Global Trade Bridge will Devastate
Indigenous Peoples and Biodiversity

Text and photos by Santiago Navarro F.

November 19, 2021.

Roque Antonio Santiago is an Indigenous Zapoteco man in his 80s who lives in the community of San Pedro Comitancillo in southern Mexico. Digging through his memories, he remembers 1958 very clearly. At that time, he was a student at the local Rural Normal School, where he was trained as a teacher. These schools, created between 1934 and 1940 by the government of Lázaro Cárdenas del Río, were one of the few options for Indigenous and rural people who wanted to further their studies. “It was the most important thing for our community,” said Antonio Santiago with a certain nostalgia, knowing the government has closed the majority of these institutions, including the one in his region.

Antonio Santiago also remembers the train, “because it was the means of transport for students and for people from the surrounding communities who would transport their totopos [baked corn tortillas].”

The railroad, which connected the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, hit its peak between 1899 and 1915, until it started to decline with the construction of the Panama Canal. At its most critical point, “60 trains crossed daily,” said Jaime Torres Fragoso, a researcher at the University of the Isthmus (Universidad del Istmo). US troops and military supplies used this route, as did shipments of sugar and petroleum destined for the East Coast of the United States.

63 years after the time of Antonio Santiago’s memories, the railroad is being rehabilitated by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s government. The goal is to convert this region into a key global trade route through modernization of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec Railroad (FIT, Ferrocarril del Istmo de Tehuantepec).

One of four environmental impacts assessments carried out by the FIT—which is a para-state company, majority-owned by the Mexican government—indicates that the railroad will absorb a portion of the containers that now cross the Panama Canal, which, “added to the 10 days they have to wait their turn to cross, take about to nine hours to cross the canal. The FIT, on the other hand, would make the trip in less than four hours”—less than half the time required in Panama.

In 2018, the Study on Cargo Demand for the Zone of Influence of the Southeastern Railways, conducted by the Rail Transport Regulatory Agency (ARTF), reported that on this strip of land that separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Pacific Ocean—just a little over 200 km wide—“there’s a potential annual demand of 5.6 billion tons that already moves along the transisthmus highway” and “can be picked up by the Z Line,” as the FIT railway is being called.

This type of modernization doesn’t make it into Antonio Santiago’s imagination. He doesn’t know it’s part of a larger project to reshape the whole Isthmus, called the Multimodal Interoceanic Corridor (CMI, in Spanish). “The modernization of the FIT will be the first action taken within a strategic framework and will act as a catalyst for the rest of the CMI modernization and development projects. Under this outline, beginning in 2023 the FIT would begin to transport goods that arrive at the ports after being shipped on either of the two oceans,” according to the environmental impact assessment.

A Railroad that Will Impact Many Lives

There are 12 First Peoples who would be affected the most: the Zapotecos or Binniza; Mixe or Ayuuk; Náhuatl; Popoluca; Huave or Ikjots; Chontal or Lajl Pima; Chinanteco or Tsa Ju Jni; Mixteco or Ñusavi; Zoque Chimas or Angpon; Mazateco or Shuta Enima; Tzotzil; and Barreños.

These peoples are spread across the 79 municipalities that the train will cross. Impacts are predicted to be severe; these towns would become industrial cities. In addition to the reactivation of the FIT, “infrastructure, highways, gas pipelines, expansion and modernization of airports, [and] fiber optics” are being considered. Above all, though, “urban centers will be developed,” said Rafael Marín Mollinedo, director of the Interoceanic Corridor of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (CIIT), a government project.

Ana Esther Ceceña, a researcher with the Latin American Geopolitics Observatory, underscored that beginning with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and later under the program called Plan Puebla Panamá (PPP), there has been a proposal to reconfigure the region with transportation and communication infrastructure, ports, industrial centers, and a manufacturing sector, known colloquially as maquilador. “The Isthmus would be a manufacturing and industrial corridor competing with China, offering low salaries, even lower than in China. It will be a region where Indigenous people stop cultivating their ancestral lands and becomes workers,” said Ceceña.

