This week, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) has been inaugurating construction works on the 1,525km Mayan Train (Tren Maya) flagship rail project; today, 4 June, AMLO is in Chiapas opening works on the stretch of track that leads up to Campeche. The government has costed the state-funded project at around MXN 140bn (USD 6.4bn), and AMLO wants it finished by H2/2023. The project reveals several troubling issues with relevance for other infrastructure plans and investment projects, and for what it says about AMLO’s vision for economic recovery.
AMLO remains wedded to the Tren Maya project despite the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. If anything, the president appears even more determined to press ahead with the project, seeing it as a remedy for the economic damage that the pandemic and lockdown is causing. This is unrealistic. To take one stated benefit – job creation – AMLO has said the project will generate 80,000 jobs this year. However, this is a fraction of the 2mn new jobs he insists will be created by the end of 2020, and in the context of 12.5mn people out of work in April.
The project’s costs – and not just its benefits – also verge on the fanciful. The Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO) has previously said that the rail project could ultimately be four to ten times more expensive than planned. The most relevant precedent – the Mexico City to Toluca trainline, conceived under the previous administration and begun in 2014 – is hardly encouraging: the far less ambitious, 58km project has been beset by cost overruns, legal challenges, and corruption, and remains incomplete and unlikely to open before 2021 at the very earliest.
AMLO has defended the Tren Maya project with the argument that it enjoys local support following a consultation staged last December in the five south-eastern states where the train will run. The problem is that – as with similar exercises in “direct democracy” on the Texcoco airport and the Constellation Brands brewery project – the consultation was manipulated to legitimize a top-down decision. In the case of the Tren Maya, objective information about the project was lacking, participation was minimal in proportion to the total population of the five states, and there were credible reports that most participants were in fact municipal employees obligated to vote.
At the same time, AMLO has been quite willing to disregard environmental concerns, while ignoring local community unease (and legal suits) and norms relating to prior and informed consent. For example, the project continues to lack proper environmental impact assessments, despite the threat it poses to the environment, biodiversity, and sensitive archeological sites. Brushing aside indigenous communities’ concerns is particularly anomalous for AMLO given that they represent a constituency he claims to represent. Note that the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) – now an activist organization rather than a guerrilla group – is vehemently opposed to the Tren Maya.
Finally, AMLO has been willing to award direct tenders to speed up construction despite his zero-corruption mantra; one count suggests almost half of all contracts signed so far have skipped a bid process. On top of this, AMLO retains a naïve faith that companies involved in the project will not go over budget because they have given “their word” not to do so.