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close this bookCERES No. 119 (FAO Ceres, 1987, 50 p.)
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View the documentConfronting environmental degradation: a problem without borders
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Confronting environmental degradation: a problem without borders

by Fernando Ortiz Monasterio

Nature does not recognize national borders and political ideologies. Capitalism and socialism do not exist for ecosystems, and there are no such things as development and underdevelopment. All there is, is the effect on the environment of these things.

Pressures on the environment have increased gradually, in relation to the predominant style of development adopted all over the globe, with no thought given to differing socio-cultural or ecological factors. Population growth, unequal access to resources, policies for resource use, and modern technology have all served to increase pressures and aggravate environmental problems.

In international border zones, urban sprawl has been accompanied by serious damage to the environment, the result of development. Solid waste is not processed sufficiently, contaminated sewage is pumped into surface and underground water supplies, the urban air becomes more and more polluted, and noise goes well beyond tolerable levels.

This article concerns a unique border zone, the region extending from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, 100 kilometres to the north and to the south of the US-Mexican border (see map). It is the only place in the world where a developed

country shares ecosystems with a developing country. It manifests, therefore, a large variety of the problems and conflicts which arise in both developed and developing countries.

This region is mostly arid. The average rainfall there is less than 300 mm a year, and it contains some of the dryest land in North America.

The predominant soil types in the region are calcic regosol of low or medium fertility and eutric regosol. There is also xerosol, which is easily worked but is subject to erosion. Besides these, there is some lithosol which is of no use for agriculture, and a small amount of finely textured clay vertisol, which is suitable for growing a large variety of crops.

Surface water is scarce. What there is, is used for agriculture, domestic consumption, and industry. The fact that there are very few streams that flow all the year round is immaterial. The Colorado River in the west and the Rio Bravo in the south provide the bulk of the water available for irrigation and development. Development has always relied heavily on underground water reserves, and this is becoming more and more the rule.

A million people cross the border daily. The disparity between the US side, with its high entry level, employment opportunities, services, and infrastructures, contrasts all too sharply with the poverty-stricken Mexican side, to which comparatively few people cross, and which suffers from high unemployment and a lack of health care, education, and other services. But although migration to the Mexican side of the border may be lower than that to the US side, internal migration to this part of Mexico is high, as it attracts Mexicans bound for the north.

Population figures for the cities of Tijuana and Mexicali are a good example. In 1921 they had 1000 and 7 000 inhabitants respectively. In 1940 the populations stood at 17 000 and 19000. By 1970 they were both among Mexico's biggest cities, and by 1980 had over half a million inhabitants.

Similarly, migration toward the US Sunbelt has brought about a rapid growth of human settlements in the southern US.

The region, therefore, is growing as much because of migration from the south as from the north. Recent studies have examined the complex links between population and environment - the appropriation of nature by society. Increased population, or even greater population density, cannot be blamed for increased environmental decay. The expansion in population and production in northern Mexico, however, has given rise to a deterioration in quality of produce, in the environment, and in living standards.

Environmental decay on the border. The development process of the border region between Mexico and the United States may be seen in terms of a huge socio-economic expansion in a fragile ecosystem in which both countries are involved. Bad management of the process has resulted in acute problems at both the local and the international level.

The survival of border ecosystems, with their shared energy sources, water, wind, fauna, pollution, and human population, depends on the coordination of the bordering countries' policies.

It is interesting to note that high living standards, strict controls on environmental pollution, recycling of renewable resources, and other such factors have taken large steps forward in industrialized countries, while creation of more pollution and less efficient exploitation of resources is more common in developing nations. These diverging policy lines are extremely visible in border regions.

The environmental problems found in the border region between Mexico and the United States cover an enormous range - from desertification caused by the cutting of trees for cocking purposes to industrial pollution caused by radioactive byproducts from nuclear bomb construction.

The following list is not exhaustive, but gives a general idea of the type of problems faced by the environment:

1) Water pollution. The scarcity of surface water has meant that water outflow from industry and human settlements has polluted surface water and underground reserves alike. The Rio Bravo washes banks in both Mexico and the United States; it is interesting to note which country suffers most from pollution.

