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

Empowering grassroots linkages

by Helen Ingram and Robert G. Varady

Robert Frost probably was wrong about fences, but among nations good borders surely make good neighbors.

Our shrinking planet is hosting a growing number of nations. The world is rapidly being reconfigured politically, leading to the proliferation of new boundaries in a manner reminiscent of lines on a fractured mirror. The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has drastically changed the political landscape. New, often ethnically-based nations are inventing themselves and securing their borders. Over the past five years, 49 new international boundaries have been created. Simultaneously, the distances among nations are being narrowed through migration and travel, communications, and trade.

By their very nature, borders create stress and contradictions, and so the increase in the numbers of borders is a cause for concern. Borders can be flashpoints between neighboring countries over issues held in common. Borders have powers of magnification; at the border, conflict or cooperation among neighbors becomes conflict or cooperation among nations. Robert Frost probably was wrong about fences, but among nations good borders surely make good neighbors.

It is unfortunate that more attention has not been paid to the lessons good borders have to teach. We argue here that the U.S.-Mexico border, while not often cited for the good example it presents, has functioned quite well. Despite joining nations that could hardly be more different, and despite being subjected to enormous pressures of industrialization, population expansion, and environmental degradation, this border is, surprisingly, a zone of cooperation. The many barriers and discontinuities political boundaries and national sovereignty erect have regularly been bridged through the flexibility, openness, tolerance, empathy, and good will of these border neighbors.

While our conclusions are largely positive, it is necessary to begin by reciting the ways in which the gulf that separates the United States from Mexico is amplified by the international boundary, which serves to divide and disconnect. The dividing influence of borders is especially evident in regard to the environment, which ignores human constructs and observes instead the laws of airsheds, watersheds, or ecosystems.

In this article, we describe the way borders (1) separate problems from solutions, (2) create perverse economic opportunities, (3) marginalize the interests of border residents in national policy making, and (4) erect barriers to grassroots problem-solving. Once the impediments to coherent treatment of borders are identified, we focus on the informal links that lend coherence and foster cooperation before moving on to the need for better institutions that reinforce cooperation.

Borders Separate Problems from Solutions

Political boundaries, whether domestic or international, often separate the location where problems are felt from the location where the most effective and efficient solutions need to be put in place. When they are international, the lines become gulfs that are enormously hard to bridge.

The 14 pairs of twin cities and the extensive rural areas between them along the U.S.-Mexico border share common airsheds, so that particulate matter and other pollutants move freely across the border. A number of border cities on the U.S. side are not achieving minimum air-quality standards and so face regulatory limitations on future growth unless air quality can be improved. The cheapest and most efficient means of reducing pollution often is available on the Mexican side of the airshed. It is a good deal less expensive to retire or replace some of the older factories, pave some streets, and install some controls in Juarez or Tijuana than to make more costly technical improvements on the U.S. side, where the least expensive strategies already have been put in place. The international border makes such responses difficult, if not impossible, to implement.

The border region, particularly that part within the Sonoran Desert of northwestern Mexico and southwestern United States, is a biological treasure. There are, for example, 460 migratory species that are endangered, threatened, proposed for listing, or candidate species. Numbers of national parks, recreation areas, and wildlife sanctuaries have been established to protect habitat, but international borders inhibit comprehensive and coordinated efforts. As a consequence, enormous efforts to save some endangered species may be doomed.

The separation by international borders of problems from the location where the most effective solutions need to be put in place is especially common when it comes to transborder water resources. The U.S.-Mexico border region is drained by numerous transborder river basins, and there are many shared aquifers upon which both sides depend. Yet the past pattern of water policy, particularly on the U.S. side, has been myopic and nationalistic. An enormously valuable fishery in the Gulf of California and important habitat for bird life created by the Santa Clara Slough near the mouth of the Colorado River are greatly dependent upon U.S. water management policies that are blind to consequences for the environment in Mexico.

The separation of problems from solutions works both ways. The rich riparian habitat on the Santa Cruz River north of Ambos Nogales (the cities of Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, and Nogales, Arizona, U.S.A.) is utterly dependent on wastewater flows from an international waste treatment plant that, for the most part, treats water coming from and belonging to Mexico. This streamside habitat is especially valuable in Arizona, where only 5 to 10 percent of all original riparian areas in the state still exist. Mexicans are not being compensated for these flows and have the legal right at any time to reclaim the water and leave the riparian habitat on the U.S. side high and dry. Similarly, there is some evidence to suggest that groundwater pumping in agricultural areas of Sonora adjacent to Quito Baquito Springs in Organ Pipe National Monument in Arizona is affecting water flows in these valuable springs.

