Hands across border for common causes

Indians join against California toxic-waste site as governmentalleaders meet today.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

On the street outside the US Consulate in this border city, a ring of brightly dressed Mexican Indians and environmental activists forms around a group of American Indians who sing and dance with gestures signifying a blessing of the land.

From the Mexicans a chant rises in Spanish, which most of the American Indians from the lower Colorado River in California don't understand, but which they know means support for them: "Save Ward Valley!"

Ward Valley, near Needles in southeast California, is the site of a proposed toxic-waste dump the Indians oppose as a threat to their lands "and to the 22 million people in the US and Mexico who depend on Colorado River waters." The fact that the American Indians have come from their home more than 600 miles away to seek support for their cause in Mexico is symbolic of growing cross-border citizen activism on environmental, labor, and human rights issues.

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Advocacy organizations are stepping up development of transnational alliances in the wake of last year's successful campaign by US and Mexican environmental groups to stop a nuclear-waste dump planned for the border in Sierra Blanca, Texas.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and global economic forces in general are tearing away at the United States-Mexico border as an economic and political divide. Activists are responding by following the same binational road.

"Cross-border activism and coalition building between the two countries have been growing dramatically," says Mark Spalding, an environmental lawyer based in Del Mar, Calif., who helped establish the citizens' advisory components of NAFTA. He points to a list of "catalysts" for this growth - from the interest that "successes" like Sierra Blanca have created - to the public participation mandates in NAFTA and efforts by organizations like the Ford Foundation to encourage network building.

"The reasons were plentiful to reject [the Sierra Blanca nuclear dump] on technical grounds, but it was the groups from both sides of the border working together that made it politically unacceptable to sweep the technical warnings under the rug," says Mr. Spalding. "It was a significant victory, and one whose impact is still being felt."

This impact was evident at the two-day meeting of Colorado River Indians and Mexican Indians and environmental groups in Ciudad Jurez last month.

"We're here because we saw how successful the Mexicans were in opposing Sierra Blanca," says Nora Helton, chairperson of the Fort Mojave Indian tribe, whose lands are adjacent to the Ward Valley dump site.

"Sierra Blanca helped us learn that our concerns are their concerns, that what affects one in the border region affects all," says David Harper, Colorado River Indian Tribes spokesman on the Ward Valley project.And it is not just border-area organizations that are expanding cross-border contacts and activities.

"Toxins and other contaminants don't recognize borders, so neither can this coalition of native people, environmentalists, and politicians," says Phillip Klasky, co-director of the San Francisco-based Bay Area Nuclear Waste Coalition, who also participated in the Ciudad Jurez conference. "We're definitely making the connection between environmental action and international action."

Border activists say it is no coincidence that binational networking has "taken off" over the same five years that NAFTA has been in effect. NAFTA has facilitated transnational economic development and promoted international commerce, making for a booming border region. But that economic growth has only exacerbated the border's already serious environmental problems.

"There has been a lot of economic growth under NAFTA, but it's growth that has favored certain economic levels and worsened already critical environmental problems, from waste disposal to water treatment and air pollution," says Flix Prez, Mexico coordinator of the Rio Grande (Rio Bravo in Mexico) International Ecology Alliance. "NAFTA has not been an environmental plus, but it is a fact it's helped teach us that, just as the business community has learned, united we have more power than the sum of our two parts."

Environment is the issue that has rallied the most cross-border attention, but network-building among labor and human rights organizations is also growing.

"There's some cross-border cooperation on labor issues, but environmental cooperation is far ahead," says Spalding. "One reason is that labor unions on the two sides of the border don't see eye-to-eye on international labor issues and, without them, organizing is going to be hard."

"Environmental issues are somehow less threatening than labor organizing," says Tina Faulkner, a research assistant at the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC) in Silver City, N.M. "With labor you confront the issue of jobs leaving the US, so it's harder to make ties."

Another impediment to cross-border activism is the nationalist sentiment that can creep into any binational debate. When Mexicans from Jurez held marches against the Sierra Blanca project last year, even some Texans opposed to the dump could be heard wondering aloud why the same Mexicans weren't so emphatic about tackling "their own" environmental problems.

And Spalding - who is active in the international opposition to a giant salt-processing plant proposed at the site of a critical whale "nursery" in Baja California - says he often hears from Mexicans: "Your country is the world's top resource consumer, why not go home and do something about that?"

ANOTHER factor is that in Mexico, a still-developing democracy, the tradition of public participation is not as solid as in the United States, and the legal frameworks that support grass-roots involvement are not as developed.

"You just don't have [in Mexico] the same foundation of a public writing $25 checks to the Sierra Club all the time," says Spalding.

Manuel Llano is a retired electrical engineer trying to build up opposition to an existing toxic waste dump in Hermosillo, Mexico. He was listened to politely at the Jurez environmental meeting but he didn't drum up the same support as the visitors from California's Ward Valley.That's one indication of how far cross-border activism still has to go.

"The links are growing, but it's a lot easier to, say, set up a maquila [assembly plant] in Mexico than to create a citizens' network," says the IRC's Ms. Faulkner. "Sierra Blanca was inspiring, but there's still a lot of work to do."

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