. Suggested to change route.
But his boss, Diego Prieto, head of the institute, ruled out rerouting the train, for which workers have already cut tens of miles of 50-yard (meter) wide forest. He suggested that most of the remaining debris could simply be picked up and moved within a few months of the rail construction.
“The problem is not the route … even if the route is changed, there’s going to be a lot of research going on anyway,” Prieto said. “The problem is the archaeological work of collecting the found material and preserving the structures that should remain on the site.”
Caves along the coast were probably dry 13,000 years ago, during the last ice age, and when sea levels rose at the end of the ice age and they were flooded, they served as time capsules — very fragile ones. The government’s plan is to sink beams and cement pillars through the roofs of the caves, possibly collapsing them – and the precious relics they hold – to support the railway.
A 42-mile (68-kilometer) stretch of forest is being cut down to make way for this section of the railroad, along with tons of crushed rock that needs to be piled on top of the soil. Create a bed for a 100 mph (160-kilometer per-hour) train.
Urbina Bravo, a diver and environmentalist who has worked on the Caribbean coast for decades, said on projects around the world that “it is very expensive for us to make decisions without the support of science, without the support of experts.” “We will continue and continue to pay the price for these errors.”
But López dismisses critics like Obrador del Río and Urbina as “pseudo-environmentalists” acting on behalf of business interests or political opponents. The president attacks experts, activists and anyone who questions his sudden and ill-conceived decision to run a rail line through the forest, which he calls “acahual” (roughly, ‘second-growth forest’).
Fernando Vázquez, a spokesman for the government tourism agency that is building the train line, says, “There are basically no people working in favor of the environment, but there are activists specifically against the Maya train.”
Activists say they are a labor of love.
To find the remains of the Lady of Naharon, divers had to snake through nearly half a kilometer of completely dark, sinuous caves; The process took months.
But government archaeologist Helena Barba, who is responsible for making sure the train doesn’t damage such artifacts, told local media that her team will catalog all dozen sites in the weeks or months before the heavy machinery rolls through.
It strikes divers and cave explorers as uninspiring.
“Probably none of them had the experience or technical preparation to do a dive like this in one of the most extensive flooded caves in the world,” Del Rio said.
López Obrador is so obsessed with his pet projects — a huge oil refinery on the Gulf Coast, a rail link between the Gulf and the Pacific and the Maya Rail — that he issued an order stating that priority government projects are no longer needed. environmental impact statements, or EIS, to begin work; They can start construction, cut down trees and excavate, and then submit an EIS to justify the damage already done.
Urbina and environmentalists and divers challenged it in court, winning an injunction in mid-May that halted the jungle rail line between the resorts of Cancun and Tulum.
Officials tried to overcome that problem by hastily submitting a draft EIS on May 19. Mexico’s Environment Department approved the impact statement just over a month later.
While the EIS treats cave systems largely as a construction issue, it does discuss them in a few paragraphs. If construction crews find caves and sinkhole lakes called cenotes along the train’s path, they may be able to “minimize” the damage, according to the impact statement.
Its meaning in plain language is already visible along the highway between Cancun and Tulum, where the rail line was originally planned to run as an elevated rail line.
López Obrador changed the plan after trees were cleared and foundations laid for the elevated causeway, deliberately with hoteliers and coastal residents complaining that the construction work would affect tourism and their properties. (Indeed, the government did not explain why the route was suddenly changed or how much the change would cost.)
Vázquez, the tourism agency spokesman, said the government used a quick and non-intrusive solution to fix the cave roof that collapsed on the highway.
“It’s an engineering solution based on sinking pilot (columns) and pouring concrete cover,” Vazquez said.
Urbina said the decision to invoke national security powers was a “violation of the law that we fear will cause irreversible damage to the forest”.
This story was published by Wire Agency Feed without text modification. Only the title has been changed.