Borderline Hope

It faces long odds, but Corredor Colibrí (Hummingbird Corridor) offers an opportunity to preserve wildlife and boost the Mexican economy.

A crisp desert wind whips around the small Mexican lake called Villa Verde. It raises white ripples on the water, shuffles loose brush along the rumpled shoreline and sends a stand of melancholy willow into whispering among themselves.

And it's here that caretaker Oscar Gastellum saw an eagle last winter, the first in his life. Something to remember.

Today, Juan Caicedo and Jennie Duberstein stand atop a hill, looking down upon Villa Verde and the landscape they hope to transform into a rich wildlife haven, on this ranchland a few minutes south from the border town of Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico.

Like many Americans who have trooped into Mexico with a grab-bag of green dreams, they face plenty of hurdles. For an encyclopedia of reasons dating back to the Gadsden Purchase, folks down this way don't much appreciate Yanks blowing across the line and telling them how to live, an habitual anger only hardened by vulgar poverty in the very shadows of America.

These naturalists have worked particularly hard at overcoming such resentments. Since last year, they've made almost daily pilgrimages here and to the nearby hamlet of Cuauhtémoc, working with villagers and ranchers to develop industries--from basketry to ecotourism--that are nature-friendly and put food on the table.

Young and tireless, they are the new faces of cross-border environmentalism, part of a widening activist network that just may change the way change happens in northern Mexico.

But right now, their faces are red from the course wind, as Caicedo explains what it is they are trying to preserve, namely the land. The importance of this region as a wildlife corridor is beyond dispute, feeding as it does into southern Arizona's San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, a lush 40-mile remnant of the river network that once snaked throughout the Southwest.

While the river in Arizona faces a steady assault from mushrooming Sierra Vista, the Mexican stretch of the San Pedro is impacted by overgrazing, pollution and despair.

"Compared to the U.S., there is a lot less attention and far less resources focused on conservation on the Mexican side," Caicedo says. "There are also about 40 miles of the San Pedro River on this side, and they haven't gotten the attention they deserve."

Begun last year, their ambitious Corredor Colibrí project (Hummingbird Corridor in Spanish) is a bit of a misnomer, since most experts agree that this area south of the line isn't in itself prime hummingbird habitat.

Still, the pair has hopes of building a patchwork of hummingbird gardens. They're also trying to convince folks around here that it's possible to make a living and preserve the land.

Caicedo and Duberstein's project draws on the expertise of the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory (SABO), based in nearby Bisbee. The observatory is focused on conservation of, and education about, prime riparian habitats. To this end, SABO conducts hummingbird banding at the San Pedro conservation area and brings tour groups down to the Villa Verde and another important birding area to the west called Cuitaca, where a stream crossing is shaded by tall cottonwoods.

The groups have sparked a growing ecotourism effort here, which provides fees for ranchers to preserve their land for birds, and even raises money for local families who help prepare meals for visitors.

"Nature-based tourism is very important in these border regions," says Sheri Williamson, a SABO naturalist and author of Hummingbirds of North America. "Just across the border is a land of tremendous poverty where even a few dollars brought in by tourists could make a huge difference. And the one tourist resource that these communities have is migrating birds."

This strategy is working, in increments. The ranchers who own Villa Verde are firmly on board, and others have shown a willingness to at least listen. Caicedo stresses that the project isn't about ridding the land of cattle, but just providing incentives for wiser range management.

They're also spreading the gospel that wildlife matters. "When we go to Cuauhtémoc, all the kids will run up to us and say, 'We saw this bird, we saw that bird,'" Duberstein says.

"Last week we were at the village, and one of the kids had a science book with all kinds of birds and wildlife. I found myself sitting there with about 10 kids, various nieces and nephews and neighbors, and they were just entranced. Then it makes me feel better when we can look up in the air and see what that bird actually looks like."

Lest this ring with a hint of neocolonialism, or seem an imponderable longshot--land preservation in a place where dodging poverty remains the biggest game in town--Caicedo and Duberstein avoid the righteousness that could doom their project, as it has so many others.

Then there's the fact that Oscar Gastellum saw an eagle, floating like an good omen over Villa Verde. He now stands inside his little whitewashed Cuauhtémoc home, surrounded by skittering, laughing children. Rangy and soft-spoken, he sticks his hands in his pockets and glances down at his boots.

