Train endangers some of Mexico’s oldest prehistoric sites

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MEXICO CITY — The Mexican government has invoked national security powers to press ahead with a tourist train along the Caribbean coast that threatens vast caves where some of North America’s oldest human remains have been discovered .

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is rushing to complete his Maya train project in the last two years of his term despite objections from conservationists, cave divers and archaeologists.

The government suspended the project earlier this year after activists won a court injunction against the route because it cut a strip through the jungle for tracks without first filing an environmental impact statement.

But the government on Monday invoked national security powers to resume laying the tracks. López Obrador said Tuesday that the delay had been very costly and that the decree would prevent the interests of a few from being put above the general good. In November, his government issued a sweeping executive order requiring all federal agencies to automatically approve any public works project that the government deems to be “in the national interest” or “involve national security.”

“I didn’t know we lived in a country where the president could do whatever he wanted,” said Jose Urbina Bravo, a diver who filed one of the legal challenges.

Activists say the heavy high-speed train project will fragment the coastal jungle and often pass over the roofs of fragile limestone caves called cenotes, which – because they are flooded, winding and often incredibly narrow – can take decades to complete. to explore.

Inside these water-filled caves are archaeological sites that have remained untouched for millennia.

The cave systems were mostly made through the efforts of volunteer cave divers working hundreds of yards (meters) inside the flooded caverns. Caves along the Caribbean coast have yielded treasures like Naia, the nearly complete skeleton of a young woman who died around 13,000 years ago.

It was discovered in 2007 by divers and cave enthusiasts who were mapping water-filled caverns north of the town of Tulum, where the train line heads.

“Just in this 60-kilometer stretch alone (36 miles of planned railway tracks), there are 1,650 kilometers of flooded caves full of pure, crystal-clear water,” said Octavio del Rio, a diver and archaeologist who explores the area. for three years. decades. In 2004, Del Rio himself was involved in the discovery and cataloging of La Femme de Naharon, who died around the same time, or possibly earlier, than Naia.

“I don’t know what could be more important than that, do you?” said Del Rio. “We are talking about the oldest remains on the continent.”

The 950-mile (1,500 kilometer) Maya Train line will make a rough loop around the Yucatan Peninsula, connecting resorts and archaeological sites.

The government’s National Institute of Anthropology and History is tasked with protecting the relics along the route, but its experts are largely unable to make the deep, long and extended dives needed to reach the caves. flooded. Even near the surface, where most of the government’s archaeological work has been done, there have been some amazing finds along the proposed train route.

Government archaeologist Manuel Perez acknowledged that a small, almost entirely preserved Mayan temple – with a wooden roof – was located in a cave near the train track. He suggested that the route be changed.

But his boss, Diego Prieto, the director of the institute, seemed to rule out changing the route of the train, for which the workers have already cut a strip of jungle 50 meters wide by tens of kilometers long. He suggested that most of the relics, in the few months left before the train is built, can simply be picked up and moved.

“The problem is not the route…even if the route is changed, there will still be a lot of discoveries,” Prieto said. “The problem is the archaeological work to collect the material found and preserve the structures that should remain in place.”

The caves along the coast were probably dry 13,000 years ago during the last Ice Age, and so once sea levels rose at the end of the Ice Age and they were flooded, they acted like time capsules – very fragile. The government’s plan is to ram cement beams and columns through the roofs of the caves, likely collapsing them – and the priceless relics they contain – to support the railway.

Not to mention the 42 mile (68 kilometer) strip of jungle that is being cut down to make way for this segment of the train line, in addition to the tons of crushed rock that will need to be piled on the ground to create a bed for the train. 100 mph (160 kilometers per hour).

Urbina Bravo, a diver and conservationist who has worked on the Caribbean coast for decades, said “making decisions without the support of science, without the support of specialists has cost us dearly” in projects around the world. “We continue and will continue to pay the price for these mistakes.”

But López Obrador dismisses critics like Del Rio and Urbina as “pseudo-ecologists” acting on behalf of business interests or political opponents. The president attacks pundits, activists and anyone who questions his sudden and unforeseen decision to run the railway line through the jungle, which he dismissively calls “acahual” (roughly, “second-hand forest”). coming”).

Fernando Vázquez, the spokesman for the government tourism agency that is building the train line, said “there are people who, in essence, do not necessarily work in favor of the environment, but rather are activists specifically against the Maya train”.

Activists say their work is a labor of love.

To find the remains of Naharon’s wife, divers had to navigate nearly half a kilometer of winding, completely dark caverns; the process took months.

But the government archaeologist responsible for ensuring the train won’t damage these artifacts, Helena Barba, told local media that her team would catalog the dozens of sites in the weeks or months before the machinery arrives. heavy.

This seems absurd to divers and cavers.

“Most likely none of them have the experience or the technical preparations to do this kind of diving in the largest flooded caves in the world,” Del Rio said.

López Obrador is so obsessed with his pet projects – a huge oil refinery on the Gulf Coast, a rail link between the Gulf and a seaport on the Pacific, and the Maya train – that he issued an executive order declaring that priority government projects were no longer needed. Environmental Impact Statements, or EIAs, to start work; they could start construction, fell trees and dig, and submit an EIA later to justify the damage already done.

Urbina, environmentalists and divers challenged that in court, winning an injunction that halted the jungle rail line between the resorts of Cancun and Tulum in mid-May.

The authorities tried to overcome this problem by submitting a hastily drafted EIA on May 19. The Mexican Ministry of the Environment approved the impact statement a month later.

The EIS treats cave systems largely as a construction issue, in the few paragraphs it even discusses them. If construction crews encounter caves and sinkhole lakes known as cenotes on the way to the train, they will be “able to mitigate” damage, according to the impact statement.

What this means in plain language is already visible along the highway between Cancun and Tulum, where the rail line was originally intended to operate as an elevated rail line.

López Obrador changed the plan after uprooting the trees and laying the foundation for the elevated line, allegedly when hotel owners and residents along the coast complained that the construction work would affect tourism and their properties. (In fact, the government never explained why the route was suddenly changed or how much the change cost.)

To repair the roof of the collapsed cave on the highway, Vázquez, the spokesman for the tourism agency, said the government used a quick and intrusive fix.

“This is an engineering solution based on pouring a pilot (columns) and pouring a concrete liner,” Vázquez said.

Urbina said the decision to invoke national security powers was “a violation of the law that we fear could cause irreversible damage to the jungle.”

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