The railroad tracks cross the states of Oaxaca and Veracruz, a highly productive agricultural region known for the ancestral milpa system of corn, bean, and squash cultivation. Coffee, rice, sugar cane, pineapple, banana, cacao, mango, tamarind, orange, papaya, and lime are also prevalent.

Furthermore, the central part of the Isthmus is highly biodiverse. Here, three mountain ranges converge: the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca, the Sierra Madre del Sur and the Sierra Atravesada.

According to a report presented by the Latin American Geopolitics Observatory in March 2021 titled The Isthmus of Tehuantepec at Risk, in the Sierra Atravesada, the Chimalapas Jungle stands out, “designated a priority due to its great size (594,000 hectares) and for being one of the most extensive forest areas in the Americas, with a high index of endemic species.” Endemic species are those unique to a region, such as the more than 20 species of cycads (genuses Dioon and Ceratozamia) identified by the researcher Silvia Salas Morales. Cycads are plants with leaves that look similar to palm fronds.

The Zoque Jungle, which extends from the Sierra Atravesada in Oaxaca to the Sierra Madre de Chiapas, is the second largest area of well-conserved jungle of any region in northern Mesoamerica. “Just among the reptile species that have been found in this area, 23% are endemic,” according to a study titled Mammals in the Zoque Jungle, Mexico: abundance, use, and conservation, presented in 2012 by the Review of Tropical Biology.

However, says biologist Patricia Mora from the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN), “as the renovation of this trade route advances, community fabric and biodiversity are suffering.”

Mora maintains that “the first impacts on the environment and communal structure began with the construction of more than 28 wind farms in the region,” referring to more than 5,000 wind turbines that have been built in several parts of the Isthmus since the year 2000.

Farmers hemmed in by wind turbines. Photo by Santiago Navarro F

In addition to wind farms, high tension power lines have been built all over. There’s a new road network for the flow of goods, which “has affected the communities’ milpa system and their food sovereignty,” said Mora. These projects are the first phase of reorganization of the Isthmus, which, with the interoceanic train, is rapidly changing daily life for the Indigenous peoples in the region.

The railroad crosses 79 municipalities between Oaxaca and Veracruz. Photo: Santiago Navarro F.

A Train Every 17 Minutes

In August 2019, an event was held in Oaxaca called “Towards a South-Southeast of the future: a new development era of socially inclusive industrialization” in which Andrés Manuel López Obrador participated.

During the event, Rafael Marín, director of the CIIT, stated that projections for the FIT anticipate “mobilizing 31,111 trains annually of 45 cars each, 85 trains a day, one every 17 minutes. And this demand will be far greater than the 60 trains that ran daily around 1907.”

This rail network currently boasts only one set of tracks. The remodel “seeks to double it, which will require an area greater than that intended for it,” because one of its objectives is “for the train to reach velocities of 160km/h,” states The Isthmus of Tehuantepec at Risk.

Between June 2019 and May 2020, the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) authorized the environmental impact assessments in four segments, corresponding to the sections of track to be rehabilitated. None of the assessments take into consideration noise pollution, one of the main impacts of a railroad with trains passing by every 17 minutes.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines noise pollution as anything exceeding 65 decibels (dB). It becomes damaging at levels above 75 dB and painful above 120 dB. The limit established for trains in the European Union is 70 dB. In contrast, Mexican law permits up to 96 dB for locomotive whistles and in-cabin noise, and makes no consideration for the noise generated when the train passes through communities.

A High-Speed Megaproject

Information requested from the Federal Superior Auditing Office (ASF) coincides with the environmental impact assessments in assuring that the FIT “will be up to 50% faster than the option the Panama Canal offers.” To achieve this, curvature and incline will be corrected along the 202.97 km Z Line.

The assessments justify the remodel by saying it will revive the old trade route that had ceased to function after a steep decline provoked by social and economic conflicts in 1910, during the period of the Mexican Revolution. This “will allow it to increase its velocity and absorb the flow of cargo that is currently shipped on trucks, as well as the production generated in the new industrial centers,” states a FIT document.

