Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home pageNo. 39, Spring/Summer 1996

Building the International Sonoran Desert Alliance

by Wendy Laird & John Anderson

In holistic planning, it's the connections that are critical.

The U.S.-Mexico border region, encompassing the western Sonoran Desert and the Upper Gulf of California, is recognized as one of the largest primarily intact arid ecosystems in the world (please see accompanying map).

This historically isolated but rapidly growing bioregion includes, on the U.S. side of the international border, over one million acres of congressionally-designated wilderness in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve) and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge; the 2.8-million-acre Tohono O'odham Reservation, and the 2.6-million-acre Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range. In Mexico are the recently designated El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar and Alto Golfo biosphere reserves (4.2 million acres). Together, these lands form the largest contiguous area of protected zones anywhere in the Americas.

The area also is home to a number of small, rural communities on both sides of the border, including San Luis, Sonora, (a rapidly expanding community whose economy is shifting to manufacturing), Ajo (an Arizona community still coping with the 1985 collapse of its mining industry), Lukeville, Arizona, and Sonoyta, Sonora (border towns preparing for expanded economic activity), and Puerto Peñasco (or Rocky Point) and El Golfo (former Sonoran fishing villages that are rapidly becoming major tourist destinations). A number of ejidos (communal farms) also are found in this region, including Quitovac, Sonora (an archaeologically and biologically significant community and a site sacred to the Tohono O'odham and Hia-Ced O'odham).

This is a rich bioregion. Within it are found 750 plant species, a figure that represents roughly one-third of all the flora of the entire Sonoran Desert. Sixty-two mammals, more than 400 birds, and dozens of reptiles and amphibians occupy terrestrial and aquatic habitats. Among them are the endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope, McCall's horned lizard, and lesser long-nosed bat. Numerous marine and fresh water species also are present, including the endemic Upper Gulf porpoise, endangered desert pupfish, totoaba, and Yuma clapper rail. More than 400 bird species have been reported in the Lower Colorado valley alone, a figure representing approximately three-fourths of all bird species that migrate between the U.S. and Mexico.

Like all arid ecosystems, this region is extremely fragile.

A Lack of Coordination

Although much of this area is under some form of environmental protection, there is no unified or overarching strategy for coordinating resource management. Rather, there exists an historical lack of coordination among U.S. land managers and little international collaboration. This is in part owing to communication barriers (e.g., language, inadequate phone and mail systems, distance), the very real and physical border fence, sovereignty issues, differences in international law, inadequate agency budgets, and competing agency mandates.

These man-made and legal impediments have lead to a piecemeal approach to resource conservation and, hence, to fragmentation of the ecosystems. Species have suffered as a result, with long term genetic and demographic consequences already being seen in the rarest species.

Economic development, too, has been largely uncoordinated and unsustainable. Natural resources, which traditionally served as the economic engine for the region (e.g., through industries such as mining, shrimping, and fishing), have been, for the most part, exhausted. Communities have suffered as a result of a "boom and bust" cycle. Ajo, for example, became a virtual ghost town after Phelps Dodge closed its New Cornelia mine in 1985. Recent studies, however, indicate renewed economic growth and a major shift to a service industry dedicated to meeting the needs of tourists and the elderly. Manufacturing and trade also are increasingly important in fueling economic growth, in large part owing to implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

These changes, while acting as catalysts for economic growth, also present a number of challenges for local residents. Communities on both sides of the border must deal with increased commercial and non-commercial truck and vehicular traffic, population pressures, air and water pollution, groundwater depletion, and so on.

The Need for Holistic Planning

To combat these pressures, to encourage sustainable approaches to economic development, and to transcend largely artificial international and agency boundaries, a new approach must be tried, one that links natural resource planning and human activities into a larger ecological framework. This holistic approach is being applied now in the western Sonoran Desert/Upper Gulf U.S. - Mexico border region.

Holistic planning attempts to close the dichotomy between preserving natural resources and promoting economic vitality in surrounding communities. It emphasizes the examination of a wide range of regional issues and their functional relationships with that region as a whole. It is radically different from more traditional forms of planning, which tend to study issues in isolation. Perhaps most important, it is the connections that become most critical.

