The Maya Train Project: A Contemporary Case Study of How Legal Corruption Empowers Governments to Dispossess Indigenous Peoples’ Collective Right to Land Under the Guise of Economic Development

It is internationally recognized that “Indigenous [P]eoples have deep spiritual, cultural, social and economic connections with their lands, territories, and resources, which are basic to their identity and existence itself.”[1] This is reflected in Indigenous Peoples having a “tradition of collective rights to lands and resources—through the community, the region or the state.”[2] More often than not, this is in direct contrast to States’ preference of individual ownership, privatization, and development.[3] The perceived direct conflict between these ideas, has led to the displacement of Indigenous Peoples across the globe and the dispossession of their lands, territories, and their resources.[4] Governments and the private elite like to emphasize that this has happened throughout history, as if this is a problem of the past, but globally, this has not ceased to occur. The Maya Train Project in Mexico is a prime example. In the past, dispossession was done through illegal corruption and, now, it is done through legal corruption—meaning through a legal framework built for and by elites to “protect [their] own conduct of corruption.”[5] Thus, laws and regulations have been created and revised making the dispossession of Indigenous Peoples collective rights to land legal under the guise of economic development for countries.

In 2018, Mexico announced the Maya Train Regional Project and in 2020 construction began.[6] This project entailed the creation of a railroad with forty-two trains and thirty-four stations in southeast Mexico travelling through five states (Campeche, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, and Yucatán).[7] The Mexican Government claimed this project would produce great benefits for Mexico, including, enhancing the tourism industry, generating economic benefits, and increasing regional connectivity.[8] However, this does not come without a cost to Mexico’s indigenous communities. The President of Mexico, “Andrés Manuel López Obrador, through the Ministry of Agrarian, Territorial, and Urban Development (SEDATU), issued two decrees for the expropriation of 23 [hectares] of land in Merida and Campeche.”[9] These decrees justify the expropriation of this land for public utility and socio-economic development purposes.[10] The lands mentioned in these decrees are part of the ejido system.[11]

The ejido system was initially created under Article 27 of the 1917 Mexican Constitution.[12] Following the Mexican Revolution, “ejidos were awarded as communal land to communities of indigenous or small farmers” in attempt to redistribute land and restore economic freedom.[13] Under this structure, ejido members did not own or hold any title to the land.[14] Thus, the land “could not be sold, confiscated, or divided.”[15] However, the Mexican Constitution makes it possible for property to be expropriated for public utility—with public utility holding a broad definition—including private development projects.[16] Additionally, because of the structure of ejidos, for the government to expropriate this land, additional laws and regulations govern.[17] These require the government to conduct an appraisal and for payments to be made “directly to the ejido or to the National Fund for the Promotion of Ejidos.”[18]

Prior to this train’s construction, the Mexican government, through the National Fund for Tourism and Promotion and the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples, went to the municipalities of Yucatán, Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, and Quintana Roo for what they called a “participatory consultation” on the Maya Train Project under the guise of seeking the people’s consent to go forward with this project.[19] Prior to these meetings, however, President López Obrador decided to move the project forward, intentionally disregarding the Maya Peoples’ input.[20] Accordingly, “[a]lmost 3,000 households living along the route have been displaced.”[21]

On many occasions activists have attempted to seek justice through domestic legal avenues, including by filing twenty-five legal complaints attempting to halt or delay the project’s process.[22] However, the Mexican government has continued to move forward with the railway, ignoring one court order, and designating the railway line to be a national security project despite a Supreme Court of Mexico decree stating it is not an issue of national security.[23] Like other Indigenous Peoples who are fighting against States’ legal corruption frameworks, the Indigenous Peoples of Mexico have turned to the international legal community for assistance.