Between the two ports, at least 1.4 million standard 20-foot shipping containers are predicted to pass through annually. These containers, also known as TEU (Twenty-foot Equivalent Units), can be easily transferred between ships, trains, and trucks.

However, flows of rail cargo could be much higher than projected. With this in mind, the ASF required a new analysis be conducted, taking into consideration “scenarios for reconfiguration of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec region with the creation of Development Centers for Well-Being [industrial parks] and the array of projects under consideration within the Interoceanic Corridor,” according to their 2019 Performance Audit.

Antonio Santiago, along with others in his community, thinks that the train will be like the one from his memories. Unlike the old train, though, this one won’t be transporting people with their totopos and crafts. The FIT will be a brute, transporting thousands of tons of cargo daily, 24 hours a day.

Roque Antonio Santiago’s Memories

After an inquest into the capacity and number of train cars that the railroad will use, Carolina Medina Laguna, head of the FIT’s Fees Department, said only that “the Isthmus of Tehuantepec Railroad Company does not own rolling stock,” that is, the company owns just the railway, not the trains that will transport passengers and freight.

Medina mentioned that the units that currently travel a portion of the FIT’s tracks “are the property of other concession holders and/or users.” President López Obrador acknowledged this fact when he said that past governments had privatized the railroad sector, part of “the costs of neoliberal policies.”

According to the Mexican Ministry of Communication and Transportation, at least 22,130 km of railroad, 84% of the Mexican rail network, have been handed over to the private sector since 1998. The same fate could befall the FIT.

A remodeled section of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec Railroad. Photo: Santiago Navarro F.

Ceceña worries that “the Isthmus of Tehuantepec will become a permanent corridor for container flows, a sort of commodity transport beltway, which will cut the country in two, heavily affecting primarily the Indigenous peoples who live in the region.” Additionally, she warns, “this reconfiguration of the Isthmus is also a threat to the flora and fauna with which these peoples coexist.”

The Isthmus of Tehuantepec at Risk, authored by Ceceña and nine other researchers, also mentions that “the Transisthmic Train and the development centers that accompany it, especially in the form of industrial parks, will also become a wall for the migrant diasporas headed towards the United States. They threaten cultural, environmental, and physical destruction of the habitat and way of life of the region’s inhabitants and will lead to a process of extinction that is going unacknowledged.”

Perseida Tenorio, a Zapoteca woman from Asunción Ixtaltepec, is full of uncertainty over the reconfiguration of the region and the fact that it’s being outlined as a next great industrial expanse. “They want to install a metallurgy complex in my town, and we know the amount of water they’re going to need for that. They’re going to leave us without water and I’m worried about our food supply. What kind of life are we going to have in our communities? Some of us are already thinking about migrating to a different place,” she said.

The development will have large-scale effects on the lives of First Peoples because “being inserted into a new context, the pace that an industrial city demands, will change the dynamic of their everyday life. They’re going to have to deal will pollution, industrial waste, truck transport, and commodity flows. Everything is going to change. Life for Indigenous peoples is going to change and so will biodiversity,” says Mora.

What their grandparents don’t understand, says Perseida, is that “these projects are taking everything from us: the air, the water, the land, food, language. They’re breaking everything apart.” She warns: “if we don’t do something now, that’s how it’s going to be. There will be stories about what the Isthmus was, because there won’t be anything left—no culture, no traditions. We’re going to disappear as First Peoples. We’ll be like those industrial cities where no one knows each other and no one talks to one another. Full of drug cartels, with the youth broken by drug addiction. They’re going to drag down our lives and our territory. The natural and cultural diversity of the Isthmus will be finished.”

Some communities on the Isthmus hold onto cultural markers over 1,000 years old, like the community of Ixtaltepec, where there is a ceremonial site in the area known as Cerro Blanco with rock paintings from over 2,000 years ago. “It was thought that life originated here, which is why people give offerings. If we don’t fight now, our memory and our history could disappear. If that happens, we will also disappear as Indigenous peoples,” says Victoria Guzmán.