But his eyes dance when he remembers spotting the big bird last winter. "It was beautiful," he says, and a calloused hand leaps out of the pocket, for emphasis. "Later, I even started seeing ducks over there too."

This, he says, is a remarkable thing.

Remarkable or not, many conservation movements have gained steam in the Mexican borderlands, typically over a particular pollution crisis or a teetering species. And just as often, those movements have petered out in a flurry of blustering egos, cultural missteps and cash shortages.

Nor have governments been of much help. Nearly a decade after the North American Free Trade Agreement--along with a bevy of ecological side agreements--was ratified by Canada, the United States and Mexico, critics say the side accords have amounted to much rhetoric, a bevy of meetings and little else.

Into this vacuum have stepped environmental factions including The Nature Conservancy, Border Ecology Project, Defenders of Wildlife, Wildlands Project, Sierra Club and World Wildlife Fund, along with institutions such as the University of Arizona-based Udall Center and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Working hand-in-hand with Mexican officials and activists, they're addressing everything from pollution controls to habitat restoration.

They travel south of the border, armed with expertise and much-needed resources.

The Wildlands Project aims to create a continent-wide system of connected conservation reserves and has a full slate of activities in Mexico, says Kim Vacariu, the Southwest representative.

"For example, a couple of years ago we protected several thousands of acres south of the border at the ejido of Cebadillas." In all, 6,000 acres of old growth forest was preserved, the first agreement of its kind in Mexico, he says.

"In that project, we cooperated with two big Mexican conservation groups, Naturalia and Pronatura. We also have full-time Wildlands Project staff in Chihuahua, and we've identified quite a number of priority conservation areas in the northern Sierra Madre (mountains). We're going to use those for the basis of a future wildlands network there.

According to Vacariu, a recent jaguar sighting in southern Arizona only highlights the need for increased binational cooperation. "This has suddenly made it very clear, to a lot of people who might have been sort of confused or not in the science of corridors, that a jaguar is up here simply because there's an undisturbed corridor between here and protected parts of the Sierra Madre--right in the middle of the (Sierra Madre) sky islands/wildlands network that we're working on."

He says the level of cooperation between American and Mexican environmental groups "is growing steadily, almost daily. There are constantly new initiatives coming to the surface."

Still, the group is careful to not export the wrong attitude. "I don't think you can say we take the lead on projects," he says. "We may provide the impetus, and we often will assist with funding. But it's really an arm-in-arm cooperative deal. We're as aware as anybody that large American-based conservation groups cannot just stroll into Mexico, and expect to make progress, with without really partnering with Mexican conservation groups.

"The Mexican conservation community is pretty progressive--in a lot of ways as much if not more so than U.S. groups," he continues. "From that point, you would expect the sensitivity to be less, that they would be past this squabbling about where the power is based, and say 'Lets just work together to protect nature.' They understand that. But generally speaking, they still are influenced by the general sociological impressions of how Mexico and the United States work or do not work together in a lot of areas."

This need for a soft touch isn't lost on Defenders of Wildlife either: the group is "just finishing a series of feasibility studies for wolf reintroduction in Mexico, where we used two Mexican researchers, and coordinated that effort with Naturalia," says Southwest Representative Craig Miller.

Through the wolf program, Defenders is also "providing opportunities for Mexican biologists to join the program and work on the field team, and then transfer that experience to Mexico and help prepare for recovery planning there. We're also working with several large landowners in Mexico in preparation for wolf conservation projects. One of those landowners currently has 22 Mexican wolves on a private ranch."

Like Vacariu, Miller says the cross-border cooperation is gaining momentum--and none too soon. Until recently, many "vast wild areas were relatively undisturbed. But with increasing human population, urbanization and industrialization on the border, we're seeing an acceleration of threats. Coupled with that is the intensification of defense and border security measures."

Perhaps most striking, many environmentalists are feeling more welcome in Mexico under President Vincente Fox than here at home, Miller says. "We have to choose our issues carefully, and I think opportunities to make significant conservation advances are greater south of the border than they currently are with the Bush administration."

Others aren't so sure. "I'm always the cynic," says Dick Kamp, director of the Bisbee-based Border Ecology Project. "But I think the degree of collaboration depends upon what it's collaboration for.

