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coalitions have seemingly withdrawn their interest (and financial
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
THE BORDER DEFINED
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
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.