Borders Create Perverse Economic Opportunities

The economic opportunities that exist at borders create a number of incentives that appear perverse from an environmental perspective. Border enterprises spring up and prosper because businesses can offer easy access to something not found so inexpensively or of such quality on the other side. For instance, because water is a small part of costs of production on borders, business location will poorly reflect the actual scarcity of water resources. Instead, the low wages of Mexican workers and their high productivity attracts foreign investment and job creation at the border despite water scarcity. Income per capita, for example, shows that in the early 1990s residents on the Mexican side of the border earned approximately one-seventh the average per capita income of residents on the U.S. side; Mexico's current economic crisis has no doubt widened this gap. Consequently, huge population expansion has occurred in arid areas with diminishing and irreplaceable water resources. Competition among water users in arid lands to gain at others' expense is exaggerated at borders, where restraint may simply mean an opportunity forever forgone to enjoy the dwindling resource. Restraint is especially unlikely when the forces of global economic competition and the need to repay debt reinforce the focus on immediate economic opportunities for profit.

There are other examples of the ways in which borders introduce perverse incentives into the global economy. U.S. demand for mesquite charcoal and shrimp has caused the disappearance of ironwood bosques in the Sonoran Desert and overfishing in the Gulf of California. The artificially low prices U.S. consumers pay is a poor reflection of true costs.

Borders Marginalize Grassroots Interests

Borders often are the areas furthest from a nation's center, and as such they marginalize the border region's concerns as not central and, therefore, of secondary importance in designing policy. It is not surprising that policies framed in national and state contexts frequently are at odds with border needs and priorities. For instance, newspaper accounts in 1993 suggested that the voice of Nogales, Arizona, residents was all but ignored by the U.S. General Services Administration in an upgrading of the Nogales Port of Entry and that local business people lost millions of dollars unnecessarily. Similarly, natural resources managers on both sides of the border face sets of laws, institutions, and decisionmaking processes that are unresponsive, complicate their problems, and impede cooperation.

A number of well meaning state and national policies in water resources have adversely impacted Ambos Nogales. The Arizona Groundwater Management Act, which was intended to conserve water, may force the city of Nogales, Arizona, to be stingy with its neighbor even though it has a long tradition of generously transferring water during droughts. Similarly, the national laws regulating effluent quality from wastewater treatment plants may force Nogales, Arizona, to withdraw from an internationally operated plant that ought to serve as a model for transborder cooperation.

National governments pass laws that make heavy demands on a border region's human and financial resources. Border areas are diverted from pursuing their own priorities and are not provided the tools to respond to priorities set elsewhere. Along the U.S.-Mexico border, construction of environmental infrastructure and implementation of environmental laws lag far behind other areas in both the U.S. and Mexico. Investment of national funds in border water and sewer projects has increased but still is not consistent with pro-growth industrialization policies and lags far behind the rise in demand. The border is remote from huge Mexico City, which has in the past attracted most of Mexico's environmental concern. Similarly, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) placed the border near the bottom of its priorities until the recent debate on and passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Borders Introduce Barriers to Grassroots Problem-Solving

But if borders can often result in official policies that are unresponsive to border interests, they can also inhibit bottom-up, grassroots problem-solving efforts. The two influences are not unrelated. In fact, it is the very maze of regulations, awkward institutional frameworks, and lack of official interest that constrains and frustrates community-based actions. While border residents have strong reasons to search for understanding and agreements across boundaries, they lack sufficient authority or control to deliver on any cooperative agreements they might negotiate. Regularly and notoriously, immigration, drug control, and other nationally driven policies have ignored and destroyed good feelings and working arrangements among border residents that have taken decades to construct.

Similarly, international treaties and agreements that represent the sovereign national interest, as dictated by central governments, may poorly reflect the needs and preferences of border people. International agreements depend upon political processes internal to national governments. Therefore, they often fall short of achieving goals precisely because they do not sufficiently take into account the locally-based actors whose behavior will determine the extent to which laws are implemented. Incentives for international institutions as a rule poorly reflect realities in the field. Instead, high-level policy makers are rewarded for setting ambitious goals without providing the appropriate understanding, tools, and capacity at the local level to achieve those goals. Goals and objectives in this way become burdens and impediments to firing-line actors. For instance, the side agreements to NAFTA have created new institutions that feature much more stringent environmental protection along the border. But the collection and dissemination of comprehensive transnational data on the state of and threats to the border environment -- a necessity for successful implementation -- are not included.

Overarching Border Links

The divisive and disintegrating characteristics of borders cited above would make effective problem-solving next to impossible if counteracting forces were not present. Fortunately for the U.S.-Mexico border, longstanding cross-national ties facilitate cooperation. What formal, governmental machinery treats as distinct and separate national interests, informal arrangements unite in a less fragmented border community interest. Together, these links create a transnational border region that is different from both the United States and Mexico. Integrating forces include a common history, shared border culture, kinship ties, common language, integrated economies, and informal networks among officials and groups.

Among the most important factors binding border region residents, even if unexpressed, is the realization that movement and migration are permanent and that political dividing lines are temporary social constructs. Indeed, perhaps the most permanent fixture of the border region is the fluidity of populations. The shared history of border residents has imparted an expectation and tolerance for new and different neighbors, a belief that they are both inevitable and an opportunity. As a result, the border, better than other parts of either the United States or Mexico, is poised to accept diversity and to profit from increased commerce.