"For example, The Nature Conservancy is looking for lands they can use as a buffer on the (lower) San Pedro," he says, where they must work with a mix of locals--some legitimate, some shady. "You've got narco interests who don't want you fucking with their attempts to grow pot, or the conduits where they carry dope out of fields in the mountains and run them down some of the more common corridors, which include the San Pedro. And the legit folks--the small miners and small ranchers--haven't really been given guarantees yet that they can go on making a livelihood, unless someone helps them prove it.

"You've also got the belief, which I think is somewhat justified, that there are movements between the Wildlands Project and TNC to try and seize land, for American interests and American protection, that puts limits on Mexican economic uses. I think the paranoia over the fact it's probably U.S. driven ... is true. When you have cross-border cooperation, there is always a lot of suspicion."

Case in point: according to reports, at recent meetings concerning the development of ecotourism around the San Pedro in Mexico, some ranchers have raised a stink over environmentalists making inroads. This, some observers say, has hampered the project's momentum.

Meanwhile, there's been little momentum at all on a government-to-government level: under the business-driven NAFTA accords, the environment has taken a firm back seat to economic development. This has become painfully obvious with regards to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), created to monitor pollution and wildlife impacts of the agreement.

Until recently, the CEC has appeared a mostly moribund body. And given little enforcement power, even when it barks there's little bite.

Not that the Montreal-based group hasn't shown genuine concern over environmental degradation: earlier this month, CEC Executive Director Janine Ferretti announced progress towards eradicating use of the deadly pesticide DDT among member countries. To date, Mexico has received $780,000 under the program, and reduced DDT spraying by 80 percent in four years, Ferretti said.

In December, the commission also pushed for hearings regarding a molybdenum refinery in the tiny town of Cumpas, about two hours drive south of Douglas. Despite endless complaints by residents, the plant continues spewing toxic chemicals over the community, allegedly causing numerous birth defects and raising environmental havoc. (see "Toxic Tower," Tucson Weekly, March 23, 2000).

The CEC will consider arguments that Mexico has failed to enforce its own environmental laws with regards to the plant, which is owned by Molymet, a Chilean-based multinational with a dismal pollution record.

Still, these advances seem like drops in the international bucket when so many other environmental issues have gone unaddressed. Even the CEC noted this bleak reality, in a devastating report released in early January. Called "The North American Mosaic," it blames human activity and pollution for "widespread crisis not confined to any one country or region."

"North America's diminishing biological diversity has profound consequences," the report says. "Because the loss is irreversible--species that are lost are lost forever--the potential impact on the human condition, on the fabric of the continent's living systems and on the process of evolution is immense."

Meanwhile, the CEC's lack of enforcement power was highlighted when it became hamstrung over a defunct Tijuana battery plant that had become a hazardous waste nightmare. The commission did issue a report, but didn't single out culprits or offer a clean-up plan, one frustrated environmental activist told the Los Angeles Times.

"We've exhausted all the venues--all possible venues for the cleanup," said Cesar Luna, an attorney for the San Diego based Environmental Health Coalition. "Now we have independent recognition ... that this poses harm. But it's a toothless report."

However, according to Carla Sbert, legal officer for the CEC, the report wasn't about rendering "judgment on whether a party has failed to comply with its obligations. The purpose is to shed light on all the aspects of an issue."

Mark Spalding participated in the negotiations creating NAFTA's environmental accords. The University of California environmental law teacher said the Tijuana snafu illustrates the trade agreement's shortcomings. Critics are "absolutely right that this institution is lacking in teeth," he told the Times. "But it is the result of politics."

Similar politics are also at work closer to home, where international sensitivities delayed the release of a binational air quality study pinpointing pollution sources in Nogales, Sonora. And officials on this side of the border have long been bedeviled by pollution coursing northward through the Nogales Wash into Arizona, and wildcat dump fires in Sonora that sully the air on both sides of the line.

In addition, American-owned assembly plants--or maquiladoras--in Mexico are required to return hazardous byproducts to the United States. But this provision has been laxly enforced. In their "Annual Reviews of Energy and the Environment" report in 1999, independent researchers Diana Liverman, Robert Varady, Octavio Chávez and Roberto Sánchez labeled "industrial plants, especially maquilas" as a "significant source of hazardous wastes in the border region." The review also cited "neurotoxic and respiratory symptoms in workers exposed to solvents, dusts and glazes in the workplace.

