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for people who care about the West

Border doesn't block dirty air and water

  Because much of the U.S.-Mexico border is already considered a "free trade" zone, additional impacts due to the North American Free Trade Agreement are hard to gauge.


U.S. and Mexican environmentalists had hoped NAFTA would help their communities by strengthening regulations and forging new agreements on natural resources. But by the time NAFTA was approved by Congress on Nov. 17, environmental negotiations were largely scrapped.


"Natural resource issues were exempted from the NAFTA side agreements," says Dick Kamp of the Border Ecology Project in Bisbee, Ariz. The Canadian, Mexican and U.S. governments will establish a North American commission to hear grievances on such topics as "chronic pollution," says Kamp. But the commission will not deal with deforestation, loss of indigenous lands, overfishing and land impacts caused by grazing and mining.


Those are the very activities expected to increase in northern Mexico as a result of liberalized trade and the new infusion of development funds provided by the World Bank.


"We know the World Bank is pushing this kind of resource exploitation. What we don't know yet is whether any environmental regulations will be enforced," Kamp adds.


Mexico recently passed a sweeping environmental law called the Law of Ecological Equilibrium. It requires that projects prepare an environmental impact statement, and suggests in very general terms that any environmental damage should be mitigated, says Tucson ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan. "But the law is so new that there are essentially no standards for what is or is not acceptable. It's basically bogus."


Much of what happens in Mexico ultimately affects the United States. For example, buffel grass, recently planted on 5 million acres as range improvement for cattle, has escaped across the border. The grass has changed the fire regime in parts of the Sonoran Desert and choked out native species, according to Alberto Burquez, a Mexican ecologist at the Centro de Ecologia in Hermosillo. Pesticides and the depletion of groundwater also affect the United States.


This country is hardly innocent; the Colorado River, once a critical source of drinking and irrigation water in northern Mexico, now dries up long before it reaches the Sea of Cortez. Reservoirs in Colorado and Arizona are partly responsible for the decline of fisheries in the Gulf.


In places where free trade is booming, the environment is not. Already, numerous United States-owned factories, known as maquiladoras, exist across the Rio Grande and just south of Arizona in such towns as Nogales, Sonora. There, more than 90 factories, many of them run by U.S. electronics and plastics firms, have been built since 1967.


The Nogales Wash, which flows between Nogales, Sonora, and Nogales, Ariz., carries large amounts of volatile organic compounds.


In 1990, its load of fecal coliform bacteria was 16 million times greater than what the United States allows, according to the National Catholic Reporter. The paper also reported that human cancer and lupus levels on the United States side of town are five times the national average. With 700 trucks crossing the border each day, air pollution is also a major problem.


A report prepared last fall for the Environmental Protection Agency by the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at the University of Arizona, concluded: "The border is currently in a crisis situation where much more significant funding has to be provided in the immediate future."


The report recommended quick clean-up action, the collection of air and water quality data, and the establishment of ecosystem protection regulations. For his part, Arizona Gov. Fife Symington recently created a Border Health Issues Task Force he promises will address concerns in Nogales.


But environmentalists on both sides of the border are tired of waiting for rescue from the government. Four bi-national grass-roots councils have recently formed specifically to work on health and environmental issues.


"Basically, as a result of NAFTA, we're still working in our traditional manner," says Kamp. "We're forging allies across the border, writing letters. We're stuck with local efforts." Those efforts can work; last year, plans for a coal-fired power plant in Chihuahua, Mexico, were abandoned after studies showed it would degrade air quality in Big Bend National Park.


The Tohono O'odham tribe is also taking matters into its own hands. Because NAFTA is expected to broaden major highways across the border, the reservation will likely see an increase in hazardous waste shipments into new Mexican waste facilities. Weaknesses in NAFTA have forced the tribe to come up with its own policies.


"We're currently drafting regulations for the transport of hazardous waste through the reservation," says O'odham official Floyd Flores.


The good news about NAFTA is that it's encouraging local trans-border communication, says Helen Ingram, director of the University of Arizona's Udall Center. If NAFTA had failed to pass, it might have created a "bitter pill" for such negotiation.


"NAFTA is an opportunity to reinforce and strengthen grass-roots ties and linkages," she says. "Now is our chance to reinvent the border."


For more information, contact the Border Ecology Project, P.O. Drawer CP, Bisbee, AZ 85603 (602/432-7456).


* Florence Williams