Although it rarely has been practiced in the U.S., holistic planning is not a new approach. In fact, in the histories of both human and natural resource planning, there have been numerous individuals who saw and spoke out for the need to incorporate human activity into a broader context. John Muir and Aldo Leopold are just two individuals who called for a broader and, perhaps, bolder vision when defining man's relationship to the natural environment.

Several current theories incorporate aspects of a holistic planning approach:

  • human ecological planning,
  • ecosystem management,
  • political ecology,
  • and sustainable development.

Human ecological planning employs ecology and human values as the foundations from which to explore the potential uses of a given area.

In their study of the New Jersey Pinelands, Berger and Sinton noted the need for planners to look from the inside as well as from the outside; that is, from the effective viewpoint of the users and from the detached viewpoint of the academics. They proposed that planners seek to "understand the workings of a region from its highest to lowest level and the ways in which these levels interact."

Ecosystem management is gaining popularity among many public land managers and policymakers throughout the United States.

It is a management philosophy that recognizes the need to protect or restore critical ecolosystem niches and habitats in order to sustain natural resources in the long run. Ecosystem management also emphasizes the dynamic interrelations of systems, requiring that land managers examine management issues across both natural and human-made boundaries.

Political ecology, on the other hand, links theories of ecology and political economy.

It relies on anthropological or sociological methods to gain the perspectives of local "actors" affecting the resources in question. Social and environmental degradation are seen to be inextricably related; the causes of environmental degradation are recognized as complex and dynamic.

Political ecologists advocate public participation in the planning, design, and implementation process. Local residents, especially those "marginalized" individuals who are typically denied a voice in managing resources, are encouraged to take leadership roles in all stages of the development process, including participation on specific projects. This approach would seem to be of particular relevance when dealing with community members in less developed countries, where the gap between rich and poor frequently reflects an unbalanced allocation of political and economic power.

Although it is rather vague and poorly defined, sustainable development generally is based on the notion that Earth's physical resources are finite and that human civilization (and its attendant economies) must come to grips with this limitation. The salient elements of sustainable development may be loosely categorized as follows:

  1. Scale: the relationship of the size of an economy to the ecosystem upon which it ultimately depends;
  2. Intergenerational Fairness: an argument to include the costs and benefits to future generations of development today;
  3. Ecosystem Substitution: which argues against the traditional economists' view that all resources (i.e., the natural endowment, physical capital, human knowledge and abilities) are relatively fungible sources of well-being.

Although the causes of resource degradation in developing countries are complex (as they are in most countries), resource degradation frequently is associated with the rural poor and especially with indigenous populations who bear the consequences of national economic policies that promote the export of a few primary products (policies which in themselves often result in environmental degradation) and the concentration of political power and productive land in the hands of a relative few.

Only by addressing local concerns can sustainable development succeed. Economic growth cannot be sustained if the natural resources that fuel that growth are irresponsibly depleted. Conversely, protection of the environment and careful stewardship of natural resources will not be possible where poverty is pervasive. This is both the challenge and the opportunity of sustainable development.

Opportunities for Participation

These broad descriptions and applications of holistic planning and sustainable development are useful, but more important is the application of these models as a means for actually motivating and involving community residents.

Broad-based participation in any planning process is essential, particularly in planning activities that relate to developing countries, such as Mexico, where poverty is pervasive and where the forces of development typically are controlled by a limited number of people. Solutions must be "home grown." As noted by Dick Kamp of the Border Ecology Project, "longtime border residents know that no central governmental policy will solve the problems of the border region or of Mexico in general. Real solutions can only grow out of the local communities themselves."

In a region where traditional means have failed in the past to balance economic development with environmental protection and little coordination exists across a maze of public and private jurisdictions, an opportunity exists for the residents of local communities to play a lead role in applying a holistic approach to resource conservation and economic development.