"Water sampling," the report continues, "has revealed high levels of toxic substances such as volatile organic compounds and heavy metals, in rivers and wells downstream of industrial facilities in Nogales ..."

After much foot-dragging, the binational air quality report was finally released. And cross-border information flows in Nogales are getting better, says Ben Stepleton, director of the Santa Cruz County Health Department. "In general, things have improved. But unfortunately, oftentimes it's the same old game."

Still, "I think (Mexican officials) are a little more open," Stepleton says. "There's a project that they're working on to actually start exchanging public health information, to start putting it up on a web site and making it public, so that health people on both sides of the border will have better communication and information."

Attempts to contact Stepleton's counterparts in Sonora were unsuccessful. But in an earlier interview, Mayor Abraham Zaied of Nogales, Sonora, said blaming his city for the region's countless environmental problems was unfair. "U.S. officials are always talking about problems in Mexico," he told this reporter. "If they say we're hurting them, then they should help us. They have so many more (resources) than we do."

Nor did Zaied place much faith in the free-trade agreement's ability to address Mexico's environmental quagmire. "NAFTA is made for the U.S., and is arranged for their problems," he said. "It is always on their terms. It allows the U.S. a new market of 90 million people, and I don't think we'll get much out of it."

Free-trade critics on this side of the border agree, saying industrialization under the agreement has only exacerbated border problems. Among their targets has been Border XXI, a NAFTA-ordained series of meetings spearheaded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Under its umbrella, concerned citizens were to meet in communities along the U.S.-Mexico line "to identify environmental needs, quantify resource requirements, delineate possible sources of financing and allocate resources for specific projects which address these needs, in a sustainable and viable manner for the border region," according to the organization's draft documents.

Border XXI's mandate ended two years ago, with precious little concrete progress to show. Still, the project did open the door to what may become a better cross-border environmental approach, says Placido Dos Santos, border environmental manager for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. "What's happened is that the more local or regional efforts that were implemented under Border XXI have continued," he says. "For example, every three or four months there's a hazardous waste and enforcement meeting that happens among officials here in Arizona, the EPA, and our Mexican counterparts. That continues to happen.

"So, while some things have lapsed, the local and regional initiatives--which frankly are the more meaningful ones--those have continued."

Marion Paton doesn't necessarily give a hoot about collaborative meetings, regional efforts or binational programs. But she does enjoy the true fruits of cross-border environmentalism--one presently flitting about her head in startling shades of scarlet, green and black.

Ribbons of sunlight weave through surrounding oak trees and glance off the shimmering rufous hummingbird as he dive-bombs a feeder, at Paton's backyard sanctuary in the town of Patagonia, some 20 miles north of Nogales.

"There he goes," says the elfish retiree, almost rivaling the zest of her charges. "He's a hungry one!"

Soon, he's joined by an army of minute competitors. "They've already gone through six quarts of sugar water since six o'clock this morning," she says. "But I call it a labor of love."

From spring to fall, up to 15 hummingbird species visit this region. There's the irascible rufous, reddish-orange throat flashing as it enjoys a nectar breakfast. Or the broad-billed, racing by in a flurry of blues and greens. A tiny Anna's hummingbird chases behind, black eyes fierce beneath an iridescent, crimson forehead.

Many hummers are just passing through, en route to summer headquarters further north or winter haunts in Central America. They concentrate in southern Arizona hotspots including Marion Paton's sanctuary, and the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve. They're also abundant in the Ramsey Canyon Preserve and San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area.

Along the international boundary, these hummingirds have become tiny ambassadors of goodwill--and mutual concern. Several binational conservation efforts are now under way to protect their migration corridors, from field studies and public education to hands-on habitat repair.

One project is sponsored by Tucson's Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Armed with a $78,000 National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant, museum biologists travel with Mexican colleagues throughout the state of Sonora, banding birds and charting migration paths up to 300 miles south of the border. They also visit rural schools, handing out feeders and teaching children about hummingbirds.

"For a lot of these kids, it's first time they've seen a slide show, the first time they've had any natural history materials at all," says team member Tom Van Devender, a senior museum scientist. "And the hummingbirds feeders are magic."

A Mexican team member calls the response "outstanding. . . Students, teachers and parents have eagerly participated with their reports and stories, with hummingbird feeder maintenance and observations," says Eduardo Gomez, an independent researcher based in Sonora. "Maybe it's the beauty of seeing these birds at close range--watching with attention something they had seen all their lives without really looking."

