One of the last stretches of railway construction in the Yucatan Peninsula began in 1879. For almost 150 years, little has been built, despite the fact that for decades the wooden beams for the railroad throughout the country, were extracted from of the tropical forest of Quintana Roo.
Most of the system was built by English, American and French investors back in the XIX Century, since companies in these countries benefited from the extraction of wood, gum, sugar and other natural resources and products from the region.
At the national level and during the Porfiriato (period of time when Dactator Porfirio Diaz ruled Mexico), the railways mainly transported minerals (more than 50% of the total cargo), as well as agricultural, forestry and livestock products.
Perhaps the last section of road built in the peninsula dates from 1958, when the connection of the Campeche-Mérida section with the rest of the national system was established. It was then that, at last, the peninsula was connected by land with the rest of the country. From then to date, not one extra meter of railway has been built.
Returning to 1879, there were two reasons to extend the rail system from Merida to Peto. The first reason was that an important sugarcane industry was developing in that region, highlighting the haciendas of Catmís and Tekax, which profits were, to a large extent, the result of slave labor, as documented by the American journalist John Kenneth Turner, in his famous book Mexico Bárbaro.
With this stretch of road, Yucatan managed to integrate the southern sugarcane with the northwest sisal (henequen), following the logic of Porfirio Diaz, who facilitated the dispossession of national wealth in favor of foreign companies, which took their products from the country using the rail to the port of Progreso, branch that was finished in 1881.
The second reason for this infrastructure work was of a military nature. In 1879, after 30 years of failed attempts to subdue the eastern Maya, the so-called caste war remained a threat to the stability of the region and a headache for the Mexican Army.
The difficulty of moving the troops in a closed, humid and unknown tropical low forest required logistical support close to the combat zones. Thus, the army would gain in mobility and supply. Therefore, this section of the railway network was called the “pacification” railroad.
It was until 1901 that the work was completed and a year later, the Mexican army, headed by General Ignacio Bravo, would be taking Santa Cruz Balam Naj, the rebel capital.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the so-called Daucaville rails were established (narrow railways that work with small locomotives or animal traction), to transport chewing gum from Carrillo to Vigía Chico and to extract wood and sugarcane production in the concessions granted by the government for the exploitation of the then territory of Quintana Roo.
From 1958 to date there is absolutely no reference to the extension of the railway system in the Peninsula. It was until 2000 or 2001, when the Puebla Panama Plan (PPP) was announced, when trains in the Mexican southeast were again discussed; idea that, apparently, has been retaken by Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his team.
It is necessary to remember that, at the time, the PPP was questioned because it was a project designed in Washington to favor the control of the zone by the United States and to establish infrastructure designed to facilitate the commercial connections of the transnational companies, to promote the agroindustrial and extensive livestock development and to exploit the region’s biodiversity.
Today, in the XXI Century, the railroad in the Yucatan Peninsula has been turned into a tourist brand, denominated “Tren Maya”, a name that seems to show little sensitivity to history and the Maya population. Why not simply call it the Peninsular Train or, in any case, the Mayab Train?
The question that comes to mind is: Is this project going to benefit the rural communities of the Yucatan Peninsula?
The train itself does not seem to bring benefits for the communities. They only seem feasible if the economic activities of local people are supported: community tourism, beekeeping (and processes for their added value), handicrafts, small family and / or community businesses related to local agricultural production: vegetables, cocoa , henequen, calabaza(lecs, luchs), ornamental plants, melipona honey, oil of oregano, jams, tinctures, etc.
Or should these communities come up with a different kind of tourist attraction that involves their Maya heritage, ecotourism, biodiversity, or other type of profitable activities that could make a difference for their economy?