The most concerning aspect is the capital brought in by industrial parks, as the Isthmus is in an important geopolitical location for the world market. “In the 20th century, trade was focused on the Atlantic and at the end of this century it has shifted towards the Pacific,” says Ceceña. “That’s why the Isthmus is a disputed region, mainly between the United States and China.”

Ceceña says the United States continues to be a country with great power and is in constant competition with China. The dispute between them will move to the globally strategic zone of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. One objective is the cheap labor that the region offers, but also migration from Central America that will feed the industrial parks. “The Isthmus will also serve as a retaining wall for migration and will absorb labor for these industrial parks,” she says.

This region is vitally important to the United States, since goods and raw materials take this route on their way to the East Coast. “That’s where 40% of its economic wealth is generated. But that coast has a problem—it is no longer geographically well-located. The Panama Canal had worked well for the transporting goods, oil, and military supplies. But this route is increasingly saturated and does not have the capacity to move the current world volume of goods,” Ceceña explains.

Eighty percent of world trade moves by sea, so “the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is the key to solving the problem, in terms of competition between the flow of goods,” says Ceceña.

An Indigenous Zapoteco man eating his lunch on the tracks of the Interoceanic train. Photo: Santiago Navarro F.

Previous Attempts to Reconfigure the Territory

The old dream of connecting the Gulf of Mexico with the Pacific Ocean dates back to the year 1800 with the McLane-Ocampo Treaty, “where the Mexican side ceded rights to the United States to transport goods, troops, military supplies, and people,in perpetuity and with complete freedom.” Although it was never ratified, it did define “the geopolitics of the US in the part of the Americas that runs from Panama to Canada,” the FIT’s environmental impact assessment points out.

Since 1800, there have been several attempts to create the conditions for what would be the most important commercial bridge in the world. One of them occurred during a time of supposed change in Mexico, in 2001, under the government of Vicente Fox. He put forward the “Program for the Development of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec,” as part of “Plan Puebla Panama (PPP),” an agreement signed by nine states in southern Mexico and the governments of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Panama.

The long-standing plan to reorganize southern Mexico and the rest of Central America came alongside security programs like the Mérida Initiative in which, aiming to counter drug and arms trafficking, the United States funded a “military aid” package for Mexico and Central America. Between 2008 and 2021, “the United States government has allocated more than 3.3 billion dollars” for Mexico alone, according to the State Department.

In Central America, the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) was launched in 2008 and the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) in 2009.

The US State Department reports that it has sent $58.5 million to Mexico for immigration control and border security since 2015. “The funds have allowed for the provision of non-intrusive inspection equipment, mobile kiosks, canine teams and vehicles, as well as the training of more than 1,000 officers,” according to the US Congress.

“First, they began with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and from that moment this territory has been thought of as a single, unified territory. From Central America to the north of the continent, the United States sees a single territory where it mainly protects capital investments,” adds Ceceña.

After NAFTA was signed, the PPP emerged with the urgency of addressing issues of poverty and the environment. The strategies focused on improving physical infrastructure, without openly advertising the implementation of megaprojects. “Nor did it introduce the concept of interconnection and transportation,” says the Functional Group for Economic Development of the Interoceanic Corridor of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

Today, the interconnection and reorganization of this entire territory is being openly and blatantly announced. It is taking shape as a nodal objective, from the perspective of creating new spaces for capital, as indicated in Statement Number 14 from the CIIT. This integration of the South and Southeast of Mexico is also intended to expand to “Central America, and will link it to the worldwide flows of production and trade.” To this end, there are plans to expand the network of oil and gas pipelines, highways, and industrial complexes that will absorb the cheap labor offered by migration, as well as more regional security projects.

