The uncomfortable obstacles unearthed along the route of Mexico’s Maya Train

The discovery of thousands of pre-Columbian artefacts of unknown value has hindered the construction of Mexico’s flagship tourism project amid indigenous communities’ concerns over looting

The Temple of the Jaguar in Palenque, Chiapas.
The Temple of the Jaguar in Palenque, Chiapas.Education Images (Getty Images)
Micaela Varela

In a mine of as-yet-unexplored archeological treasures such as Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, the slightest dent in the ground can reveal a fragment dating back hundreds of years. With construction of the 932-mile Maya Train tourism mega-project underway, discoveries have been quick to spring from the ground. The National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) has so far collected 13,911 archeological artefacts but their origin, size and value – concealed under the intrinsic secrecy of the institute – is yet to be fully disclosed. In the meantime, work on the Maya Train continues with no alterations to the planned route but plenty of unscheduled stops in construction along its opening stretches due to the historical sites being uncovered, with fierce controversy still raging around the project given the opposition of local communities concerned about its impact. While the authorities operate in secrecy, the Mayan community fears that history will repeat itself and their cultural heritage will once again be laid bare to looting, pillaging and destruction in the name of progress.

The Maya Train, which adopted its name from the civilization that inhabits the lands it will traverse, was a development promise to Mexico’s southeastern states. As well as tourism, commerce, infrastructure and economic activity, the project vows to protect and promote the archeological heritage lining its route. As such, a team of more than 80 archeologists is working alongside the INAH to preserve the “unidentified material patrimony” found in the construction area. With the aid of topographical maps made using laser technology, excavations have uncovered thousands of pieces but the INAH has not provided any details on request from EL PAÍS as to whether these finds are receptacles, trinkets or ceremonial objects of greater value.

On the forest line between Palenque and Escárcega 2,429 pieces have been recovered; on the stretch that runs to Calkini, a further 2,211

Up to now, the authorities have only released details of the archeological remains found during construction of the first four stretches of the train’s route. On the forest line between Palenque and Escárcega 2,429 pieces have been recovered; on the stretch that runs to Calkini, a further 2,211; from there to Izamal, construction work has unearthed 6,269 artefacts; and on the fourth stretch that connects the line with Cancún, 3,002.

Construction work on the Maya Train in Maxcanú, Yucatán.
Construction work on the Maya Train in Maxcanú, Yucatán.Efe

The National Tourism Development Fund (Fonatur) has reported that the finds consist of personal property and real estate that will form part of the “historical, scientific and cultural heritage of the country,” while assuring that all requisite protocols for their protection will be observed. If it is deemed necessary, work on the line will be halted and the archeological teams sent in to examine and safeguard historical sites.

However, recent discoveries within the Campeche right of way have left the project on a shaky standing. Among these finds are roads, platforms, residential areas and other structures, but also ceramics, stone artefacts and bones near the railway tracks. “In the specific case of Campeche, clearly it is a site that possesses monumental architecture, which will be registered, protected and, in the medium term, the feasibility of opening it to the public will be studied,” the INAH said. The institute added that opening an archeological site involves “a protracted process that involves exploration, conservation, and improvement of the site to offer the conditions that allow for public visits.” Even so, there has been no reported modification to the planned route of the train.

Archeological professor and a researcher at the Institute of Anthropological Investigations, Rodrigo Liendo, explains that due to the vast number of finds the pieces in question could be mere fragments of little value. “This count could be due to small objects like a glass bead or a piece of a broken pot, or simply ceramic fragments. I don’t think it will be much more than that.” However, one of Liendo’s concerns is that excavation work – which covers 500 meters on either side of the track and is being carried out at breakneck pace to allow for the inauguration of the first section of the line in 2023 – requires heavy machinery that could damage buried relics of unknown value. The researcher concedes that this first stretch of line is where fewer monuments are expected to be uncovered, given that the route follows the line of an existing railway on which construction work was carried out 40 years ago. The southeastern region of Campeche and the entire state of Quintana Roo, the next stop for the mechanical diggers, is less explored and in these areas the possibility of uncovering important historical sites is higher.

It would be paradoxical if a project like the Maya Train brought about the destruction of the very heritage that could be of great touristic potential
Slovenian archeologist Ivan Šprajc

Slovenian archeologist Ivan Šprajc has been responsible for discovering several sites in Campeche and notes that the whole of Mexico is full of historical remains. “As such, some of my colleagues – Mexican archeologists – have commented that if we want to preserve everything, we’ll have to build a second floor over the whole country for the current population.” Šprajc believes that archeology should not be considered an obstacle to modern development, but “the uncontrolled destruction” of historical patrimony will result in the “irreplaceable loss of essential information” for understanding pre-Columbian history and the cultural evolutionary processes of humanity as a whole. “Moreover, it would be paradoxical if a project like the Maya Train, which is designed to aid tourism development in the region, brought about the destruction of the very heritage that could be of great touristic potential,” he adds.

Amlo en ceremonia, las 12 comunidades indígenas Mayas de Chiapas
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador at a ceremony in Chiapas to ask for permission from 12 local Mayan indigenous communities to construct the Maya Train project.Presidencia

Before the project was approved, local communities voiced their concerns over the impact of the Maya Train on the cultural heritage of the region, in addition to damage to the environment and to their way of life. Jorge Fernández, a lawyer at human rights organization Indignación, has filed several injunctions over the past year calling for the Maya Train project to be reconsidered based on the protection of archeological sites. These, though, have become mired in legal bureaucracy. As a consequence, construction was started and the movement of the earth uncovered what the local people whom Fernández represents most feared: traces of their ancestors. “The problem is that in this case, as in so many others, there is no information of any kind about the impacts, about the work, about exploration, about the technology that is being used, about what they are doing with the pieces they find or where they are going to take them,” Fernández says. “More than 50% of the population of the Yucatán Peninsula are indigenous Mayans. These archeological buildings [the pre-Columbian finds in Campeche] are of cultural ownership and are part of their heritage.”

Pedro Uc Be, spokesperson for the Assembly of Defenders of the Mayan Territory Múuch’ Xiinbal, describes the feeling in his community as one of “great sadness” and “general impotence.” “The INAH does not provide information, it has not offered reports on the matter. They have maintained a very closed silence and have not given out any information as to what is happening,” he complains.

The little information the Assembly has about the finds is leaked by people working on the Maya Train project, members of the indigenous community who have taken on temporary jobs cleaning up after the excavations or doing minor construction tasks. “They have seen how countless amounts of artefacts are unearthed, like plates, ceramics, human figures of every type and size. They say that strange people, who do not look Mexican, or engineers on the project, collect the pieces and then disappear,” says Uc Be, who acknowledges that his colleagues are not experts, nor that they talk openly about what they witness for fear of reprisals or losing their jobs. “They have been warned that they should not meddle or try to find out what is happening. It’s looting, what Fonatur is doing along the railway line is destruction,” he says, with the memories of the pillaging his community has suffered ever since the Spanish conquest fresh in their minds. “If they at least preserve these artefacts in the National Museum then we could still go to see them, but I have the feeling that what is looted will probably end up in other countries.”

English version by Rob Train.

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