Hands across border for common causes
Indians join against California toxic-waste site as governmentalleaders meet today.
CIUDAD JUAREZ, MEXICO
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.
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."