“The Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature (GARN) is a global network of organizations and individuals” who are “scientists, attorneys, economists, [I]ndigenous leaders, authors, spiritual leaders, business leaders, politicians, actors, homemakers, students [and] activists.”[24] In 2014, GARN created the International Rights of Nature Tribunal.[25] Its purpose is to “provide systemic Rights of Nature based alternatives to the false solutions and failed negotiations of governing Nation States.”[26] This Tribunal seeks to “recommend actions for reparation, mitigation, restoration, and prevention of further damages and harms”[27] and focuses on “enabling Indigenous Peoples to share their unique concerns and solutions about land, water, and culture with the global community.”[28] To date, the Tribunal has rendered five international verdicts, two regional verdicts, and eleven local verdicts.[29] Unfortunately, its decisions are non-binding as it is a Tribunal without the direct support from States.[30] This lack of authority and enforcement mechanisms is unfortunate because the Tribunal’s rendered verdicts provide full legal analyses of international, regional, and domestic laws and standards which could greatly support Indigenous communities and the environment worldwide.[31] After case was filed regarding the Maya Train, the Tribunal conducted a hearing in Valladolid, Yucatan, Mexico where twenty-three Indigenous community representatives, citizens, and environmental organizations testified.[32] The State, Mexico, did not have a representative present at any portion of the hearing.[33] In their verdict, the Tribunal demanded that “the State, particularly the Government and the Executive branch of it, cease the dispossession of ejido lands, or communal lands, and territories in general.”[34]

This case study is one example of legal corruption empowering governments to dispossess Indigenous Peoples of their collective rights to land—a problem that continues to persist worldwide.[35] Thus, a collective solution is needed to tackle these issues, including increasing awareness that many Indigenous Peoples across the globe continue to face this issue. Additionally, it is imperative for States to support the International Rights of Nature Tribunal to enhance the Tribunal’s authority and improve the implementation and enforcement of its verdicts.

[1] The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Indigenous Peoples’ Collective Rights to Lands, Territories and Resources, (last visited Apr. 11, 2024).

[2] Id.

[3] See id.

[4]  See id.

[5] Daniel Kaufmann & Pedro C. Vicente, Legal Corruption, 23 Econ. & Pol., 195, 199 (2011).

[6] Noah Bovenizer, Mexico’s Mayan Train Project to Open in December, Railway Tech. (Nov. 14, 2023)

[7] Laura Sanders, What Travelers Need to Know About Mexico’s New Train, ‘El Tren Maya’, Conde Nast Traveler (Dec. 22, 2023)

[8] Fondo Nacional de Fomento al Turismo, Proyecto Regional Tren Maya, Gobierno de Mexico (Sept. 18, 2020)

[9] Adriana Alarcón, Mexican Government Expropriates More Land for Mayan Train, Mexico Bus. News,

[10] Id.

[11] See id.

[12] Eric P. Perramond, The Rise, Fall, and Reconfiguration of the Mexican Ejido, 98 Graphical Rev. 356, 356 (2008).

[13] See Venita Januarie, Ejido Overview, History & Uses,, (last visited Apr. 11, 2024).

[14] Perramond, supra note 12, at 357.

[15] Januarie, supra note 13.

[16] USAID, Mexico–Property Rights and Resource Governance 17 (2017).

[17] Id. at 18 (including the 1992 Agrarian Law and the Regulations of the Agrarian Law on Matters of Organization of Rural Lands, the Expropriation Law, and the Regulations of the Institute for Administration of National Properties).

[18] Id.

[19] Chiapas Support Committee, The Maya Train: The Consultation and the Dispossession (Dec. 19, 2019)

[20] Id.

[21] Louise Morris, ‘A Megaproject of death’: Fury as Maya Train Nears Completion in Mexico, The Guardian (May 23, 2023)

[22] See id.

[23] See id.

[24] Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, Who We Are, (last visited Apr. 25, 2024).

[25] International Rights of Nature Tribunal, History of the Rights of Nature Tribunal, (last visited Apr. 12, 2024) [hereinafter International Rights of Nature Tribunal History].

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] International Rights of Nature Tribunal, Welcome to the International Rights of Nature Tribunal, (last visited Apr. 12, 2024).

[29] Id.

[30] See International Rights of Nature Tribunal History, supra note 23.

[31] See, e.g., Maya Train Megaproject 5 Verdict, International Rights of Nature Tribunal, (“Based on the provisions of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, the Declarations of the United Nations and the Organization of American States on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Convention on Biodiversity, the Escazú Agreement, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals, and the jurisprudence issued by bother the Inter-American Human Rights System and the Universal Human Rights System, as well as the legislation of the United Mexican States . . .”)

[32] See id. at 4-5.

[33] Id. at 5.

[34] Id. at 6.

[35] See, e.g., Five Alarming Land Grabbing Cases, IWGIA (Apr. 19, 2018)