The Mexican government has called on national security forces to proceed with a tourist train along the Caribbean coast that threatens extensive caves where some of the oldest human remains have been discovered in North America.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is racing to complete his Maya train project in the remaining two years of his term, over the objections of environmentalists, cave divers and archaeologists.
The government halted the project earlier this year after activists won a court order against the route, as it cut a swath of forest for the track without first filing an environmental impact statement.
But the government called on national security forces to resume track laying on Monday. López Obrador said on Tuesday that the delay was too costly and that the decree would prevent the interests of a few from being put above the common good. In November, his government issued a sweeping decree requiring all federal agencies to automatically approve any public works project the government deems “in the national interest” or “involves national security.”
“I never knew we lived in a country where the president can do whatever he wants,” said Jose Urbina Bravo, a diver who filed one of the court challenges.
Activists say the massive, high-speed rail project would tear apart the coastal forest and often run above the ceilings of limestone caves known as cenotes, which — because they flood, twist and often become incredibly dangerous. are narrow – can take decades to discover.
Inside those water-filled caves are archaeological sites that have lain undisturbed for thousands of years.
Cave systems have been explored primarily through the efforts of volunteer cave divers who work hundreds of yards (meters) inside flooded caves. Caves along the Caribbean coast have yielded treasures such as Naia, the nearly complete skeleton of a young woman who died about 13,000 years ago.
He was discovered in 2007 by divers and cave enthusiasts who were mapping water-filled caves north of the city of Tulum, where the train line runs.
“In this one stretch of just 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, a diver and archaeologist who has been in the area for three years. searching for In the 2004s, Del Rio himself participated in the discovery and cataloging of the Woman of Naharon, who died at the same time, or perhaps earlier, than Naia.
“I don’t know what could be more important, right?” Del Rio said. “We are talking about the oldest fossils on the continent.”
The 950-mile (1,500-kilometer) Maya Train Line will run in a rough loop around the Yucatan Peninsula, connecting beach resorts and archaeological sites.
The government’s National Institute of Anthropology and History has been tasked with protecting the remains along the route, but its experts are not able to conduct the deep, long, detailed dives required to access the largely flooded caves. Even near the surface, where most of the official archeological work has been done, there have been surprising discoveries along the railroad’s proposed route.
Government archaeologist Manuel Perez has acknowledged that an almost perfectly preserved small Mayan temple – complete with wooden roof – is located in a cave near the railroad tracks. They have suggested to change the route.
But his boss, the organization’s head, Diego Prieto, appeared to refuse to change the train’s route, for which workers have already cut a 50-yard (meter) wide swath of forest spanning dozens of miles. He suggested that most of the remains could have been easily picked up and transported months before the train was built.
“The problem is not the route … even if the route is changed, there will still be a lot of searches,” Prieto said. “The problem is the archaeological work to collect the material found, and to preserve the structures that should remain on the site.”
The caves along the coast were dry during the last Ice Age, perhaps 13,000 years ago, and so once sea levels rose and flooded them at the end of the Ice Age, they served as time capsules – very fragile. The government plans to sink beams and cement columns through the roofs of the caves to support the railway, possibly collapsing them – and the precious relics they contain.
That’s not to mention the 42-miles (68-km) of forest that is being cut to make way for this section of the rail line, in addition to the tons of crushed rock that will have to be piled on top of the soil. Build a bed for a 100-mile-per-hour (160-kilometer-per-hour) train.
Urbina Bravo, a diver and ecologist who has worked on the Caribbean coast for decades, said that “making decisions without the support of science, without the support of experts, has cost us very dearly in projects around the world”. . “We continue and will continue to pay the price for these mistakes.”
But López dismisses critics like Obrador del Rio and Urbina as “pseudo-environmentalists” who act on behalf of business interests or political opponents. The President attacks experts, activists and anyone who questions his sudden and unplanned decision to run a railway line through the forest, which he dismisses as “unrealistic” (roughly, called ‘second-growth forest’).
Fernando Vazquez, a spokesman for the government tourism agency that built the train line, says that “there are people who are not necessarily working for the environment, but specifically activists against the Maya train.”
Activists say that their labor is love.
To find the remains of the woman of Naharon, the divers had to go through nearly half a kilometer of pitch-dark, complex caves; The process took months.
But Helena Barba, the government archaeologist responsible for ensuring the train will not damage such artifacts, told local media that her team will catalog all dozens of sites in the weeks or months before the heavy machinery arrives.
It strikes divers and cave explorers as futile.
“Probably none of them have the experience or technical preparation to do this kind of diving in one of the most extensive flooded caves in the world,” Del Rio said.
López Obrador is so obsessed with his pet projects — a giant oil refinery on the Gulf Coast, a port on the Gulf and the Pacific, and a rail link between the Maya Train — that he issued a decree saying that priority government Projects are no longer needed. Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, for commencement of work; They can start construction, cut down trees and excavate, and later submit an EIS to justify the damage already done.
Urbina and environmentalists and divers challenged that in court, winning an injunction that halted the jungle train line between the resort of Cancun and Tulum in mid-May.
Officials tried to overcome this problem by submitting a hastily prepared EIS on May 19. Mexico’s Environment Department approved the impact statement a month later.
The EIS treats cave systems largely as a construction problem, in the few paragraphs in which it even discusses them. If construction crews come across caves and sinkhole lakes known as cenotes in the railroad, they will be able to “minimize” the damage, according to the impact statement.
What this means in plain language is already visible along the highway between Cancun and Tulum where the rail line was originally projected to run as an elevated rail line.
López Obrador changed the plan after removing trees and laying foundations for the elevated line, reportedly after hoteliers and residents along the coast complained that the construction would affect tourism and their properties. (In fact, the government never said why the route was suddenly changed or how much the change cost.)
To repair the cave roof that collapsed on the highway, tourism agency spokesman Vazquez said the government used a quick and intrusive solution.
“It’s an engineering solution based on a submerged pilot (column) and poured concrete cover,” Vazquez said.
Urbina said the decision to call in national security forces was a “violation of the law that we fear may cause irreparable damage to the forest.”
This story was published as a wire agency feed without text modifications. Only the title has been changed.