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U.S.-Mexico Environmental Cooperation in Border Region



Cuvelier, Wilson and Young at the Science Diplomacy 2017 session focused on the U.S.-Mexico border | Stephen Waldron/AAAS

Debate about the border wall advocated by President Trump to run along the southern border of the United States has focused on the structure’s security effectiveness and cost, but experts at the AAAS Science Diplomacy 2017 conference described a huge set of interrelated challenges in the region, including multiple environmental concerns that have often been confronted bilaterally.

“Science and technology can play a role in helping us think beyond one issue area at a time and, more importantly, create solutions that are positive across issue areas,” said Christopher Wilson, director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, during a conference session entitled “What’s in a wall? Security, Economics, Human Rights, and Conservation on the U.S.-Mexico Border.”

All three experts provided vivid descriptions of the complexity of the 2,000-mile-long border region, highlighting the environmental challenges that affect both sides related to water resources, animal migration, Native American communities, air quality, health, biodiversity and pollution.

Steve Young, who was previously with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, emphasized the necessity of cross-border, as well as cross-disciplinary, collaboration with regard to addressing the multitude of environmental challenges.

Young, former co-chair of the Border Indicators Task Force for the U.S.-Mexico Border 2012 Border Environmental Program, worked on the environmental concerns of the region spanning the border and extending 100 kilometers north and south. At the AAAS conference, he extolled the rich history of the area, which includes 26 federally recognized Native American nations within the United States, plus indigenous communities within Mexico. Some of the native people have moved back and forth over the current border while “pursuing their normal life ways” for hundreds and even thousands of years, Young said.

He said formal collaboration on environmental issues in the region dates back at least as far as 1983, during the Reagan administration, when bilateral cooperation was called on to assure healthy air quality, develop appropriate management of hazardous and other waste, and control water-borne pathogens.

“I would argue that it’s been a success story,” said Young, “a multi-decade success story of mutual cooperation, technical assistance and financial assistance, and the indicators suggest improvement in a number of areas in spite of all the economic growth that has taken place.”

Such collaboration is especially important, Young said, given climate models for the area, which predict rising temperatures, “megadroughts,” and brief, severe floods. “This is troubling,” Young said. “It means that the border region is going to face a lot of pressure.” 

Charles Cuvelier, who referred to the border wall as “part of a suite of solutions” and who works for the U.S. National Park Service as chief of law enforcement, security and emergency services, said that about 70 countries worldwide have chosen to build border walls.

Cuvelier referred to cross-border fire suppression, water issues and animal migration concerns that would be complicated with the building of a wall. About 1 million acres of the border region are federally protected wildlife areas, he said, and threatened and endangered species include Sonoran pronghorn antelopes, Mexican grey wolves, Gila monsters, ocelots and jaguars. Cuvelier quoted President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who established Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas, and said, “I do not think that this undertaking in the Big Bend will be complete until the entire park area in this region on both sides of the Rio Grande becomes one great international park.”

Referring to the proposed wall, Cuvelier said, “We might end up with a border situation that is not a completely open or a completely closed environment. But how do we best leverage those open and closed opportunities to benefit the United States and potentially our international partners?”

With all three speakers insisting that more and better data related to the complex border situation are necessary, Young expressed hope that science and evidence play a role in the future of the region. “Science can play a role in informing the policymaking and the decision-making, I hope.”

[Associated Image Credit: Alan Levine/Flickr (CCO 1.0)]


Michaela Jarvis

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