The scuba diving community in Mexico is rallying together to try and bring a halt to Tren Maya, a new railway line that is to be built along the coast of the Riviera Maya.
First announced by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2018, the $9.8 billion Tren Maya megaproject aims to connect the various towns and cities spread around the Yucatán Peninsula, with estimates suggesting it will carry more than 40,000 passengers a day across the region. According to reports, the United Nations predicts the train will create one million new jobs and double economic growth in the region.
While there may be economic benefit in connecting a number of the Yucatán Peninsula’s most popular tourist hotspots, the train line is set to run close to the coast between Cancun and Tulum via Playa del Carmen. This will take its construction directly over the Sacactun Cave System, the largest freshwater aquifer in Mexico and the second-longest underwater cave system in the world
Preliminary construction of the route between Cancun has already caused a great deal of damage. The railway was originally intended to run along the coastal road but this caused so many traffic problems that it was diverted 3-4km inland – with little or no consultation or inspection or consideration for the damage it might cause.
Divers fear that the project will crush the cave system and the iconic cenotes through which it is entered as the train lines are driven across the soft limestone rocks of the surrounding area. There is also great concern that runoff from Tren Maya’s construction and operation will have a detrimental effect on the Riviera Maya’s famous coral reefs.
Campaigners raise the possibility of not only the vast environmental damage that may be caused by Tren Maya’s construction, but also the long-term effects of the increased development that connecting the region will bring. The railway is set to cross the Maya Forest, the second largest forest in South America after the Amazon, and through the ancestral lands of the indigenous population of Maya, who some fear will be driven out of their homes by rapid urbanisation.
Tren Maya will also pass through important archaeological sites, where some of the oldest remains of human civilisation have been discovered. Sacactun cave system is one of those locations, and it is only through technical and cave diving expertise that researchers have been able to explore of a system that, many thousands of years ago, was above the surface of the water. Archaeologists also fear that the important Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá and Tulum will also be affected.
A report into the project’s risks released by Mexico’s National Council on Science and Technology in 2019 warned that the train line will threaten at least 10 protected natural areas, 1,300 archaeological sites, and more than 143,000 indigenous Mayan’s living along its proposed route. Nevertheless, construction on Phase 1 from Palenque to Izamel (shown in red on the map above) is already underway.
While it seems there is little hope that Tren Maya can be stopped, scientists, archaeologists, activists and divers are coming together to urge the Mexican government to at least slow the project down and pay deeper attention to environmental concerns. One suggestion has been to divert the tracks a further 10-12km inland and away from the cave system and cenotes, although this will undoubtedly have a secondary but equally devastating impact on the environment through which it runs.
A Change.org petition has begun in an attempt to appeal to the Mexican Government to reconsider the train’s route which, as it stands, is supposed to be completed before the end of 2023. You can find the petition (with an English translation) here.