Meanwhile, this “reconfiguration of the entirety of South-Southeast Mexico” moves forward through the reorganization of Indigenous territories that has begun “through the expansion of the ports of Salina Cruz and Coatzacoalcos, including the container terminal at the Pajaritos Port Precinct and infrastructure improvements to the airports in Minatitlán, Veracruz and Ixtepec, Oaxaca,” according to information requested from the ASF.

Transmission lines carrying wind-generated energy from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Photo: Santiago Navarro F.

Without Prior Consultation

Jorge Aragón, a farmer from San Pedro Comitancillo, says that the communities living along the train route know little about what this megaproject—this transportation system that intends to move goods and raw materials primarily from Asia to the East Coast of the United States—entails.

Aragón says that “those who have come forward to inform us are just messengers, such as the construction companies, but nothing official. One of them is COMSA Corporation [Spanish capital] and the other, Grupo Diamante [Fideicomiso Grupo Diamante, Mexican capital]. Their representatives have told us that they urgently need to finish their work on the train, but we don’t know the scale of this project.”

Last July, the local authorities from his community began a blockade of the railroad tracks that cross their territory. They are demanding information and several projects for their community. The government has limited itself to promising them public works.

“There is talk, and it’s said that there will be two types of trains—one high-speed freight train and one for passengers. Maybe it would give life to this community, but we don’t properly know what the result will be. What are the advantages and disadvantages? We don’t know. But Comitancillo does need this means of transportation here, because we only have one highway,” shares Antonio Santiago, who is speechless when asked if he knows about the noise pollution that will be generated by the passing of a train every 17 minutes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Given the lack of information regarding the details of the megaproject in the communities that the train will pass through, the head of the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples (INPI), Adelfo Regino Montes, was asked if he believed that the Indigenous communities had sufficient information to express their disagreement or approval of these projects that are already moving forward. He responded: “The role played by the INPI is of a technical nature. We support institutions with the procedural issues of carrying out the consultation process. The party with the duty to provide all the necessary information about these projects is the authority responsible for their execution, which we understand to be the CIIT.”

The INPI has announced more than once that consultations have been held in the Indigenous communities already being affected by social polarization and where conflicts have escalated into confrontations. Montes, however, contradicts himself by claiming that not all the necessary information has been shared since part of it “is still under construction.”

In March 2019, the Ministry of Finance and Public Credit (SHCP), in coordination with the INPI, issued a call for Regional Consultative Assemblies regarding the creation of the Program for the Development of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec 2020-2024. However, according to the Federal Superior Auditing Office, “the CIIT, as the coordinating entity of the regional program, did not provide documentary evidence certifying the activities carried out in 2019, in order to be in compliance with the procedures, stages, and agreements outlined in the Regional Assemblies, nor the calls for follow-up meetings on the agreements, nor the results of the consultation carried out.”

Antonio Santiago, like other people interviewed, states that there is no clear information as to the implications of this reorganization of their territories. The only thing that government officials have shared is “that they will bring development, they will bring jobs. But there are no documents or comprehensive information on these projects,” he reflects.

For this report, the CIIT was asked for the “Master Plan and Strategic Plan for the Interoceanic Corridor.” They responded by stating it is “restricted information.” This is the same response they have given to the various communities that have requested it.

The Supposed Benefits of the CMI

The Development Plan for this region seeks to address the poorest municipalities, the same ones that will be impacted by the projects. However, the ASF documented that “the specific problems to be resolved in the 79 municipalities of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec have not been identified.” Therefore, it issued a recommendation that “it is essential that the CIIT establish sufficient coordination mechanisms with the responsible agency in order to identify and have a complete diagnosis of the problems affecting each of the 79 municipalities.”

Despite the lack of knowledge regarding the specific needs of each municipality, in order to contribute to their supposed development, at least “10 development poles [industrial parks] throughout the region” will be built, according to the Strategic Agenda for the South-Southeast. These will take advantage of their proximity to the FIT and the state will provide the necessary resources, as well as tax reductions and other incentives, for companies that want to invest in them.

