Mexico's Mayan Train project puts indigenous people at risk of infection from the coronavirus, according to rights groups
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By Oscar Lopez
MEXICO CITY, April 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Mexican government must halt construction of the Mayan Train, rights groups said on Tuesday, writing in an open letter that building the railroad line would endanger workers and indigenous locals during the coronavirus pandemic.
The government has declared a health emergency in Mexico and shut down non-essential businesses, but authorities have said work on the ambitious tourism project will proceed as planned.
Mexico has registered 712 coronavirus deaths and 8,772 infections, and authorities on Tuesday said the country had entered the most serious stage of the outbreak as transmission of the virus was intensifying.
The letter, signed by more than 200 academics, activists and rights groups including Greenpeace, said the project will put construction workers and locals at risk and said opponents could not take legal action while the government was shut down.
"Until this pandemic that's hurting us all is ... fully eradicated, the federal government should stop thinking about doing anything which isn't a priority," said Randy Soberanis, an indigenous activist with signatory group Equipo Indignacion.
The government should be paying attention to the failures of the health system exposed by the pandemic, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Officials have warned that hospitals in Mexico could be overwhelmed if coronavirus infections rise to European levels.
Representatives for Mexico's Interior and Environment ministries did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Mayan Train, a 1,470 km (913 miles) project, is designed to link tourist locations on the Yucatan Peninsula along the Atlantic coast.
Construction is set to begin at the end of April, and the cost of the project is estimated to be just under $8 billion.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has said the Mayan Train will boost local economies by connecting isolated regions that are less developed than the more industrialized north.
But environmentalists and indigenous groups have said the potentially negative ecological repercussions of the development outweighed the economic benefits.
"For the communities that will be impacted, it's going to be devastating," said Soberanis. "There are nature reserves, trees, fauna, flowers. It's going to have a huge impact in that area."
The project was approved by a national referendum in 2018, but fewer than a million people voted, representing about 1.1 percent of eligible voters.
The United Nations has criticized the Mexican government's consultation process among indigenous groups, noting that translations into indigenous languages were inadequate and most people who participated were local authorities.
(Reporting by Oscar Lopez @oscarlopezgib; editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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