Authors: Naji Makarem, Étienne von Bertrab and Alessio Koliulis
This year our students in the MSc Urban Economic Development embarked on our Overseas Practice Engagement (OPE) by focusing their attention on the Tren Maya project in Mexico, president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO)’s flagship development project. The Tren Maya project is poised to connect and develop 19 towns and cities in the Yucatan Peninsula, the South-East region of Mexico. Students were split into six groups, with two student groups focusing on the potential impact of the train on three distinct locations: Mérida, one of the region’s largest cities, San Francisco de Campeche, a smaller port city with a run-down economy, and Xpujil, a small community planned to become an urban centre.
Students found themselves immersed in literature about Mexico and the Tren Maya as well as primary research in the form of stakeholder interviews, conducted with our partners at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana – Xochimilco, a prestigious public university in Mexico City. They also participated in a series of professionally-interpreted live sessions with stakeholders based in Yucatan and Mexico City. This allowed live interaction between our international students and stakeholders without language being a barrier.
What makes this research particularly interesting is the wide spectrum of stakeholders we engaged with, from indigenous Mayan and environmental activist groups concerned about the social and environmental impact of the project, to government and international development representatives who believe the project is unique in Mexico’s history with its pro-poor approach. AMLO, who is originally from the region, claims that this project is different to past development projects that have been widely seen by the people as exploitative and destructive of the environment. Will this project be any different? This question to a great extent has shaped the research of UED MSc students at the DPU.
It became very apparent that Mexico’s contested history has left its mark on the region in the form of dis-trust of the government and economic actors, including trans-national corporations, and for good reasons: the development model has so far benefitted only a few and the territory has been significantly altered at the expense of local communities, affecting traditional ways of life and of seeing the world. While the government aimed to have (for the first time in the country) an indigenous consultation process for the project in late 2019, it did not meet the standards to ensure a prior, free, informed and culturally adequate consent. Subsequently, the decision to involve the army in its construction, and in the running of the train, has triggered further concerns. The government claims the decision aims at impeding a privatisation of the train in subsequent administrations, something that can be understood considering the country’s troubled past with highly corrupt and problematic privatisation of infrastructure and services.
Some indigenous communities are concerned about losing their lands and communal ways of life, and others are concerned about environmental devastation which they anticipate from a reduction in transport costs for commodities in the region, through the unsustainable extraction of finite natural resources and unsustainable agricultural practices that cause deforestation and pollute the land and waters with toxic chemicals such as synthetic pesticides. Another concern is the anticipated growth in tourism which in the region’s main tourist centre, Cancún, has brought a significant increase in crime and inequality. The question of development for whom and how became a cross-cutting concern of all six research groups.
Will the Tren Maya project simply perpetuate the inequality, violence, and environmental degradation characteristic of past tourism-led development projects in the region, or is this indeed a new era for Mexico where development is aligned with the needs of people and the environment? Anti-capitalist movements such as the Zapatistas (the EZLN) would argue that all state and corporate interventions in the region disrupt their autonomy and are by the very nature of the capitalist system exploitative and violent. They want to expand horizontal models of self-determination outside the domain of state institutions. Other indigenous groups and community organisations echo these concerns which at some level resonate with many Mexicans but are open to engaging with the project to ensure it respects and promotes their way of life and their environment and that it creates meaningful opportunities for their communities.
While sceptical in a context of high levels of distrust in government and corporate institutions, interviews with community leaders shed light on their cautious optimism as they imagine ways they and their communities could benefit from the Tren Maya and the opportunities it may bring to them. The people in the region are predominantly in favour of the Tren Maya when framed as a yes or no to the project in principle. This the government argues is proof of support for the project.
What the community organisations have done is carve a wedge between this black or white approach and shed light on the all-important question of how. It is not simply a question of building the train line or not, it is a question they argue of whether the project will ultimately benefit the people or not, which is determined by the intentions and plans and ways of thinking of those implementing the project and its associated development strategies and initiatives.
Our students quickly understood the significance of their engagement and sought to bridge gaps of understanding and dialogue between indigenous community and environmental groups on one hand and the government institutions and their international development partners such as UN Habitat, on the other.
UED will continue its OPE working on the Tren Maya project for the next few years, as it accompanies the project and hopefully contributes to achieving its noble stated aims.
We want to thank all our team: Professor Violeta Núñez, Rocío Itzel Sánchez, Rodrigo Migoya, and DPU alumna Sofía Fernández, in Mexico, our translator, DPU alumnus George Azariah-Moreno, Jing Zhang, and each of our students in the cohort 2020-21, for their meaningful engagement despite the remote nature of this first year of the OPE. They are listed below in alphabetical order: Aisha Abdi, Aya Aboelenen, Ellen Ahn, Izzudin Al Farras, Saad Alsabah, Abdullah Arshad, Juliano Cavalli De Meira, Mao Chen, Qingya Cheng, Chung Ching Lo, Armando Espitia Arevalo, Tanyeli Guler, Heesu Jeon, Tanya Kasinganeti, Adha Khazina Kazmi, Tatsunari Kubonishi, Fasheng Liang, Hope McGee, Consolata Ndungu, Yasin Omar Ashley Richardson, Hoodo Richter, Amin Rirash, Qi Ru, Yasmeen Safaie, Shamira Sendagala, Shuqi Su, Genevieve Sundaresan, Alia Tolba, Yan Xu, Jiaying Xue, Xinyue Yi, Binyu Wang, Siyu Wang and Dixuan Zhao.