And protecting borderland habitat to keep this project on track is crucial, says Van Devender. "It's really hard to know if any one segment of their migration is more important than the others. But what we know from banding efforts near Patagonia is that, in the summertime, there are tens of thousands of hummingbirds bunching up on the border."

Back at Villa Verde, Juan Caicedo and Jen Duberstein hope someday the tiny birds will be traveling these hills as well. But that's for the future, in a migration corridor that one biologist calls crucial for Arizona's wildlife. Although the manmade lake is "an artificial environment, Villa Verde is really a magnet to many waterbirds," says Walt Anderson, a professor of environmental studies at Prescott College, and an expert on this area. "When you start looking on a regional basis, large bodies of water are pretty rare. And they are extremely important for very restricted habitat species. Also, whether through good luck or good management, there are some beautiful riparian areas down there."

Juan Caicedo agrees, saying much of the Villa Verde area is in pretty good shape. "They haven't been overgrazing it to the extent where it's shot. And in a lot of areas, the riparian areas are so thick that cows can't even really enter into them."

Recently joining conservation efforts in this area is The Nature Conservancy. In turn, TNC works with a Sonoran conservation agency called IMADES, which loosely translates as Institute of Environmental Mediation and Sustainable Development. But like other groups, TNC is careful to not to step on toes, says Victoria Khalifa, a protected areas specialist with the Conservancy's Tucson office.

"Instead of going down there ourselves, and conserving the watershed of the San Pedro, we're working through partnerships," in this case IMADES. "We provide technical assistance and funding, so that they are strengthened as an organization. Then, as an institution, not only are they able to do conservation in the long-term, but also in specialized areas related to science, private lands or institutional development."

There's no time to waste, says Eduardo Lopez, IMADES' conservation director. "These biotic communities are imperiled because they're highly used by economically important groups like cattle raisers, mines and urban developments, as well as agriculture.

"This is the same old story for most of the world," Lopez says. "But there is a difference--proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border gives us the opportunity to join forces between two countries."

Researcher Eduardo Gomez is more specific. "There are rivers that run along the border for both countries," he says. "Others start in one country and flow to the neighbor's territory. Still others start in on country and then enter the other, only to return again to their place of origin."

Along these rivers grow woodlands habitat for a wide variety of wildlife that know no national borders. Since most of these rivers run north and south, they also provide perfect pathways for birds that visit Arizona.

Gomez calls the San Pedro a prime example: starting in Mexico and flowing northward, its protection has become a pressing international concern. In the United States, burgeoning communities along the river threaten to run the aquifer dry. In Mexico, there's "an evident impact on its habitat," he says. "The condition of its riparian woodland can be summarized in one word: fragmented. Also, rural communities are located very close to the river, and that has led to garbage being scattered near the its margins. There are also some problems with sewage disposal."

Luckily, Mexican ecologists can draw on reams of San Pedro data already compiled in the United States. "Many successful studies on avian and woodland conservation have been done in Arizona, including practical strategies on water conservation, native plants reforestation, bird surveys, public outreach and land management, among many others," he says. "Sonora, for its part, has only recently started to study its part and begin planning to implement strategic conservation actions."

But regional conservation goals don't stop there. In Agua Prieta, Caicedo, Duberstein and others have helped create wetlands near the municipal sewage ponds. And the Udall Center is funding a project in the city's schools to provide environmental education.

"We're trying to get information about animal and plants living around here to students and their families," says Teresito Soto, Agua Prieta's director of ecology. "We're also trying to teach families how to recycle and conserve resources, especially water."

In turn, the Udall Center provides whatever resources it can, says program assistant Denise Moreno. "For example, Teresita might call me and say 'I need more flora and fauna stuff.' Then I go to the library at the UA and try to get that information down here. I get information to different schools, and translate material for them."

Soto gazes across Agua Prieta's plaza, mostly barren of vegetation. She has big hopes of transforming it into a pollinator garden for hummingbirds, and a well-planted sanctuary for many kinds of birds. "It could be very beautiful here," she sighs. "I hope we can make it that way."

Maybe it will happen. Maybe it won't.

Either way, Oscar Gastellum saw his first eagle. And that just might change everything.