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California and the West

Green Power Grows South of Border

Lessons: Mexican environmentalists are learning from their U.S. counterparts. They also are using new tools, including the Internet and barely tested laws.

April 29, 2001|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TIJUANA — Mexican environmentalists on the U.S. border recall a time not long ago when their chief weapons were handmade placards and shaken fists--and not very many of those.

That reality has changed drastically in recent years, they say, in large part because of lessons learned from veteran counterparts on the U.S. side of the border.

These days, the growing ranks of border environmentalists in Mexico typically have allies across the frontier and are fast learning to make use of a host of new tools, from the Internet to barely tested right-to-know laws in their country.

That evolution was evident here at a three-day conference on the U.S.-Mexico border environment that ended Saturday. Part training camp, part strategy session, the meeting was a chance for about 400 environmentalists along the 2,000-mile border, joined by environmental officials, to swap war stories and learn new strategies. There were sessions on everything from the Internet to cross-border fund-raising to conservation easements.

The sheer number of groups represented--more than 90--was one sign of a border movement taking root, organizers said.

"It's grown incredibly. We are beginning to mature as a movement. We are beginning to be a movement," said Laura Durazo, a Tijuana activist who heads the 10-year-old Border Environmental Education Project.

Those involved in the environmental cause say activism at the border has grown markedly in intensity and sophistication since the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect in 1994.

Loosening restrictions on trade among the United States, Mexico and Canada prompted fears that the U.S.-Mexico border would become a trash dump for manufacturers seeking to cash in on cheaper Mexican labor and new opportunities for commerce. Many activists now working hand-in-hand across the border forged their ties during the NAFTA debate.

"In some ways you can see NAFTA as a spark in the further development of the [groups]," said Diana Liverman, who directs the University of Arizona's Center for Latin American Studies and works on Mexican environmental issues.

But besides giving environmentalists a rallying cry, NAFTA created, through related provisions, new venues for grass-roots groups and residents on both sides of the border to vent their opinions on the environment.

One provision established a process through which citizens can accuse any of the three nations' governments of failing to enforce their own environmental laws.

The first such complaint on the border was filed in 1998 by groups in Tijuana and San Diego, accusing Mexico of flouting its laws by not cleaning a Tijuana lead recycling plant abandoned by its U.S.-based owners. The North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation agreed last year to review the case but has not finished its report.

NAFTA also created a separate border commission, with a citizens advisory board and public hearings, to approve border sewage and water projects before they are financed by a special binational development bank.

Some environmentalists complain that the NAFTA-related measures have done little to clean up the border. But the new entities have given activists platforms for criticizing polluters and created official venues for airing environmental concerns.

Mary Kelly, director of the Texas Center for Policy Studies, said nonprofit groups focusing on the border environment have grown more sophisticated. U.S.-based foundations that once gave funding to Mexican environmental organizations through American partners have begun sending aid directly to Mexico.

Though most Mexican groups operate on shoestring budgets at best, the aid has helped some gain more permanent footing.

"Ten years ago you had a small scattering of semi-volunteer groups," Kelly said. "Today you have a pretty good selection of groups, some of which have professional staff."

Taking a page from the playbook of U.S. activists, environmentalists in Mexico are turning to legal remedies to address border pollution. They are filing lawsuits and using newly bolstered right-to-know laws to compel government agencies to make public such documents as environmental impact reports and official tallies of pollutants emitted by manufacturers.

Activists who once lugged around bitterly worded posters now tote copies of environmental laws. A 1996 federal measure granted ordinary citizens the right to sue on environmental grounds, but it still needs improvement, activists say. Environmentalists say their next task is to ensure that government agencies generate the reports that the public has a right to see.

"There is a change in the way things are being done," said Carla Garcia, an environmental attorney in Tijuana. "It's not just about going up and throwing trash in front of the municipal building. It's about learning about the law."

A trend toward decentralization means decisions once handed down by officials in Mexico City with little community involvement will be made increasingly at the state and local level, where neighborhood activists can weigh in.

A broad environmental state law is being drafted for Baja California. In Tijuana, a municipal measure, viewed as one of Mexico's most progressive in protecting the public right to information, passed last year and will take effect soon.

Challenges remain. Grass-roots groups in Tijuana have fallen prey to internecine fighting and have tended to rely on strong leaders instead of broad membership. Some environmentalists say a key next step is getting more formal training for Mexican activists on themes ranging from environmental sciences to organizational behavior.

"This is much more hopeful," said Durazo, the Tijuana activist. "Screaming didn't get us very far. This is slower, but surer."

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