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Maya Train and Isthmus Consultation Q&A with Gabriel Diaz Montemayor

As part of our engagement with Mexico, the MCI blog is arranging a series of Q&A’s with professional practitioners and academics from the field of design and planning.

In anticipation of the consultation happening this weekend for the Maya Train and Isthmus project, the MCI interviewed Mexican architect and landscape architect Gabriel Diaz Montemayor. He is currently Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at The University of Texas at Austin, and also leads LABOR Studio which is his private practice in Mexico.

The Chepe train, going through the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Chihuahua is perhaps the closest existing reference for the Tren Maya. Photo Cred MCI Archive.

Q “The incoming federal government is proposing passenger and cargo rail megaprojects in the Yucatan Peninsula and Isthmus of Tehuantepec. This will undoubtedly impact the peoples and landscapes of two environmentally and culturally wealthy, but historically underdeveloped regions of Mexico. The history of megaprojects in the country is fraught with issues concerning legality, ecological impact, and the rights of indigenous communities.  Within a traditionally centralized model of decision making, how can these projects be an opportunity for new patterns of inhabitation that successfully integrate local cultures, values, and the environment with the promise of local economic growth and larger macroeconomic interests? What is the single most pressing challenge that these proposals face and what is a successful precedent of a project we could look to as reference? 

A Some years ago, I was invited to visit a potential project location in the Western Sierra Grande in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. The property was located right on one of the stations of the Chepe, the Copper Canyon railroad[i], a passenger/freight rail line that is the closest relative to the Maya Train proposed by the incoming federal administration of Mexico. The owners of this large plot were considering further developing their property beyond their already very successful hotel, by adding cabins for rent to cater to eco-tourists. Additionally, they wanted to demonstrate the potential of the property, via a project, and possibly sell some of the land located within walking distance from the train station.

For this purpose, we toured the property in an SUV, and as we rode through the pine tree forest that is characteristic of the region, the owner began pointing out a few very humble dwellings that he did not recognize from previous visits and that he never permitted built. This was in contrast to other previously constructed dwellings on the property that had received his approval. Understandably, the owner was not happy with the recent developments.

We stopped by one of the newly built dwellings that lacked a permit. It was built close to the property’s edge which was defined by a barbed wire fence.  A Raramuri –the native people of this Sierra- man and child were idling together at home. When the owner asked the man who, if anyone, had given him permission to build there, he replied, “I am from here.” When inquired again to elaborate, he again replied, now louder, “I am from here.” When explained about the reason for this interrogation he picked up a stone, held it in his fist, and once again replied, “I am from here.” Considering the threat of physical violence, we decided to leave. I had before my eyes, in plain view, seen the continuity of colonialism lingering in twenty first century Mexico. The conflict between one way of engaging with the land –where, for example, you can orally be given permission to settle in the land where you are from, one that shaped your traditions and customs, but also one which you do not legally own- and another one, detached from ancestral ties and relying on bank loans and lawyers. This was just one more example of the deep schism between the world views of the native peoples of Mexico and the wealthier mestizo population. The project never happened.

At this point, in view of how the National Airport of Mexico exercise was done (locating a majority of voting polls in areas of population heavily supportive of the incoming federal government), we can assume that a questionably representative share of the whole of the population of Mexico will approve the Maya Train. Meanwhile, the local and native population of the region that is to be directly impacted by the Maya Train have already claimed that they disapprove of the project if their participation is not included in all stages of development.

This region of Mexico, and Central America, possesses some of the greatest social, cultural and environmental wealth of the continent. Beyond the open and explored Mayan Civilization ruin sites, the XIX and early XX century haciendas (agricultural estates), the cenotes (sinkholes), and the tropical forest, this wealth relies on the significant density, diversity, and spatial dispersion of native peoples who still keep their language, customs, and life style. If you visit the small traditional Mayan towns found on the proposed territorial corridor of the Maya Train you can still find numerous (even when in decline) inhabited examples of the traditional Maya home, still in operation after thousands of years. You will see Maya women dressed in traditional garb. Sacks of corn will sit in front of many homes, and the women take it to the mill located by the town’s center to prepare ‘masa’ –dough- for fresh tortillas. The Mayan-Town architectural typology is still in use, with the homes building an urban edge flush against the street and with an open block center where edible and medicinal plants and trees are planted, and turkey, pigs, and poultry are kept. In the town’s periphery, you can see the millenary ‘milpa’[ii] agricultural system in operation. This way of life will all be threatened, and yet they have not been consulted.

All of this  is the great opportunity and challenge of the Maya Train concept. Not a project. A concept, as apparently and luckily, there is no project yet. How will this initiative engage with the local population to create strategies that both provide a betterment in social and economic indicators for a traditionally underdeveloped and poor region of the Americas while maintaining traditions, values, customs and ownership of the land? How can a project catering to global tourism (the Yucatan Peninsula is the second most visited destination in Mexico, and the country is the 8th most visited country in the world) be planned and designed in a way that addresses the needs and expectations of both wealthy tourists and poorer local residents, while respecting the incredible social and environmental wealth of the region?

The Maya Train project should be developed via the active participation of the native peoples of the region, and consideration of their social, economic, and political structures. The train project should integrate local –native- citizen participation from conception, through planning and design, and in implementation and operation. However, this process takes time, and the national consultation is to be held this weekend, November 24 and 25. Unfortunately, the national consultation prematurely declares that the Maya Train will not harm the environment as it will be built on existing rights of way and abandoned railways (ruins of a past wealth produced by agave fibers). Nevertheless, we know that the train is much more than just the railway and construction has already been announced to start on mid-December!

One of the most obvious risks is that the Maya Train could further enhance an unsustainable inhabitation and exploitation of the region’s natural resources. An initiative like this can attract large investments that pose risks in various forms such as in agricultural monocultures, in the destruction of built heritage, and in a mode of tourism that (as opposed to integrating peoples) continues the pattern of spatial segregation and the fragmentation of social networks based on race and income that is already experienced in nearby places like Cancun.

Therefore, I see two challenges ahead in the Maya Train’s future. One, as explained in the previous paragraphs, is how the projects development integrates the native population of the Yucatan peninsula with the new population attracted by the train (investors, tourists, services). The other is whether there will be a political will, at multiple scales, to make it happen. Political will both in the government led by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and in the myriad of local political leaderships, of which many in this region have been historically tied to the PRI, the party to be substituted on December 1.

If things proceed the way they have done so far it is possible that the most powerful will again have the upper hand, through speculation, secrecy, and corruption. This incoming government will have the opportunity to revert existing power structures, but it just has to be patient, take its time, and produce a project that demonstrates its social, economic, and environmental benefits. Then the government must employ this project to convince the whole of the local and national populations. Finally, a reconciliatory conversation must ensue where many can proudly claim “I am from here” and many others can say, “I was accepted and adopted here.”


[i] http://www.chepe.com.mx/

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milpa