The Mexican government has invoked national security powers to forge ahead with a tourist train along the Caribbean coast that threatens extensive caves where some of the oldest human remains in North America have been discovered.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is racing to finish his Maya Train project in the remaining two years of his term over the objections of environmentalists, cave divers and archaeologists.
The government had paused the project earlier this year after activists won a court injunction against the route, because it cut a swath through the jungle for tracks without previously filing an environmental impact statement.
But the government invoked national security powers Monday to resume the track laying. López Obrador said Tuesday the delay had been very costly and the decree would prevent the interests of a few from being put above the general good. In November, his government had issued a broad decree requiring all federal agencies to give automatic approval for any public works project the government deems to be “in the national interest” or to “involve national security.”
“I never knew we lived in a country where the president could just do whatever he wants,” said Jose Urbina Bravo, a diver who filed one of the court challenges.
Activists say the heavy, high-speed rail project will fragment the coastal jungle and will run often above the roofs of fragile limestone caves known as cenotes, which — because they’re flooded, twisty and often incredibly narrow — can take decades to explore.
Inside those water-filled caves are archaeological sites that have lain undisturbed for millennia.
The cave systems have mainly been 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.
She was discovered in 2007 by divers and cave enthusiasts who were mapping water-filled caverns north of the city of Tulum, where the train line is heading.
“Just in this one stretch of 60 kilometers (36 miles of planned train tracks), there are 1,650 kilometers of flooded caves full of pure, crystalline water,” said Octavio del Rio, a diver and archaeologist who has been exploring the region for three decades. In 2004, Del Rio himself participated in the discovery and cataloguing of The Woman of Naharon, who died around the same time, or perhaps earlier, than Naia.
“I don’t know what could be more important than this, right?” said Del Rio. “We are talking about the oldest remains on the continent.”
The 950-mile (1,500- kilometer) Maya Train line will run in a rough loop around the Yucatan peninsula, connecting beach resorts and archaeological sites.
The government’s National Institute of Anthropology and History is tasked with protecting relics along the route but its experts largely aren’t able to take the deep, long, extended dives needed to reach the flooded caves. Even near the surface, where most of the government’s archaeological work has been done, there have been stunning discoveries along the proposed path of the train.