December 13, 2002

The Latest Phase of the La Paz Agreement Faces a Daunting Future

By Victor Menaldo

The U.S.-Mexico border region extends more than 2,000 miles; it stretches from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. The border region covers 62.5 miles on each side of the dividing line and its ecological endowments include large deserts, several mountain ranges, shared rivers, wetlands, large estuaries and aquifers. Needless to say, the border region is a majestic place – one of the most diverse regions in the world. Yet despite its beauty and ecological variety, it faces many problems.  

Not so long ago, border inhabitants lacked the financial resources and political instruments with which to confront the border’s serious environmental and health problems. The 2012 Border Plan is the latest installment in a series of plans that seeks to rectify this condition. It follows on the heels of the Border XXI Plan – a groundbreaking, multi-year cooperative effort developed between Mexico and the United States in 1983. Both plans are the offspring of the La Paz Agreement, which was intended to create an institutional platform to deal with the border’s multifarious problems.

The 2012 Plan is being crafted by The Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Health and Human Services, Mexico’s Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources, Mexico’s Secretaría of Health, the U.S. border tribes and the environmental agencies from the U.S.-Mexico border-states. And like its ambitious predecessor – the Border XXI Plan – the 2012 Plan seeks to improve environmental health and natural resource conditions, while promoting sustainable development. It will build upon the template for political cooperation forged between federal, state and local governments, Indian tribes, international institutions, educational centers, non-governmental organizations, industry organizations and grass-roots community organizations under the auspices of the Border XXI Program.  

In order to deal with the environmental and health problems that afflict the region, the 2012 Program seeks to improve upon the infrastructure development created by its predecessor. Similarly, the 2012 Program also seeks to make use of innovative and wide-reaching mechanisms for addressing border cleanup accords forged between border-states and tribes. In addition, the plan seeks to build upon the increased cooperation between the private sector and government attained thus far.

Yet despite the significant inroads achieved by the Border XXI Program, serious environmental problems still beset a region projected to double its population by 2020. Moreover, this demographic explosion is concentrated in large urban areas: ninety percent of the population resides in the fourteen paired, interdependent sister cities. The border region’s explosive population growth has severely strained the area’s infrastructure and hampered its institutional capacity. This region is characterized by a patchwork of local, state and federal governments and sovereign Indian tribes, all of which share overlapping jurisdiction over the border area. Therefore, it is no surprise to learn that governance of a 100-mile long expanse is complicated by cultural and linguistic differences that often make cooperation between political entities cumbersome.

And the litany of problems that the Border 2012 confronts would intimidate any government agency, never mind one predicated on interagency cooperation.

Water pollution, poor air quality, exposure to toxins, outbreaks of infectious diseases and problems related to the transboundary shipment of hazardous material, among other things, are issues that continue to stifle environmental progress on the border. To make matters worse, factors endemic to the border region threaten to derail the Border XXI’s accomplishments. These include unplanned development, greater demand for land and energy, increased traffic congestion, the increased generation of waste, and overburdened or unavailable waste treatment and disposal facilities.

Nonetheless, The La Paz Agreement’s Border XXI Program trumpets outstanding accomplishments. These include the exchange of technical information between entities to foster cooperation, and increased technical assistance and outreach to federal, state and municipal authorities. The Border 2012 Plan continues in this vein, yet it emphasizes more of a bottom-up approach. This reflects the view that local decision-making and setting tenable priorities and project implementation are the keys to addressing environmental issues in the border region. The program will be structured around concrete measurable results, public participation, transparency, and timely access to environmental information.

The new plan, like its predecessor, seeks to tackle inadequate sewage treatment and hazardous and solid waste infrastructure, insufficient drinking water supplies and impacted habitats that threaten biodiversity. The XXI Border Initiative was anchored by the idea that investing resources to reduce or prevent pollution is much more cost effective than spending resources on mitigating problems once they have materialized through regulation, treatment, storage, and disposal. This extended into wholesale encouragement of sustainable development in border communities and widespread pollution prevention.

The sprawling U.S. Mexico border divides two distinct nations, starkly demarcating both countries’ social, economic and cultural characteristics. In essence, because the border separates two sovereign entities, this artificial dividing line represents a twofold increase in the government institutions and agencies responsible for managing and safeguarding this region. Thus, in a very real way, this political dualism reinforces significant structural and cultural contrasts.

The border divides two ways of life and political systems.Yet as those agencies behind the 2012 Border Plan know all too well, it cannot effectively prevent the environmental transformation and damage occasioned on one side of the fence from creeping onto the other. It cannot, no matter how high fences are erected, fractionate the ecological homogeneity shared by neighboring parts of Northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States. This explains why although the task of confronting the border’s environmental issues seems simple – a matter of dealing with uniform conditions on both sides of the border through a single set of policies – the reality is a lot more complex.

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