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Maya Train risks being derailed in Mexico’s precious biosphere

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A dilapidated shed on a potholed road in the heart of Mexico’s Unesco-protected Calakmul biosphere is an unlikely war room.

But it is from here that the Regional Indigenous and Popular Council of Xpujil (Cripx), a local NGO, has launched a legal battle to stop President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s $7.8bn Maya Train project in its tracks.

Cripx and local farmers are worried about the environmental impact of running diesel engines through the habitat of endangered jaguars in a landscape studded with archaeological treasures. They are facing off against a powerful adversary: the military.

The government has awarded construction contracts for several stretches of the 1,500-km route — including the one through the lush Calakmul biosphere, which is home to the majestic ruins of the same name — to the defence ministry. This month it announced that once complete, the entire Maya Train would belong to the army.

Cristopher Herrera Sarmiento, 35, a vet, discusses the Maya Train with other townspeople in Escárcega, Mexico this month. Like them, his business lies in the path of the train.
Cristopher Herrera Sarmiento, 35, a vet, discusses the Maya Train with other townspeople in Escárcega, Mexico this month. Like them, his business lies in the path of the train. © Benedicte Desrus/FT

“They know that if they’d awarded the stretch here to a private company it would be easy to organise resistance,” said Jesús López Zapata, one of Cripx’s founders, speaking in the shade of a tree behind the tiny office. 

“But not when it’s the army. “We are talking about a confrontation. We don’t want things to get to that point, but if push comes to shove, we’ll have no choice.”

More than a dozen injunctions against the train are making their way through the courts but López Obrador is not easily derailed. He has pledged to visit the project every fortnight if needed to ensure the flagship development and infrastructure project will be finished before he leaves office in 2024, and refuses to believe legal challenges could thwart his plans.

But with court rulings pending, work so far has been confined to tearing up the tracks of an old railway that exist on part of the planned route. New rails will be laid capable of carrying trains running at up to 160km/hour to connect some of the country’s best-known tourist resorts and Maya ruins.

Maya Train workers rip up old rails in the community of La Chiquita in south-east Mexico on March 1.
Maya Train workers rip up old rails in the community of La Chiquita in south-east Mexico on March 1. © Benedicte Desrus/FT

López Obrador says the project will offer tourist, local and cargo services and bring development to the poor south-east where he grew up — a region historically overlooked by Mexican leaders.

But the project is divisive. “I’m a life-long railway man and I would like nothing more than to see passenger railways reborn in Mexico . . . However, from the start, I’ve never thought the Maya Train was a good idea,” Francisco Javier Gorostiza Pérez, a former train boss and ex-government official, told Mexico’s College of Civil Engineers recently.

He said the Maya Train’s expectations of reaching 50,000 passengers a day and 18m a year were pie in the sky — such a figure would be almost as much as China’s Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway, which attracts 20m passengers annually, and nearly double the Eurostar’s 10.4m, he said.

Compared with other tourist trains, the projected passenger figure would be 12 times that of Peru’s Cusco-Machu Picchu service and would far outstrip the 250,000 a year who ride the Swiss Glacier Express, or the 200,000 people travelling on El Chepe through Mexico’s Copper Canyons, the country’s sole surviving passenger service, he added.

lemencia de la Cruz Castellana, 54, and her husband Isaías Vásquez Sánchez, 56, outside the abandoned train station where they are squatting in Escárcega, south-east Mexico, on March 1.
Clemencia de la Cruz Castellana, 54, and her husband Isaías Vásquez Sánchez, 56, outside the abandoned train station where they are squatting in Escárcega, south-east Mexico, on March 1. © Benedicte Desrus/FT

Gorostiza Pérez said the plans needed to be revised and warned that the cost was likely to balloon by 50 per cent.

As for the Maya Train’s impact on some of the world’s most biodiverse regions, he said: “Running high speed trains through biosphere and jungle zones would be a true ecological crime.”

