Mexican archaeologist Manuel Perez has acknowledged that an almost fully preserved small Mayan temple — complete with wood roofing — has been located in a cave near the Maya train’s path. He has suggested the route be changed.
But his boss, Diego Prieto, the head of the institute, appeared to rule out changing the path of the train, for which workers have already cut down a 50-yard (meter) wide swath of jungle dozens of miles long. He suggested most of the relics, in the few months left before the train is built, can simply be picked up and moved.
“The problem isn’t the route … even if the route is changed, there are going to be lots of discoveries anyway,” said Prieto. “The problem is the archaeological work to gather the material found, and conserve those structures that should remain on site.”
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 flooded, they acted as time capsules — very fragile ones. The government’s plan is to sink beams and cement columns through the roofs of the caves, probably collapsing them — and the invaluable relics they hold — to support the railway.
That’s not to mention the 42-mile (68-kilometer) swath of jungle that is being cut down to make way for this segment of the train line, in addition to the tons of crushed rocked that will have to be piled atop the soil to create a bed for the 100 mph (160-kilometer-per-hour) train.
Urbina Bravo, a diver and environmentalist who has worked on the Caribbean coast for decades, said “making decisions without the support of science, without the backing of specialists has cost us very dearly” in projects around the world. “We continue and will continue to pay the price for these errors.”
But López Obrador dismisses critics like Del Rio and Urbina as “pseudo-environmentalists” acting on behalf of business interests or political opponents. The president attacks experts, activists and anyone who questions his sudden and unplanned decision to run the railway line through the jungle, which he dismissively calls “acahual,” (roughly, ‘second-growth forest’).
Fernando Vázquez, the spokesman for the government tourism agency building the train line, says “there are people who in essence are not necessarily working in favor of the environment, but rather are specifically activists against the Maya Train.”
Activists say theirs is a labor of love.
To find the Woman of Naharon remains, divers had to snake through almost a half-kilometer of utterly dark, sinuous caverns; the process took months.
But the government archaeologist who is responsible for ensuring the train won’t damage such artifacts, Helena Barba, told local media her team will catalogue all the dozens of sites in the few weeks or months before the heavy machinery rolls in.
That strikes divers and cave explorers as preposterous.
“Quite possibly none of them have the experience or technical preparations to do this kind of dive in the most extensive flooded caves in the world,” Del Rio said.
So obsessed is López Obrador 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 a decree stating that priority government projects no longer needed environmental impact statements, or EIS, to start work; they could start construction, cut down trees and excavate, and submit an EIS later to justify damage already done.
Urbina and environmentalists and divers challenged that in court, winning an injunction that stopped the jungle rail line between the resorts Cancun and Tulum in mid-May.
Authorities tried to overcome that problem by submitting a hastily-drafted EIS on May 19. Mexico’s Environment Department approved the impact statement just one month later.
The EIS treats the cave systems largely as a construction problem, in the few paragraphs in which it even discusses them. If construction crews come across caves and sinkhole lakes known as cenotes in the train’s path, they will “be able to mitigate” the damages, according to the impact statement.
What that means in plain language is already visible along the highway between Cancun and Tulum where the rail line was originally projected to run as an elevated rail line.
López Obrador changed the plan after stripping trees and laying foundations for the elevated line, purportedly when hotel owners and residents along the coast complained 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 collapsed cave roof 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 sinking pilot (columns) and pouring a concrete covering,” Vázquez said.
Urbina said the decision to invoke national security powers was “a violation of the law that we fear could do irreversible damage to the jungle.”