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Poverty in Southeastern Mexico
In Mexico, a 900-plus-mile rail project called El Tren Maya (the Mayan Train) brings hope for reduced poverty in the country. The railway, estimated to cost $6.5 billion at the time of the announcement of the project in 2019, will run through five states in Southeastern Mexico and connect everything between Cancún and the Mayan archaeological site at Palenque. Since 2019, the project has been met with both support and concern: while many praise its ability to create jobs, increase tourism and alleviate poverty in Southeastern Mexico, others have questioned its potential impacts on the region’s rural and Indigenous communities.

The Mayan Train Project

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador proposed the Mayan Train project shortly after his inauguration in 2018, stating that it would be “an act of justice” for the country’s poverty-stricken southeastern states. In 2020, the World Bank reported that almost 44% of the country lived under the national poverty line.

Mexico’s poorest states are located in the south of the country. According to the London School of Economics and Political Science, Chiapas, Guerrero and Oaxaca stand as the poorest states — official 2016 poverty data from CONEVAL indicates that about 71% of people across these three states endured poverty, which is significantly higher than the national average of 44%.

López Obrador is not the first Mexican President to take an interest in improving the country’s railroad infrastructure. In 2012, former President Enrique Peña Nieto aimed to construct a railway connecting Cancún to Mérida, but budget cuts halted the project.

Initial funding for the Mayan Train project came from Mexico’s National Fund for the Promotion of Tourism (FONATUR), which issued a €1 billion contract to a consortium of companies in 2021. The project consists of several phases, with plans to both incorporate existing tracks and build new ones. FONATUR has pledged to use federal land for all new construction. In a November 2019 public referendum, 89.9% of the Mexican voters who participated voted in favor of the project.

Project Positives

Those working on the project have estimated that the train will serve 8,000 passengers a day and will attract 3 million people in its initial years of operation. Alstom Transport Mexico, one of the companies involved in the construction, anticipates that the project will immediately generate more than 11,000 jobs and “boost economic growth in the southeast.”

A U.N.-Habitat analysis of the Mayan Train’s larger potential impact concluded that the project would ultimately generate some 945,000 new jobs in the region while enhancing access to education and the labor market. This would help to reduce poverty in Southeastern Mexico and Mexico as a whole, where the unemployment rate stood at 2.9% (more than a million people) in January 2023 and nearly 4 million people lived in poverty in 2020.

Concerns among Indigenous Communities

Despite the project’s projected ability to alleviate unemployment and poverty in Southeastern Mexico, there are some concerns, specifically among Mexico’s Indigenous communities. In 2020, 69.5% of Mexico’s Indigenous population lived in poverty, mainly in the country’s southern states. In 2020, the Mayan communities of Campeche issued a petition, signed by 268,000 people, to the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources requesting the suspension of the Mayan Train project.

Members of the Regional Indigenous Council of Xpujil stated that the communities did not receive “timely and sufficient information to give their consent” to the construction. Their concerns centered on the environmental impact of the Mayan Train project and its potential threat to the conservation of sacred lands. Indigenous communities have also expressed concern that the project will only benefit tourists and the wealthy.

Looking Ahead

Addressing these concerns, the U.N. estimates that 46% of the nearly 1 million jobs generated by the Mayan Train will benefit Indigenous peoples. FONATUR and U.N.-Habitat have also collaborated to develop a set of urban planning and design guidelines aimed at ensuring environmental responsibility, social inclusion and equitable benefit across the region’s communities.

A sign of progress and hope for Southeastern Mexico, construction of the Mayan Train resumed in late 2022, with plans for the first segment of the railroad to begin operating in December 2023.

Audrey Gaines
Photo: Flickr

Slums of Africa

Slums of Africa such as Nima, Kroo Bay, Kibera and others collectively house more than 60 percent of the urbanized population who continue to live in absolute poverty.

Moreover, countries like Egypt, Somalia and Libya have become the epicenter of turbulence over the years with extremist organizations gaining momentum. As a result, many families have had to flee in search of better conditions, but what they find is far from satisfactory.

According to a statement by Newsvision, South Africa in particular has failed to cope with the pressure of rural to urban migration. This problem can lead to adverse effects on economically active individuals in Africa.

An analysis conducted by Newcastle University in 17 government schools in Tanzania has highlighted that many gifted children living in the slums of Africa are unable to reach their full potential.

However, over the years individuals like Brian Mutebi have made the futures of thousands of schoolgirls secure. His campaign ‘Let Girls Be’ provides opportunities such as scholarships and training.

This past May, U.N. Habitat released the ‘World Cities Report.’ This accentuates their New Urban Agenda, a spearhead for many social and economic developments in major developing countries, to be adopted by October.

U.N. Habitat has also become active in relocating countless refugees in South Sudan in their initiative ‘Housing for Peace.’ They have been victims of slavery and abuse, and living in the camps and slums has only aggravated this further.

Additionally, the international relations that have been fostered by countries in East Africa have lead to the forging of a steadfast bond with South Korea.

President Park Geun-hye’s recent visit coincided with the provision of numerous aid programs in the form of health, hygiene and education services to various slums of Africa by the Korean International Cooperative Agency (KOICA). Not only will this initiative strengthen the flow of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) between the countries, but it is also a symbol of cooperation and diplomacy.

The Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLR) has engaged in a number of land and rural reform programs to ensure that rural South Africans benefit from the same human rights as anybody else. These reforms center around such items as de-racialisation of the rural economy and fair, equal-opportunity land allocation.

Finally, the World Bank has supported the improvement of feeding programs in Sub-Saharan countries. As governments and people come to realize the importance of self-sufficiency, the chance to alleviate absolute poverty in the slums of Africa becomes a hopeful possibility.

Shivani Ekkanath

Photo: Flickr