Border residents have a common stake in movement and are damaged when it is impaired. When relationships sour between Washington and Mexico City, it is border residents who are affected most directly because it is they who are delayed at border crossings. Consequently, border residents, more than others, have a stake in good transnational relations and in decisions that are mutually beneficial to both nations.

Border culture provides a further unifying influence. The U.S.-Mexico border region combines the characteristics of Anglo, indigenous, and Latin cultures in a mix that is dissimilar to and richer than that of either country alone. The special character of the border is recognized by others in both nations. El Norte is believed to be practically a different nation by many Mexicans, and U.S. citizens visiting border towns often describe them as more Mexican than American. Bolstering and transmitting this separate culture are a number of border institutions, including cultural centers, historical societies, research organizations, newspapers and electronic media, and social organizations. An optimism, flexibility, and creativity often found on frontiers characterizes the border and leads to accommodation of interests.

The many cross-border families contribute to the border culture and are an inducement toward transnational integration. Kinship ties provide family members with many resources, and members and resources flow to areas of need and opportunity. The border thus is characterized by an empathy and other-directedness that favors common understanding between people in different nations. Border culture is supported, too, by the resulting bi- or multilingualism.

The integrated border economy is a powerful stimulus for agreement. Sonora and Arizona are linked economically. For instance, the economy of Nogales, Arizona, and Santa Cruz County depend heavily upon purchases made by Mexican visitors. Schools, hospitals, and other infrastructure are supported by sales taxes paid by Mexicans and many residents are employed in enterprises that in one way or another relate to Mexico. A large share of the winter fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States come north through the Port of Nogales. The customers of many of the fisheries in the Gulf of California are in the United States.

The links between border residents are matched by networks that have grown up between professionals and public officials to deal with shared problems. Medical personnel exchange information, equipment, and patients. Local police have informal arrangements to cooperate in the pursuit of suspects and crime prevention. Firefighters and rescue teams observe the professional ethic of going where they are needed, even if that means ignoring the border from time to time. Local public health officials maintain informal contact and often are able to share information that is unavailable through official channels. Border ties such as these have remained strong over time and new links have been forged as new needs have arisen.

A growing number of regional nongovernmental organizations, such as Pro Natura and the Border Ecology Project, operate on both sides of the border. Binational groups such as the Arizona-Mexico Commission, whose members are appointed by the governors of Arizona and Sonora, have intensified their activities. The Border Trade Association, initiated by U.S. and Mexican business people, exemplifies the channels of cooperation that are expanding as trade relationships intensify. And key individuals and organizations, such as the International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA), have been able to forge even broader informal alliances (see "La Frontera Nueva: Building Transborder Cohesion in the Sonoran Desert" in this issue for details on ISDA's activities and methods).

While binational ties are strong, the stresses to which they are being subjected are increasing. The population boom and accompanying environmental degradation have introduced problems that are difficult to handle through informal, face-to-face means.

The Need for New Institutions To Support Transnational Linkages

New institutional arrangements to fully recognize the shared, transnational environment are much overdo. The North American Free Trade Agreement recognizes this need. To achieve the necessary reforms, national governments will have to relinquish some of their sovereignty to new institutions that can take a transnational perspective. However, transnational linkages that permit national agencies to speak to each other but remain deaf to local interests, particularly those on the border, are doomed to fail. The need for a bottom-up approach is especially critical when it comes to border areas. Border regions need to be considered as coherent entities in their own right. When viewed as centers of concern rather than peripheries, possibilities for bargaining and accommodation across borders emerge. New regional and local institutions with transborder jurisdiction need to be established and given the mandated authority to collect and disseminate data, to plan, and to apply for and dispense funding to recently created environmentally beneficial projects and programs. NAFTA included one such institutional innovation, the Border Environmental Cooperation Commission, which has jurisdiction over environmental infrastructure. Others need to be created.


Borders and border problems, many of them related to transborder water resources, are multiplying everywhere. While not often cited for the good example it provides, the U.S.-Mexico border has many lessons to teach the world. Despite great economic and cultural disparities, the two nations have been able since 1848 to resolve most of their differences peacefully. Further, a unique border culture has evolved, one that displays many of the best characteristics of both nations. Resolution of transborder environmental problems, however, has been neither as effective nor as sensitive to actual physical and social conditions as necessary.

Both the United States and Mexico are prepared, more than they ever have been, to work together to solve problems. The limitations of hierarchical institutions that centralize power and authority at national or international levels are increasingly obvious. At a time when officials and the public are receptive to the idea of reinventing government, structures need to be designed to engage border residents and to reinforce longstanding border linkages in resolving problems.

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Helen Ingram is Director and Robert Varady is Associate Director of The Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at The University of Arizona.

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