Mexico’s state auditor’s office has also warned about cost overruns, dubious profitability, insufficient consultations with local communities and environmental damage.

But many locals are behind the project. “It was hard for us to take the legal action because lots of people see López Obrador as a saviour and this project as manna from heaven,” acknowledged López Zapata at Cripx.

For Isaías Vásquez Sánchez, employed for 43 years on Mexican railways, “the train will bring back glory”. He has been squatting in the abandoned station at Escárcega, a scruffy traditional rail hub where three Maya Train routes will intersect, since losing his job last August when cargo services stopped so that work on the project could start.

“I hope they’ll give me a job,” he said, leaning on the barbed wire fencing off the future construction site. His wife, Clemencia de la Cruz, is proud to work as a cleaner with the train project. “I’ve never been on a passenger train,” she said. “There are lots of poor people here who will be helped.”

Many shopkeepers in Escárcega also like the prospect. What they object to is the route.

Yosulia Gamboa, whose father was a train worker and mayor of Escárcega, faces a double whammy. The proposed 20m right of way on each side of the track will require buildings to be knocked down and “I’m affected on both sides — on one side is my house and on the other, my clothes shop,” she said.

Jerónima López Hernández (R), 34, a bee-keeper, and her husband, Germán Bartolo Barrios (L), 52, attend to their hives deep in the forest outside the village of Nueva Vida in the Unesco-protected Calakmul biosphere in Campeche, south-east Mexico, on March 2.
Jerónima López Hernández (R), 34, a bee-keeper, and her husband, Germán Bartolo Barrios (L), 52, attend to their hives deep in the forest outside the village of Nueva Vida in the Unesco-protected Calakmul biosphere in Campeche, south-east Mexico, on March 2. © Benedicte Desrus/FT

Maya Train officials say they are in negotiations with residents and that expropriation of land for the train is a last resort they hope to avoid.

Meanwhile, Alejandro Varela, head of legal affairs at Fonatur, the state agency in charge of the Maya Train, said injunctions could not stop them from modernising the lines and despite multiplying legal challenges to the project “we are sure we will win”.

Around Calakmul, however, some local farmers feel their compliance has been bought. Almost everyone is a beneficiary of López Obrador’s tree planting programme, Sowing Life, because it pays an attractive 4,500 pesos ($220) a month.

Like many locals, Germán Bartolo Barrios chopped down the mature, existing trees on the land that he and his wife rent inside the biosphere and replanted it with the scheme’s saplings. “I think Amlo thinks Sowing Life is in exchange for support for the Maya Train,” said his wife, Jerónima López Hernández.

An indigenous Tzeltal beekeeper, she is in the process of securing organic certification for the honey she produces in the middle of the jungle and fears “the train will cause a lot of pollution — a lot”.

Even some tourists were unconvinced. “I wouldn’t take it. It’ll be a natural disaster, I don’t think it’s necessary,” said Iván Paredes, a 43-year-old survival instructor from Barcelona, as he ate his lunch amid the peaceful Xpuhil ruins.

Many fear the train will end up a white elephant. “It’s such a waste of money,” complained one businessman who lives in a state where the train will pass. “I can’t believe we can’t stop it.”



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Toyota faces Thai bribery probe over tax dispute

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Toyota is under investigation in Thailand over allegations that consultants hired by the world’s largest carmaker tried to bribe local officials in a tax dispute, according to Thai authorities, court documents and a person with knowledge of the matter.

The probe followed a filing last month in which Toyota revealed that it had reported “possible anti-bribery violations” related to its Thai subsidiary to the US Department of Justice and Securities Exchange Commission.

Toyota is one of the biggest foreign investors in Thailand, where it makes a large range of cars, vans and pick-up trucks for the local market and for export. The country is Toyota’s biggest manufacturing hub in south-east Asia. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, car sales had been strong in a market, where it has a 31 per cent share.