The ISDA Is Born

In 1988, Carlos Nagel, President of Friends of PRONATURA, and members of the Sonora-Arizona Commission began planning a symposium on the Pinacate, a fragile and geologically significant volcanic area in northwest Sonora, Mexico. At the conference, held in Hermosillo, Sonora, researchers, NGO representatives, and community members shared their knowledge about this region and discussed mechanisms for protecting it. The gathering included members of the Tohono O'odham, a Native American nation whose traditional homelands encompassed much of this area and were bisected by the Gadsden Purchase.

It was the first time the O'odham were asked to participate and to present their own views and perspectives on the region in general and on the Pinacate (a sacred site and birth place of the Hia- Ced O'odham, a clan of the Tohono O'odham) in particular. In the words of Mike Flores at that conference:

All American Indians consider their homeland to be critical to their continued physical existence, much less the maintenance of their culture and identity. The Hia-Ced O'odham are no different, in that the Pinacate area is of critical importance to their culture, history and identity. They consider the Pinacate to be the location of their creation and further consider it to be the home of I'thi (Itoi), the one who accomplished their creation.

Because of the obvious need to build better international relationships and to increase local awareness about the uniqueness of the region, an effort was launched to hold another forum, this one modelled after Arizona's Town Hall. In October 1992, planning culminated in a regional town hall in Ajo, Arizona, that was sponsored by more than 27 organizations and individuals. About 200 people from all over the region attended, including residents of Ajo, Why, Lukeville, and Gila Bend in Arizona and of Sonoyta and Puerto Peñasco in Sonora. Business leaders, chamber of commerce members, members of the O'odham Nation, and federal, state, county, and tribal government agency representatives all participated in the event. As a result of the enthusiasm and interest generated by the conference, an alliance was born in December 1992 among individuals from the U.S., Mexico, and the Tohono O'odham Nation: the International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA).

ISDA has grown since then into a network of residents, government agency representatives, business and community leaders, and NGO members (see "One Man's Story"). In January 1994, ISDA was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in Arizona and the first board of directors was elected. ISDA also has been "regularized" as a U.S. nonprofit, allowing it to operate in Mexico.

Issues ISDA has addressed to date include meeting regional transportation needs; exploring the potential for establishing dual citizenship for the O'odham; pressing for greater control of illegal importation of saguaro cactus ribs; seeking easier access for donations and health care assistance to communities in Mexico, and assessing the natural, cultural, and economic resources in this section of the U.S. - Mexico border.

ISDA Programs and Forums

In addition, several projects are now underway, including the development of a binational and tricultural environmental education curriculum called "Juntos: Maestros y Niños del Desierto" (Together: Teachers and Children of the Desert"). This program -- geared to elementary school children in Ajo, Sonoyta, and the Tohono O'odham Nation -- is the first bilingual environmental education curriculum developed about the Sonoran Desert and its people.

ISDA also recently initiated a program involving high school youth in community beautification, recycling, and tree planting. This effort is called "Roots" ("TA:TK" in Tohono O'odham).

Both "Juntos" and "Roots" help build a better understanding of the natural and cultural resources of the Sonoran desert; increase the store of local knowledge about the impacts of urban development and human activity on environmental quality, and help establish a tricultural partnership among youth, community members, and educators along this section of the border.

ISDA has sponsored two international forums, attended by more than 300 people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Other projects include supporting economic alternatives that are sustainable and completion of a regional profile that synthesizes information about the economic, ecological, and cultural attributes of the region.

By exploring and resolving a broad range of regional concerns and issues in a citizen-driven manner, ISDA is in fact creating what Ingram and Varady prescribe in this issue's lead essay: an opportunity not only for local border voices to be heard, but also for local residents to guide their own destiny and to define their own vision of the future.

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Wendy Laird is Director of The Sonoran Institute. John Anderson is a graduate student at The University of Arizona. The Sonoran Institute, founded in 1990, is a nonprofit organization based in Tucson. The ISDA receives support from The Sonoran Institute and from The Friends of PRONATURA and draws upon the expertise of researchers and scientists associated with universities in Arizona and Sonora.

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