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Mayan Train hangs in the balance as voting begins

Weekend consultation could doom rail project, but AP reports voters have little to go on

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An Associated Press report casts doubt on this weekend’s Mayan Train referendum, which will decide the fate of the massive project.

Residents of 84 municipalities on the Yucatan Peninsula are voting on President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s ambitious infrastructure project.

Indigenous communities and authorities in Tunkás, Tixpéhual, Dzitás and Chihimilá, all points where the train intends to pass, cast votes today.

On Sunday, the general population will also have the opportunity to chime in. In Merida, voting tables will set up in the Plaza Grande, Parque Eulogio Rosado, San Juan, Almendros de Ciudad Caucel, the Francisco de Montejo chapel, Pensiones IV, in the Col. Alemán, Arbolada de San Antonio Xluch III and in the Col. Dolores Otero.

Voters can also say “yay” or “nay” in Abalá, Baca, Cacalchén, Chemax, Huhí, Kanasín, Maxcanú, Seyé, Suma, Temozón, Tinum, Tunkás, Ucú, Valladolid and Yaxkukul.

If the vote goes against the Tren Maya, or landowners refuse to concede rights-of-way needed to build the US$7.8 billion project, Mexican tourism board Fonatur will look for alternative route options.

Fonatur is not making any offers to purchase land, but proposes an association for proprietors to rent their territories to real estate investors involved in the project, he said.

But doubts exist about how much information the region’s residents have to make an informed decision, the AP reports. The government’s tourism arm has been very active spreading its promotional message, but others say objective information has been hard to come by.

Already in the works for a year, the project’s future is in the hands of the people who would be most affected by it, López Obrador said Friday.

But critics question whether communities in the region have all the information they need to make a decision, the AP reported.

The Mayan Train would run 950 miles / 1,525 kilometers around the peninsula, connecting the white-sand beaches of the Riviera Maya resorts with archaeological sites in the interior and the colonial city of Merida.

The government says the project’s goal is “the integrated development of southeastern Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula.”

The public consultation will be combined with two days of regional meetings with indigenous groups. Mexican law and international treaties require consultation with those communities.

AMLO described the weekend vote as way to head off his opponents’ attempts to delay or stop the project. The government is rushing to build it before his six-year term ends in 2024.

People in the states of Oaxaca, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, Campeche and Chiapas will vote Dec. 14 and 15. Members of other rural communities in the southeast region were given Nov. 30-Dec. 13 to cast their vote, according to Fonatur. 

The referendum will only ask one question: “Is the Maya train going ahead, yes or no?”

López Obrador earlier used a public referendum to scrap a partially built new airport for the capital by his predecessor.

“We don’t want the conservatives to have a pretext or excuses to stop a project that is going to take four years to build and an investment of $6.2 billion to $7.8 billion,” he said.

He planned to visit the region this weekend.

Sergio Prieto Díaz, chair of the Migration and Trans-border Processes group at the College of the Southern Border, said he was waiting to see how the consultation played out to know if it is real or just a simulation to give the government’s plan legitimacy. He said it already has divided communities.

“There are people in favor and opposed,” said Prieto Díaz. “The problem is that neither one nor the other has objective, complete or reliable information and this sets off speculation and conflict with unforeseeable consequences.”

The government owns 95% of the route’s rights-of-way, according to official documents, with the 5% held by private individuals and entities representing around 70km of the planned rail line. 

Last month, Fonatur asked a group of proprietors in the municipality of Bacalar, Quintana Roo state, to concede their rights-of-way for 1,000ha to build the line and an additional 600ha to build one station. 

So far the group has refused to be part of the project and negotiations have been halted for months, according to several Mexican news outlets. 

Indicating difficulty wooing private investors, the government announced on Monday that it would finance up to 70% of the Maya Train. Originally, 90% of its costs were to come from the private sector. 

Previously, AMLO had said public financing would come from Mexico’s austerity drive, which has accumulated an estimated 11 billion pesos – only enough to cover close to 10% of the line’s construction. 

The Mayan Train was not included in the first stage of the national infrastructure program for 2019-24, which includes private investment. And in the 2020 federal budget that was approved in November, it only received 2.5 billion pesos. 

The last update on the Maya train project included 28 stops on three stretches: the jungle, Gulf and Caribbean.

A prior consultation for the Mayan Train was launched last year and it was almost unanimously approved.

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