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Regional Environment Agreement and the Tren Maya

Written by Rupert Knox |
Impact on the forest, ©Francesca/
Impact on the forest, ©Francesca/

In January 2021, Mexico ratified the Escazú Agreement, enabling the first regional human rights and environmental treaty to come into force. The regional treaty negotiated over several years, involving the participation of civil society, establishes legal obligations on the state parties to guarantee, amongst others, the rights to transparency, to community participation and to defend the environment in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The climate crisis and other grave threats to the environment in the region, including scores of economic development projects, make this an important legal instrument recognising the key role of civil society in public policy affecting the environment and the right to sustainable development. 

As with all such treaties, the formal government commitment presents an ideal photo opportunity. However, this is rarely matched by long-term public policy, financial resources and political will necessary to make these commitments a reality on the ground. Nonetheless, the gap between this formal position and compliance also provides a means for civil society and others to highlight non-compliance, and potentially lever government willingness and capacity to better uphold the commitments. At least that is the theory of much human rights scholarship and advocacy.

Mexico provides an interesting case for monitoring the potential impact of the treaty in conjunction with how existing national environmental legislation is applied to protect the environment and communities at risk. A key economic development project of the present government is the contentious, Tren Maya. This is the rapid construction of a multistage rail network around the Yucatan peninsula, a region associated with the tourist excesses of Cancún and unique Mayan archaeological sites. However, it is also home to numerous impoverished urban and rural communities, including many indigenous Mayan peoples. Moreover, the peninsula contains some of Mexico’s most spectacular, but fragile ecosystems and endangered flora and fauna. The 1500km train network will connect up the principal urban centres to ferry tourists around the peninsula. The government has presented it as a means to develop the region through increased tourism, but also through integration of local rural and urban communities in a sustainably developed economy. 

Topographical map of the Tren Maya route, Gabomiranda
Topographical map of the Tren Maya route, Gabomiranda

The president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), has argued that this is a new progressive model of development, not based on neoliberal privatization and resource extraction. The project is state-funded, -run and -regulated, designed to develop tourism and benefit communities with subsidised travel to commercialise local products. This approach has attracted the involvement of UN Habitat, resulting in a technical agreement with Mexico’s tourism ministry, FONATUR, which is leading the delivery of the project. This agreement focuses on community engagement and, where construction work directly impacts community lands, implementing relocation guidelines. The project is also supported by another key government project, Sembrando Vida, which supports rural communities to reforest communal lands, and foster rural development. This seemingly inclusive approach contrasts with the traditional neoliberal focus on land privatisation and macro investment for export markets. As such, it has attracted cautiously positive evaluations by some sustainable development scholars, including members of UCL’s planning development unit

However, the project has also attracted severe criticism, including from some local communities and environmental organizations. In addition, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights concluded the government’s hastily organized consultation  process in 2019 did not meet the international standards on prior consultation and the right to free, prior and informed consent of indigenous communities affected by the project. Instead, the government mobilized government agencies and economic interests to encourage community support, despite the absence of reliable information on the impact of the project. Many of those that support the project accepted the promises of development and progress for long-marginalized communities. However, other communities and groups continue to oppose the project.

Much of this opposition is focused on the impact of the project on the lives and rights of indigenous communities, and to the ecosystems damaged by construction or threatened by the projected increase in tourism. These legal challenges have been presented by local community groups, but also environmental organizations as well as diving associations seeking to protect the peninsula’s famous network of natural sinkholes and tunnels. 

The speed with which the project plans were put into action meant that environmental impact assessments, required under Mexican law for work permits to be granted, were limited or absent. Many of the scores of injunctions (amparos) filed to stop construction at different sites on the rail network have focused on the deficiencies or absence of the environmental assessments and the failure of the authorities to adequately set out appropriate mitigation or restorative measures. These legal actions invoked environmental obligations, including rights to transparency and the right to participation, which are enshrined in the Escazú agreement. Despite some success with federal courts ordering a temporary halt to construction works, these are gradually being overturned as federal review courts side with government agencies, accepting that official impact assessments comply with the law.

A measure taken by AMLO to thwart legal cases was to apparently declare his government’s priority projects as ‘national security’ concerns. This classification has enabled government lawyers to argue for opt-outs from national legislation, and in effect from the Escazú agreement. Another controversial measure has been to grant the Armed Forces almost complete control over the construction and future running of the railway. This is part of a worrying wider pattern of the AMLO government militarization of civilian functions which may have serious long-term political and human rights implications. 

AMLO has frequently sought to stigmatise all opposition to the Tren Maya, representing these diverse voices as part of a reactionary corrupt clique. Despite this, communities, NGOs, groups, journalists and academics continue to challenge the project in a range of fora.

The overwhelming institutional urgency on the Tren Maya can also be understood in terms of the cycles of Mexican presidential politics. The Tren Maya is central to AMLO’s progressive development claims and to his enduring legacy. Mexican presidents can only serve a single six-year term, so must complete their key projects within that time or face them being scrapped or repurposed by their successors. The urgency to deliver this vast infrastructure project by December 2023 means that all aspects of the project are subordinate to this overriding political timetable. Nonetheless, the mobilization of some communities, sectors of civil society and public opinion in relation to the project and their capacity to invoke legal instruments, such as the Escazú agreement, in support of greater scrutiny and accountability is an important area of study I am pursuing in a region where models of development, environmental protection, indigenous rights and citizen participation are deeply contested.


Rupert Knox (@Knox82R) is CLACS Visiting Fellow and lectures in the CLACS-led Latin American Pathway within the Human Rights Consortium’s MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights.


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the position of CLACS or the School of Advanced Study, University of London.