This month, Thailand’s Court of Justice said in a statement that it would take action against any of its judges found to have taken bribes. The statement, which the court described as a move to “clarify facts” in a news report on a foreign website, directly referenced a tax dispute involving Toyota.

“If the Court of Justice has received information or explicitly found that any judge committed an act of corruption to their duty, whether it is about bribery or not, the Court of Justice will resolutely investigate and punish any action which dishonours judges, undermines the neutrality of the court, or causes society [to] lose faith in the Thai justice system,” it said.

According to the court, the case involved a tax dispute worth Bt10bn ($320m) between Toyota Motor Thailand and tax authorities over imports of parts for its Prius hybrid model. 

The affair dates back to 2015, when Toyota’s Thai subsidiary was accused by local customs authorities of understating taxes by claiming that the imported Prius vehicles were assembled from completely knocked down kits, or imported parts that were later assembled in Thailand.

CKDs would have been subject to a discounted tax rate under a Japanese-Thai free trade agreement, but if the cars were fully assembled before being imported they would have attracted a much higher rate. 

Toyota appealed against a decision by customs authorities to impose a higher duty in 2015, but lost. 

Thailand’s Court of Justice has said that it had accepted a petition to review the case, but had not yet begun hearing it.

In its regulatory filing last month, Toyota warned that the US investigations regarding its Thai subsidiary could result in civil or criminal penalties, but the company has not disclosed any detail on the allegations.

In a statement, Toyota said it was co-operating with the investigations and declined to comment on the tax dispute in Thailand. “We take any allegations of wrongdoing seriously and are committed to ensuring that our business practices comply with all applicable government regulations,” it said.

The SEC and the DOJ declined to comment.



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Boris Johnson cancels India trip after Covid cases surge in country

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UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s trip to India this month has been cancelled as the country battles a new variant and a surge in coronavirus cases that is overwhelming hospitals.

A joint statement by the British and Indian governments said the decision to scrap the visit scheduled for next week was prompted by the “current coronavirus situation”.

The trip, during which Johnson had hoped to discuss the prospects of a closer trading partnership with India, was initially planned to run for four days but had been scaled back. The two leaders will speak remotely instead, with plans to meet in person later this year.

The cancellation came as India’s capital city region has been put under lockdown and authorities have prohibited the use of oxygen except for essential services, as the country battles a surge in coronavirus cases that is overwhelming hospitals.

India continues to set single-day records of coronavirus cases, reporting more than 273,000 new infections and 1,619 deaths on Monday, with the number of new cases growing by an average of 7 per cent a day, one of the fastest rates in any big country.

The surge is believed to be linked to a new B.1.617 variant that was first discovered in the country.

British health officials are investigating whether the variant should be reclassified from a “variant under investigation” to a “variant of concern” following the discovery of 77 cases in the UK.

“To escalate it up the ranking we need to know that it’s increased transmissibility, increased severity, or vaccine-evading, and we just don’t have that yet, but we’re looking at the data on a daily basis”, Dr Susan Hopkins, a senior medical adviser at Public Health England, said on Sunday.

Officials in Delhi announced it would impose a strict lockdown for a week, following Mumbai and other cities that have already placed curbs on movement.

States are running short of beds, drugs and oxygen, leading the central government to restrict use of the gas. “The supply of oxygen for industrial purposes by manufacturers and suppliers is prohibited forthwith from 22/04/2021 till further orders,” the central government said.

Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of Delhi, said “oxygen has become an emergency” in the region because its quota had been diverted to other states. He warned there were “less than 100 ICU beds” available.

The new restrictions have been imposed even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata party have hosted huge political rallies and allowed religious festivals attended by tens of thousands of maskless people in recent weeks.

Amit Shah, India’s home minister, told the Indian Express newspaper that he was “concerned” about the variant and the “surge is mainly because of the new mutants of the virus”. But he was “confident we will win” over the disease and said there was not yet a need to impose a national lockdown.