2) Air pollution. The "grey triangle" is in this region. Three huge copper plants, two in Mexico and one in the United States, turn out sulphur dioxide at a rate of 3 300 tons a day. As 6 600 tons of undiluted sulphuric acid are produced in the process, the plants represent the largest sources of acid rain in the Americas. In addition, transport and industry, centred in urban areas, are large sources of pollution.

3) Soil pollution. Thousands of tons of urban and industrial waste are dumped into the soil each day, and they are building up in the ecosystem.

4) Radiation. Since the first atomic bombs were detonated in New Mexico, in the United States, the border strip has constantly been subjected to radiation. The first permanent dump for the by-products of nuclear weapon production is under construction at present; 55 000 cubic metres of toxic matter will be buried about a kilometre beneath the earth. Moreover, the region, which is heavily used by the US military, contains an unknown number of atomic

missiles and would be one of the main targets for warheads of enemies of the United States in the event of a nuclear conflict.

5) Extinction of flora and fauna. Situated to the north of the Tropic of Cancer, this vast region is home to a great variety of animal and plant species. Development has been merciless to nature, and the bison is a case in point.

In 1700, 60 million of these animals, Bison bison, roamed the plains of what is now the southern US and the northern part of the central Mexican plateau. The indigenous inhabitants hunted them for thousands of years without reducing their numbers or threatening them with extinction. Then the Europeans arrived, and by 1900, only a few dozen animals remained. As is obvious with a century's hindsight, lack of respect for nature was to blame. These hunters killed for the sake of killing, often taking only the tongue of their victims to make exotic dishes to satisfy bizarre tastes.

6) Agri-chemical pollution. The well-developed agriculture of the border region is intensive in capital, irrigation, technology, machinery, and agri-chemical products. DDT provides an interesting example of the difference in approach of the two countries to development.

The use of this pesticide has been prohibited in the US since 1972, so all the DDT produced there is exported, some of it going to Mexico. Because of advanced international integration, DDT returns to the United States in three ways: in agricultural produce exported from Mexico to the US; through the environment, especially in water; and, ironically, in barrels of DDT relabeled in Mexico and shipped straight back to the US under other names. Concentration of DDT in milk, water, and the environment in general has constantly increased, despite the 15-year ban.

The uncontrolled use of agrichemicals in Mexicali has poisoned surface and maybe underground water supplies. The Rio Bravo has become a drainage channel for the agri-chemical products of both countries, and many other examples can be found of water pollution caused by the use of agri-chemicals in the two countries.

7) The imbalance between society and nature. Perhaps the most significant effect of the development process is the polarization of a wealthy minority involved in industry, farming, trade, and speculation, and the falling real wages and standard of living of the majority on both sides of the border.

The exploitation by both countries of their shared natural resources has given rise to a corresponding exploitation of the majority by the minority. Although, on a global scale, the region is not particularly poor, the exploitation of resources and lower income groups seems to be leading more and more to the worst form of environmental decay: poverty.

Development in the border region between the United States and Mexico provides a good example of global interdependence of nations. Despite imbalances, the two countries have become dependent on each other to a certain extent.

Environmental diplomacy has achieved significant results in the region. An agreement was signed recently, for example, forbidding cross-border movements of dangerous waste (see box), while an accord on the quality and quantity of shared water resources has been in effect since 1944. With the passage of time, it has become obvious that negotiation is better for both nations than unilateral measures.

An analysis of the present situation and forecasts of future trends shows clearly that development in the region brings the following results:

- an increase in production
- a growth in the population
- an increase in population density
- a spread of urban areas
- an increase in the number of makeshift human settlements
- a fall in standards of accommodation, health care, and sanitation in areas where the immigration rate is low
- an increase in demand for limited natural resources
- an ever greater effect on the environment
- an increase in social problems.

If present trends continue, the prospects for the border region between now and the year 2000 are far from positive. It is essential that harmful programmes affecting these trends be reviewed and renewed. The following measures are suggested for a new approach to the urban phenomenon:

- use of alternative energy sources - water recycling
- private construction of accommodation and services
- awareness of over-use of resources which are already scarce
- reintroduction of traditional technologies and values
- encouragement of popular participation
- information and education on ecodevelopment
- recognition of potential new styles of development.

Prospects for the future of the border region are bleak. This fact must be recognized and acted upon to bring a new environmental order and a rise in living standards on both sides of the border.