Speech by Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

In the Oaxacan section, the land for industrial parks “is already in the acquisition process,” says the CIIT director. He adds that, once all the requirements have been met, “properties will be put up for bidding so that developers can buy them and attract companies to the country. The tax incentives that will be offered to participants for a certain period of time are an attractive feature,” said Rafael Marín Mollinedo.

These development poles, according to The Program for the Development of the Isthmus of Tehauntepec, will be located in the municipalities of Coatzacoalcos, Sayula de Alemán, Minatitlán and Acayucan in the state of Veracruz; in Matías Romero, Ciudad Ixtepec, El Espinal, Asunción Ixtaltepec, San Blas Atempa, Santo Domingo Tehuantepec, Juchitán de Zaragoza and Salina Cruz, in Oaxaca. In total, they would cover an area of more than nine thousand square kilometers for industrial activities, eight times larger than the city of Juchitán, one of the main urban areas in the region.

The head of the INPI stated that prior to determining where the development poles would be built, “a consultation process [is necessary], because the voice of the peoples, of the Indigenous communities, must be heard, in compliance with the provisions of Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization and other international legal instruments.” The official claims that only one community has yet to be consulted.

David Hernández Salazar, an Indigenous leader from the community of Puente Madera in San Blas Atempa, is skeptical about these consultations and about the impacts of these parks in his territory. He states, “There is no real information about the industrial parks that they are trying to install on our communal lands. That is why we, as the community of San Blas Atempa, remain in resistance.” Hernández, together with his community, has carried out several highway blockades and other direct actions, beginning in 2020.

Hernández adds that he found out that the Mexican state is bribing community members to approve the industrial parks and is even forging signatures. “There was a supposed assembly in which supposedly 900 community members, out of a total of 1,390, approved the industrial park (in San Blas Atempa). I checked the attendance lists and it turns out that in Puente Madera alone they forged the signatures of 52 community members. So we can see that they want to impose these projects illegally and by force,” he emphasizes.

Hernández, as a community authority, says, “We, as community members of Puente Madera, attended that meeting of community members (with other communities in the region) where the industrial park was approved. When we arrived, we found that there were few community members and the majority were people who were paid to be there, who were also municipal officials.” Currently, Hernández, along with other Indigenous people, has an arrest warrant out against him for protesting on the main highway in the region and for showing his disagreement with the advancement of these projects.

David Hernández Salazar-San Blas Atempa.

Perseida Tenorio, from Asunción Ixtaltepec, another community that was already supposedly consulted about another industrial park, asserts that not all the inhabitants of the community participated. Perseida is concerned about the women, “because we are the ones who work in the Isthmus, we are the economic, cultural, communal, and emotional pillars. Unfortunately, there are few women in the Isthmus who have the opportunity to advance to higher education.” Therefore, she wonders: “What kind of labor force will be working in these industrial parks? Will it be the least qualified, with long working hours and low pay?”

As for the young people, uncertainly has prevailed. Their voices carry minimal weight in the assemblies, since they are not yet communal or collective landholders. In these decision-making spaces, it is the older people who have the final say, but with little or no information and with the old memories of the train from half a century ago.

Zapoteco farmer in the Cerro de la Garza. Photo: Santiago Navarro F.

A Jungle in the Middle

There is a great diversity of native trees along the new train tracks, as well as marshes and streams, and at a glance one can appreciate the different species of birds and reptiles who enjoy the region’s tropical climate.

However, the inhabitants of the communities near the railroad tracks are concerned because it will pass through one of the six high-importance conservation areas in the state of Oaxaca, the Zoque Jungle belt. This jungle covers an area of more than one million hectares, including the communities of Chimalapas in Oaxaca, El Ocote in Chiapas, and Uxpanapa in Veracruz.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Zoque jungle “is the second largest area of protected jungle and forest in Mesoamerica, after the Maya Jungle,” and “contains high rates of biological diversity and an important number of endemic species as a result of factors such as terrain, climate, soil type, geology, evolutionary aspects, and exceptional microclimate conditions.”