Bed shortages in India have forced authorities to re-establish emergency coronavirus hospitals in banquet halls, train stations and hotels that had been shut down following the previous peak in September. Crematoriums in the state of Gujarat and Delhi are running 24 hours a day, while cemeteries are running out of burial spaces.

Coronavirus patients have also been struggling to access medicines. More than 800 injections of remdesivir, an antiviral drug commonly used in India as part of Covid-19 treatment, were stolen from a hospital in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, at the weekend.

India is also facing a vaccine supply crunch and has frozen international exports of jabs to meet domestic demand. New Delhi pledged on Friday to increase monthly production of Covaxin, a vaccine made by Indian manufacturer Bharat Biotech, to 100m from 10m by September. The government also said last week that it would fast-track the approval of foreign vaccines in an attempt to boost supply and cleared Russia’s Sputnik V for use in the country.

The majority of the more than 120m Indians that have been vaccinated have received the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab manufactured by Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest manufacturer. The Serum Institute has struggled to increase its monthly capacity of more than 60m doses a month due to a fire at its plant earlier in the year and equipment supply shortages from the US.

Additional reporting by John Burn-Murdoch in London





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The limits of China’s taming of tech

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The record fine handed out this month to Alibaba, the Chinese ecommerce giant, was a welcome step toward combating anti-competitive behaviour. The $2.8bn penalty put Alibaba and other tech companies on notice that creating siloed fiefdoms designed to trap customers and merchants within their ecosystems will not be tolerated.

It was addressing a longstanding problem. Many of China’s ecommerce companies operate “walled gardens” that prevent interactions with rival platforms. For example, Alibaba’s Taobao ecommerce app keeps users from paying for goods using the payment app of rival Tencent. Tencent’s social media app, WeChat, prevents clips from being shared directly from ByteDance’s video-sharing app. 

Last week China’s internet and market regulators signalled the seriousness of their intent. They gave tech companies one month to fix anti-competitive practices, telling them to conduct “comprehensive self-inspections” and “completely rectify” problems, following which they would need to publicly promise to abide by the rules. The aim is create a commercially open and competitive internet.

It is tempting to argue that regulators in the west could take a leaf out of China’s book. But to hold China up as an example of competitive best practice would be to ignore the elephant in the room. Although Beijing is giving its monopolistically-minded internet companies — which are almost all private enterprises — a rap on the knuckles, it shows no sign of applying the same standards to vast swaths of the economy that have been dominated by state-owned giants for decades. 

The market dominance of these behemoths of state capitalism is an issue that affects not only domestic competitors but also foreign multinationals that operate in China. A trenchant joint paper last week from the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, and the Rhodium Group, a consultancy, took aim at the increasingly unfair advantages that this system gives China.

While it is true that China has opened up sectors such as financial services to foreign capital in recent years and allowed foreign brands to win market share in luxury goods and pharmaceuticals, broad sectors of the economy remain fully or partially closed or to overseas investors. 

Often the barriers erected to block or stymie competition are informal. Authorities can deliberately favour domestic companies in public procurement, are more ready to grant approval for licenses, subject foreign firms to arbitrary inspections or require them to re-engineer products to meet idiosyncratic domestic standards.

Such drawbacks are not new. But they are taking on an extra urgency as Chinese companies become leaders in an increasing number of industries and the country’s technological prowess draws level with the US and Europe in a list of industries. The key problem now, says the ECFR/Rhodium report, is that Chinese multinationals are using the advantage of a protected home market to build up resources that they then deploy in competition with western counterparts abroad.

This sets the scene for friction. China should extend its anti-monopolistic scrutiny from its own privately owned internet companies to several state-dominated sectors of its economy, taking care to open to foreign multinationals as much as domestic competitors. If it decides against doing this — as is likely — it will be furnishing Europeans and Americans with ammunition to argue against extending access to Chinese corporations in their own markets.



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