A ‘Rights of Nature’ Fact-Finding Panel to Investigate Mexico’s Tren Maya Railroad for Possible Environmental Violations

An independent panel of jurists, scientists and other environmental experts will gather facts starting Friday related to a controversial railroad project in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula that is said to impact sensitive ecosystems, ancient historical sites and the rights of Indigenous and other local communities. 

The Tren Maya, a rail system that will traverse over 900 miles in the Yucatan, including the tourist hotspots Cancun and Tulum, is one of several large-scale projects championed by Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador that has been exempted from otherwise required environmental impact assessments. 

The train will be used by tourists to travel between resorts along the coast and historical sites, including ancient Mayan ruins. López Obrador has touted the project, which is projected to cost upwards of $8 billion, as a means to bring economic development to impoverished parts of the country. 

Critics of the project, which is slated for completion in December 2023, say the train will cause long-term, and in some cases irreversible damage, to forests, aquifers, and a complex system of underground rivers and caves, which could collapse under the weight of the railway. 

Activists have also derided the lack of consultation with those communities and say the project will harm the same peoples the development is intended to spotlight: Indigenous Mayan descendants. In some places the train slices through communities, creating safety and logistical concerns: residents who largely commute on foot will need to travel long distances to crossing points to get to destinations on the other side of the tracks. 

The independent panel, called the International Rights of Nature Tribunal, was created to promote a legal movement based on the premise that nature—forests and rivers and wild animals and ecosystems—has inherent legal rights to exist and regenerate, just as humans possess human rights by virtue of their existence. 

The panel will begin its three-day visit on Friday with visits to the Pisté, Xmaben and Tihosuco communities. A group of five tribunal will tour train construction sites, visit with community rights organizations and take testimony from affected communities in the states of Yucatan, Quintana Roo and Campeche. 

Modeled on the International War Crimes Tribunal and the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal— citizen organizations for the investigation of human rights violations—the tribunal’s mandate is to investigate alleged rights of nature violations. The tribunal was created to take testimony and evaluate violations of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, a document adopted during a 2010 people’s conference in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The conference came one year after what rights of nature advocates considered a disappointing U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen.

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The tribunal has heard at least 14 cases across the world since then, including the “Amazon, a threatened living entity” last year in Brazil, “Defenders of Nature and Mother Earth” in 2017 and “False solutions to climate change” in 2021].  

Judges presiding over each case are selected by the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, based on the location and subject matter of the case. The judges on the Tren Maya tribunal are: Father Raúl Vera (Mexico), Yaku Pérez (Ecuador), Antonio Elizalde (Chile), Francesco Martone (Italy/Ecuador), Maristella Svampa (Argentina) and Alberto Saldamando (United States). Tribunal secretary Natalia Greene (Ecuador) will also participate.

The judges will issue a non-binding report and judgment following the visit that is intended to create a body of model rights of nature jurisprudence as well as provide visibility to the socio-environmental issues related to the Tren Maya project. 

Legal challenges to the project in Mexico, including claims that the construction violates the human right to a healthy environment and to be consulted, have so far proved unsuccessful. Last year, López Obrador declared the project a matter of national security, allowing the project to circumvent legal injunctions halting construction. 

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