Mexico’s conservationists keep fighting the good fight

by Ray Ring

Note: This editor's musing accompanies a main story profiling Sonoran rancher Carlos Robles Elías and a sidebar describing many conservation efforts in Northwest Mexico.

"150 Miles of Hell": That's the scorching headline over a typical story about the U.S.-Mexico border, in the April issue of Men's Journal, a New York City-based monthly with a circulation of more than 700,000. Arizona ranchers and U.S. Border Patrol agents are overwhelmed by the influx of undocumented immigrants and Mexican drug-cartel violence, the story says. A subhead shrieks that ranches have become "killing fields" in "the most lawless place in America."

Other U.S. news operations have covered the border's troubles with similar language and bloody details. High Country News ran a staccato 2010 cover story by Charles Bowden headlined "The War Next Door." Bowden wrote: "This weekend, over 40 people were murdered in Juarez. ... A double amputee was shot in the head. ... Another man was found with his severed head on his chest."

This blast of bad publicity has lasted several years now and defines our southern neighbor in the minds of many people. And yet there's a lot more going on in Mexico, including some good-news stories about the dedicated conservationists working there.

In this issue's cover story, veteran reporter Tony Davis, based in Tucson, Ariz., profiles a rancher, Carlos Robles Elías, in Sonora, a Mexican border state. Robles is working hard to provide habitat for jaguars, ocelots, hundreds of species of birds and other wildlife. A detailed foldout map -- created with the help of Talli Nauman, a U.S. journalist who has covered Mexico's environment for more than 15 years -- notes other efforts to protect the country's biodiversity and restore watersheds degraded by unsustainable grazing, logging and desert farming.

Our focus is Northwest Mexico, because that region is an ecological partner with the U.S. West.  Habitat and migration corridors for a huge variety of creatures straddle the border. Northwest Mexico is a tremendous reserve of biodiversity, with two major deserts (Sonoran and Chihuahuan), many mountain ranges, and the marine habitat of the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean.

Our stories describe some of the ways in which Mexico's conservation movement resembles the movement in the U.S. Both began in the early 1900s and have surged since the 1970s in response to environmental crises. We also point out key differences; Mexico, for instance, has less public land, so it relies even more on the efforts of ranchers to protect habitat. So Mexico could serve as a model for conservationists working with the private sector -- except that its system remains hampered by a lack of funds and other problems, including the cartel violence.

But there's some encouraging news as we go to press: Both houses of Mexico's Congress just passed versions of a law that limits climate change-causing emissions, and sets a goal of generating 35 percent of Mexico's electricity with renewable energy by 2024 -- actions that the U.S. Congress has refused to take. Conservationists working in Mexico should be proud: Despite incredible challenges, they are making headway in a nonviolent war to save the planet.

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