MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico’s president launched a blistering attack on several environmentalist groups Friday, suggesting they were being paid by foreign foundations to oppose his controversial train project in the Yucatan peninsula.
One group demanded President Andrés Manuel López Obrador apologize, claiming he was “criminalizing” environmentalists.
“I have received information that all of these supposedly independent non-governmental, so-called civic groups are getting money, sometimes from abroad, to oppose the construction of the Maya Train,” López Obrador said, accusing them of “disguising themselves for money as environmentalists, disguising themselves as human rights defenders for money as well, when in the end it is a struggle for political and economic power.”
López Obrador’s spokesman, Jesus Ramírez, said the non-profit groups had “curiously” all received grants from U.S. foundations and then opposed the so-called “Maya Train” project.
“These are funds only for the issue of the Maya Train,” said Ramirez, speaking with the president at his daily news briefing. “This is foreign financing for the Maya Train issue.”
It was the latest chapter in López Obrador’s troubled relationship with civic groups, which he distrusts. López Obrador has claimed in the past they are funded by conservative opponents, and he favors government projects over private efforts in most spheres.
The Mexican Center for Environmental Law responded by saying “we regret that once again, the Mexican government is criminalizing the work of civic groups.”
“We demand a public apology for the attacks and defamation we have been subjected to by the president,” the group wrote in its Twitter account. “International development aid is legal, as are donations from private people, companies and Mexican foreign foundations.”
The NGOs include some of Mexico’s most prominent environmental groups, who have been critical of projects in past administrations. Many of the groups have been receiving grants for years before López Obrador took office in 2018.
In June, López Obrador inaugurated a leg of the project that would run through five southern states carrying tourists from the resorts of Cancún and Playa del Carmen to the Mayan ruins at Palenque. Many communities in the train’s path feel deceived by scarce and incomplete information, while activists fear the social and environmental impacts.
López Obrador says it will create 80,000 jobs at a time when nearly a million have been lost to the lockdown caused by the novel coronavirus. The train would run some 950 miles (about 1,500 kilometers) from Caribbean beaches to the peninsula’s interior while stimulating economic development around its 15 stations. The government says it will cost as much as $6.8 billion, but others say it will be much more.
The lack of quality environmental impact statements, the opposition of Maya Indigenous communities and the train’s effect on scarce underground water resources, flora and fauna have led many groups to oppose it.
The Center for Environmental Law, for example, has issued public statements calling for regulators to deny approval for the train, given that it would run through four natural protected areas.
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, one of the U.S.-based non-profits mentioned by López Obrador, lists the environmental rights center as recipient of $1.3 million in grants; but those grants started in 2016, long before López Obrador was elected and proposed the Maya train.
The purpose of the grant, according to the foundation, doesn't mention the train, instead saying the money would help “strengthen a cadre of indigenous leaders in Campeche, Mexico, to ensure children’s right to a healthy environment by implementing a capacity building/legal assistance program to promote participation in decision-making processes where they can advocate for the protection of their natural resources.”
Another $350,000 Kellogg grant went to Mexico's Civic Council for Sustainable Forestry starting in January 2018 aimed at “supporting a work model to promote social management of natural resources through the participation of youth and women and the expansion of the value chains associated with sustainable agriculture, apiculture and charcoal” production. The council had also opposed the train.
In fact, many Mayan communities have opposed the project, not because they were urged to do so by outsiders, but because they feel they were not consulted about the project and won't benefit much from it.
Ramírez, the president spokesman, also accused the Ford Foundation, the Climateworks Foundation and others of giving money to Mexican NGOs that oppose the train.