Mexico Visit Strengthens Understanding of Shared Environmental Interests

Back to Spring 2012 Newsletter

Joanna Nadeau, with her Mexican hosts, Jesus Miguel Olivas-García (right), Jose Álvaro Anchondo-Nájera

The author, Joanna Nadeau, with her Mexican hosts, Jesus Miguel Olivas-García (right), Jose Álvaro Anchondo-Nájera (left). Source: Joanna Nadeau

When the captain announced the plane’s descent, I put my book down and peered out the window as I always do. I saw sand dunes first, leading my eye to a small mountain range flanked by dirt roads and farm fields. The mountains framed successive basins, each with the same dry ground spotted with desert shrubs. After the next range, a city emerged. Densely packed buildings appeared beside finished roads. And the canals ran from the farm fields into the city, running full next to dry riverbeds. It looked a lot like Tucson. But I was in Torreon, Mexico.

I asked my host, a local translator, about the fields that looked like remnant, dust-filled versions of traditional farmland. Commonly, farmers in north-central Mexico had to abandon agricultural land when it had been overworked. From the looks of things, these fields were not going back into production anytime soon.  As we talked, I learned that much of their natural environment has been overworked. Efficiency practices as well as soil protection measures that can help make farms last longer have come too late for some.

I was invited to Mexico to talk to an assembled group of botanists and policymakers about water, to share the range of strategies being used in Arizona to meet the needs of all water sectors.  
This group was most interested in the environmental aspects of water management, but clearly Mexico faces challenges similar to Arizona’s in reconciling growing water demands on all fronts. Over meals, researchers discussed the water situation in their respective states around Mexico. All of them indicated, despite living in very different parts of the country, that a lot would have to change with both social attitudes and water laws before any water would ever flow in those dry creek beds.

Presentations at the symposium covered several projects working to realize economic value from intact habitats. A large-scale UN program, REDD, is providing financial incentives to landowners to keep land in its natural form. Locally, researchers from the University of Chihuahua, the official hosts of my visit, are exploring the use of native plants – sotol, for example - as alternatives to conventional crops. The native species are less water-dependent than non-native species and can support natural ecosystem processes. If they can establish a market to sustain the plantations, they hope to persuade local landowners away from using more water-intensive crop choices.

The conference offered an afternoon tour of three nearby towns by restored trolley car, visiting important sites in local history. Most of the events described were separated into pre- and post- Revolution history, and Pancho Villa was associated with many. Every one of my new friends talked with pride about how important and positive the Revolution, and Pancho Villa’s contribution, was for Mexico.  At dinner after the tour, they offered personal stories. Once, before coming into town, Pancho Villa and his gang had commandeered food and drink from a poor rural family. As part of his intimidation, Villa threatened one man (the storyteller’s grandfather) with death.  As his grandfather was led towards the creek where he was to be hanged, his grandmother had chased after them, tearfully pleading with Villa to have mercy. Unexpectedly, Villa relented and the man went free. In the next story, Pancho Villa actually killed someone’s uncle, a former member of Villa’s gang. The story went that the uncle had turned against Villa, breaking the rule about loyalty. And yet, they all maintain great respect for this volatile national figure and what he accomplished.
Fascinated, I took it all in and it stayed with me even after I left Mexico. Pancho Villa is gone now, and Mexico is better for having had the Revolution.  Yet I’m amazed that these people found a way to embrace this figure who killed and exploited many along the way as also a national hero. Clearly, the venom is gone: they see no need to hate the man or hide his deeds. I wondered if this is a part of Mexican culture, but could not find a way to ask. Regardless, this perspective remains: understand that the trials of the past are necessary for the fulfillment of the present. The people I spoke to found ways to live comfortably with the contradictions inherent in complicated things, keeping their country’s best interest forefront in their minds.

Despite being divided by the border, Arizona and northern Mexico face similar challenges, in part because the landscapes are so similar. We also share a common pattern of human development that started with individual settlers and exploded to create expanses of farmlands, cities, and mines. I imagine that when colonial settlers first entered this region they couldn’t see how filling their small buckets with water or making small diversions could ever dewater a whole stream.  As population increased and technologies improved, their capacity to develop water resources kept pace to sustain growth.  

Unfortunately, increasing water use eventually overcame nature’s ability to absorb the impacts. Groundwater withdrawals and stream diversions reduced surface flows, impacting native species and harming riparian vegetation. But the lesson here need not be that those early actions were bad. Taking a cue from the Pancho Villa illustration, the means used for achieving current prosperity may not be the appropriate means to move forward, but that doesn’t make the accomplishments any less heroic. Importantly, Arizona’s water management does not need a villain: all water users create value from their water use. The complication is that with limited supplies, innovative approaches to water management are needed that reflect modern knowledge.

The social movement to protect the natural environment started in the United States over 40 years ago, years after water, energy, and road infrastructure were in place. But the built environment is not the only place where retrofitting with more sustainable technologies is costly and time-consuming. With advances in human understanding, it takes time for the underlying science to evolve, for society to absorb it, and for institutions to apply new knowledge. By sharing the WRRC’s efforts to portray the environment as a water sector, we hoped to inspire our Mexican colleagues to consider new strategies for engaging the public and developing voluntary arrangements within the existing water management framework. Unexpectedly, they offer us a new perspective on addressing the challenges that remain in reconciling the water demands of all sectors, without looking for a fight.