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UN Mexico rights office criticizes government on Mayan Train

PETER ORSI
FILE - In this March 18, 2019 file photo, Rogelio Jiménez Pons, director of Fonatur, points to a map of a planned train line through the Yucatan Peninsula, during an interview in Mexico City. Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador claimed overwhelming support Monday, Dec. 16, 2019, after a weekend referendum on the train project produced lopsided results in a limited vote. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte, File)

MEXICO CITY (AP) — The Mexico office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a string of criticisms Thursday of the government’s handling of consultations with indigenous communities over a planned megaproject known as the Mayan Train in the country’s southeast.

The agency, which said its observers attended a number of regional assemblies in late November and December, applauded Mexico for its stated intent of respecting and protecting indigenous rights and for the fact that the consultations took place before the project’s execution.

But days after a referendum on the multibillion-dollar project that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said gave overwhelming support to the proposal, the U.N. office found that the consultations were flawed and the process “has not complied with all international standards on human rights.”

The office said that during the assemblies, observers noted that only possible benefits of the project were mentioned and not “negative impacts” that could be caused. On multiple occasions, it said, participants asked about those potential impacts and did not receive a clear or complete answer.

“The lack of studies on the impacts or their lack of diffusion makes it hard for people to define their position on the project in a fully informed manner,” the office said in a statement. “Nonetheless, authorities advanced to the consultation stage of the process.”

A spokesperson for López Obrador’s administration did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on the U.N. findings. The president has touted the Mayan Train, one of his core promises from the 2018 presidential campaign, as a major effort to lift up some of the country’s most impoverished communities.

The train would travel some 950 miles (1,525 kilometers) around the Yucatan Peninsula and down into the southernmost state of Chiapas, from cities and beach resorts to pristine jungle and ancient Mayan ruins. There are environmental and development concerns surrounding the project, however.

The U.N. office also highlighted other problems with the consultations such as community members expressing support for the train in hopes that would win them benefits such as jobs, homes or education, despite officials’ reassurances to them that economic, social and cultural rights were not conditioned on such support.

It added that the methodology of the consultation process was not itself discussed with the communities involved, meaning authorities alone decided who, when and where to do so. The office said the length of consultations was too brief, translations into indigenous languages were inadequate — when available — and many people could not afford to travel to attend.

Most of those who ended up participating were people in positions of local authority, the office said, and there was a notable lack of indigenous women involved in some places despite efforts to ensure their inclusion.

“International human rights standards establish that the consultation and consent of indigenous peoples and communities must be prior, free, informed and culturally adequate,” the office wrote.

It praised the government for committing to carry out additional consultations when impact studies are ready and urged authorities to make improvements with a focus on human rights, calling them “an opportunity to ensure a broader and more culturally appropriate participation by all communities that may be affected.”

It also applauded participation by representatives of the governmental National Human Rights Commission, state commissions and civil missions as observers.

Rogelio Jimenez Pons, head of the government tourism promotion agency in charge of getting the train built, said Monday that contracts would be bid in early January and he hoped construction would begin in late March or early April.