Unfortunately, the railroad will also affect the biological diversity of the region, and the situation will not be solved “with paths (that have yet to be built) for the crossing of fauna, since these, along with altering the animals’ routes, could create confrontations between species,” states The Isthmus of Tehuantepec at Risk.

The report states that “a high-velocity train causes several impacts that alter the environmental dynamic. The vibration and noise cause changes in the routes and behavior of species, who react by moving away from the site or being attracted to it. When the latter occurs, they run the risk of being run over by the train.”

For the biologist Mora, one of the main risks of the reconfiguration of the Isthmus as a whole is that it will exacerbate climate change in the area and this will lead to the displacement of species, which will change the environment, as this jungle is a unique reservoir containing a great concentration of diverse life. In the Chimalapas Jungle, on just one hectare of virgin land up to 900 plant species and 200 animal species have been identified, adds Mora.

Researcher Silvia Salas Morales, from the Society for the Study of Biotic Resources in Oaxaca, has recorded seven species of cycads (plants) in the Chimalapas, species that diversified in the Jurassic period (210 to 140 million years ago). These species have only been found in South Africa, Australia, and Mexico.

Upon modifying the ecosystems, “a process of desertification will begin, which will make the Zoque jungle, and especially the Chimalapas, vulnerable. The marine areas where ships with thousands of containers will arrive and cross daily will also be affected. These scenarios will worsen the impacts of climate change,” warns Mora.

Mora adds that, in the past, “much damage was already recorded with the breakwaters and dredging in the ports of Salina Cruz and Coatzacoalcos. This greatly impacted the coastal flora and fauna for some time. The damage will be unimaginably high and this isn’t taken into consideration in the environmental impact studies.”

Ceceña warns the risk to the environment is on a grand scale, “because what is left of the jungle in Mexico is very minimal.” The portion of Mexican territory made up by jungle has been decreased from 9.2% to 4.7% (91,566 km²), according to the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity.

Of the 594,000 hectares that make up the Chimalapas, 78.3% is well preserved, with 48% covered by high evergreen jungle, followed by 14.4% of medium sub-evergreen jungle, and 13.5% of mountain mesophilic forest. “The Isthmus has a small, very important patch of jungle. Especially at this time when the planet is in a very critical situation in terms of the sixth extinction and the accelerating increase in temperature,” adds Ceceña.

The Federal Superior Auditing Office has documented that the environmental impact assessments for the modernization of the train “did not include specific indicators for each subject by state or municipality, nor quantitative and qualitative data on sustainable environmental management: treatment of wastewater, loss of tree-covered areas, volume of solid waste generated, proper disposal of solid waste, ‘clean industry’ certificates issued, reforestation, socially responsible companies, agricultural productivity based on water use, intensity of water use, air pollution, and environmental risk.”

Juan Carlos Sánchez Antonio, a teacher from San Pedro Comitancillo, notes that “the environmental imbalance has already been felt with the installation of the wind farms,” for which the necessary consultations were not carried out. “Although we don’t perceive it directly, it has generated changes in the reproduction chains of living beings. It is raining less, it is getting hotter, the rains are unpredictable. What is coming in the next 30 years is a regional environmental collapse.”

A study led by Robert Vautard, a specialist in climate simulations at the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences (LSCE), states that “near wind farms there is a significant increase in temperatures, especially at night. This is one of the impacts on the Isthmus, where there are currently more than 5,000 wind turbines.

Diversity in the coastal zone of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Photo: Santiago Navarro F.

Sánchez, who is also Zapoteco, asserts that in 20 years, “even if we have the most modern trains and highways, it will be at the cost of irreversible ecological disaster” and predicts that “if we don’t pay attention to addressing the effects of neoliberal policies, we will find ourselves in a world that has collapsed in environmental terms and this will unleash a global crisis regarding food, water…a dismantling of Mother Earth.”

The risks of reconfiguring the Isthmus.

This report was produced with the support of the Earth Journalism Network of Internews.