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Digesting Borderland Environmental News
por Ron Mader

Tradución en español


This article was presented at a conference in August 1997.

When it chooses to cover the U.S.-Mexico border, the majority of both U.S. and Mexican press accounts portray the border as a sharp dividing line, with one set of issues in the United States and another in Mexico.

The reality is that the borderlands fuse cultures, politics and the environment. Biodiversity, air pollution and ground water issues freely cross the border. Journalists who identify the success and failure of policies that require cross-border cooperation offer readers keen insights in developing and fostering successful conservation or development strategies.

However, the sad truth is that borderland reporting is not a priority for most newspapers and environmental reporting less so. Reporters who want to see their name in print will find the most sensationalist story to cover or they find another beat.

If we want to see an improvement in borderland environmental coverage and if newspaper editors refuse to provide space for border coverage, then alternative channels of communication should be used. This idea - the creation of a digest of environmental reporting - will be explored in greater depth.


During the heated debates over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1992 and 1993, coalitions of U.S., Mexican and Canadian groups fought bitterly in Washington, D.C. and Mexico City over the perceived consequences of the treaty on the U.S.-Mexico border environment. However, now that the treaty is in effect, many of the bi- and tri-national coalitions have seemingly withdrawn their interest (and financial resources).

For example, in the United States, during the NAFTA debates, environmental group Sierra Club offered criticism of how trade negatively impacts already taxed environmental infrastructure. Consequently, their studied fueled a demand to create an environmental fund - what later evolved into the North American Development (NAD)Bank. However, once the NAFTA was approved by the U.S. Congress, the national Sierra Club did not stick around to check out environmental management. In fact, in its review of North American bioregions, it ignores most of Mexico! In 1994, the club instead chose to move on and lobby against the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

Likewise, pro-NAFTA groups such as the World Wildlife Fund and the National Wildlife Federation have maintained little interest the border since 1994. Only the Environmental Defense Fund maintained its border office in Texas. What can explain how one of the top NAFTA issues dropped off the radar screen three years later?

Environmental groups do not operate in a vacuum. Long ignored, the border became a major story in 1992 as the U.S. media and public discovered Mexico and the borderlands. Congressional visits touring border shantytowns and toxic dumps became a staple of the U.S. media diet. Mexican newspapers also paid greater attention to the border.

In a self-perpetuating cycle, as politicians focused their energies on the borderlands, the media beefed up its coverage, foundations offered new funds for research and projects, environmental groups jumped onto the bandwagon and the media covered their efforts. The border was given priority coverage in 1992-1993. This circle was broken, ironically, when NAFTA took place on January 1, 1994.

It's worth noting that the most noticeable division within U.S. environmental groups is the national/regional dichotomy. For Washington, D.C.-headquartered organizations, the border was a just another case study of the changing global environment. For border-based groups, the border was obviously home. Local groups in both the U.S. and Mexico won new found recognition - both from media and governmental actors. Having performed their work in a relative isolation, leaders from Arizona's Border Ecology Project, the Environmental Commitee of the San Diego-Tijuana Region and the Nuevo Leon's Bioconservacion, now became recognized experts in the national and international press.

The blast of attention was, however, short-lived. Mainstream reporting returned to immigration and drug stories that perhaps correctly but stereotypically dominate the public perception of the border. Perhaps infrastructure problems or green conservation issues simply aren't "sexy" enough - to use newspaper jargon. And perhaps it is impossible to fend off the damning perception that as the edge of both nations, the border is, in fact, at the periphery of two cultures and unworthy of sustained attention.


Most would argue that the definition of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands in the 1983 U.S.-Mexico La Paz Agreement - 100 kilometers on either side of the official designation - does a poor job of adequately describing the environmental, political or cultural sphere that describes this region.

In creating a plan to map the borderlands via a Geographic Information System (GIS), officials tend to want to explore the natural connections - using shared airsheds, watersheds and common species as the guideposts in mapping this new terrain.

Unfortunately, there are few plans to take such an ambitious binational, bi-coastal approach. Most universities and research institutions deem to look only at isolated windows on the border. This is paralleled in media. The El Paso Times will report on Ciudad Juárez, but it is rarely interested in Brownsville/Matamoros or San Diego/Tijuana. Its "Across the Borderlands" section does not cover Mexico, but New Mexico.

State agencies such as the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) are authorized to work with other states that border Texas. So while they are developing relations and cross-border environmental monitoring programs with the state of Tamaulipas or Coahuila, they are not working with Baja California. Likewise, state universities have a bond with their surround area. These are understandable limitations. What is questionable is why there so few attempts to address the border as an entity - north and south and east and west.

The binational, federal agenda was set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Mexico's Environmental Secretariat (SEDUE, then SEDESOL, now SEMARNAP) that fashioned the Integrated Border Environmental Plan (IBEP) in 1992. With notable lack of input from border communities, the plan was derided by local groups on both sides of the border. The current Border 2000 plan was borne out of growing pains.

One of the most tenacious plans that attempts to discuss the border is the Transboundary Resource Inventory Project, aptly abbreviated as TRIP. An idea fostered by the Texas General Land Office, it will take time to see whether the loose partnership of 10 U.S. and four Mexican universities, as well as the U.S. Geological Service and Mexico's National Institute of Statistics (INEGI) actually forges a successful bond. But currently, this is the only attempt to look at the shared borderlands from coast to coast.

In 1994 the University of California press issued Two Eagles: The Natural World of the United States - Mexico Borderlands, a wonderful book by Tupper Ansel Blake and Peter Steinhart. This volume illustrates both the physical beauty and policy implications of borderland conservation. The research was funded by The Nature Conservancy, a conservation group which has projects in both Mexico and the United States, but rarely discusses them in public forums.


There are several problems with traditional border environmental coverage. First, the market is small and seems to be drying up. The market that does exist pigeon-holes stories in one of two fashions - 1) Great strides are being made or 2) All hell is breaking lose. The "progressive" magazines run toxic ravine and health risk stories, but rarely any positive stories. On the other hand, business magazines love Happy Maquiladora stories. Mainstream reporting fares no better in my mind. The border seems so far away from the state capitals in Austin and Phoenix - let alone Mexico City and Washington, D.C. that the daily papers rarely cover the region, except in times of crisis. Wire agencies seemed more interested in where story was coming from - from which side of the border. There is Mexican border coverage and U.S. Mexican border coverage, further divided by state. There is no "border" section of the wire services, and consequently few attempts to investigate or synethize trends within the region.


In the middle of 1994 I created an online archive of border materials I'd written for Mexican Environmental Business, Texas Environmental News and El Financiero International. As a freelance writer, it was in my interest to let people know of my specialized interest. Posting my own materials on the web led to inquiries and volunteered information that I was able to use to begin the research for future stories. I also thought that it was good karma to share information that otherwise would be distributed to a few hundred business subscribers and then forgotten.

This archive was beefed up a year later with bibliographies, contact lists and links to government, academic, environmental group and personal pages. Together, these pages make up the Borderland Environmental Archives, a pioneering site that has been a useful resource for journalists, policy-makers and borderland residents.


If we would like to see more up-to-date information on the border environment that features quality journalism, what we need is to create a Border Environmental News Digest. I would stress that instead of creating new jobs for journalists, we should pay respect to the journalists who are now covering this topic.

Mainstream media must be encouraged to cover more borderland stories. It's fine to create an electronic archive, but that may only serve to ghettoize the subject more. Linking internet access and traditional journalism seems to make more sense.


Ron Mader is the ecotourism and responsible travel correspondent for Transitions Abroad and host of the award-winning website.


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