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United Nations Environment Programme

Biodiversity Has No Use for Walls

By Stephen Leahy*

Construction of a wall along the border would speed up the deterioration of the ecosystems on the Mexico-U.S. border, warn experts.

TORONTO, Canada/SAN JOSE, United States - Scientists fear that attempts to seal the border between Mexico and the United States will have a big impact on wildlife and the region's fragile and unique ecology.

The recent deployment of the U.S. National Guard in the border region and talk of building walls and fences greatly concerns U.S. and Mexican ecologists who attended the annual meeting of the Society of Conservation Biology in San José, California, Jun. 24-28.

"A wall would have profound ecological impacts," said Laura López-Hoffman, an ecologist at the Autonomous National University of Mexico. "It would prevent the movement of many species and some areas would be destroyed during the construction," she told Tierramérica in San José.

There are many rare and endangered species along the border, and parts are vital for migratory species, she said, adding: "We haven't studied the potential environmental consequences of a fences or walls but it is clear there will be impacts."

The 3,141 km-long international border between Mexico and the United States crosses a biologically diverse region of desert, mangrove forests, plains, mountains, river valleys, wetlands, cities and towns.

There are many mammal species -- the larger ones include jaguars, black bears, Mexican gray wolves and mountain lions -- and bird and plant species, as well as some 12 million people living in the border area. "People outside the region don't realize how much is here," said López-Hoffman.

The World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy have documented extraordinary biological diversity in the Chihuahua and Sonora Deserts, of northwestern Mexico and the southwestern United States, respectively.

Around the continental divide where the two deserts meet is believed to be the most biodiverse region in North America, Nathan Sayre, of the University of California, Berkeley, told the the members of the Society for Conservation Biology, an international organization dedicated to the scientific study of the maintenance, loss, and restoration of biological diversity.

And according to Karl Flessa of the University of Arizona, "The state of the environment along the border region ranges from seriously degraded to marvelously pristine."

Big Bend Park, in the southern U.S. state of Texas, is in great shape, but many parts along Arizona's border with Mexico, including some of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a 133,825-hectare national park in the Sonoran Desert, are badly degraded due to illegal wildlife and drug smuggling, Flessa said in an

"Park personnel at the National Monument are acting as security guards trying to control all the illegal activity," he said.

An estimated 4.5 billion dollars in illegal wildlife -- birds, lizards, snakes, insects -- are smuggled into the United States each year, mainly through Mexico, said Adrián Quijada Mascareñas, of Michoacán University of San Nicolás de Hidalgo, in a conference presentation.

Only about 10 to 15 per cent the animals survive to reach their final destination. Mascareñas said that drug smugglers are switching to the wildlife trade because it is less risky, and if caught they often only receive a fine

"The volume of wildlife smuggling is having a profound impact on Mexico's own biodiversity," said López-Hoffman.

In effect, the jungles and deserts of Mexico and Central America are being emptied to supply the appetite of exotic pet collectors in the United States. Without the enormous U.S. market for illegal drugs and for cheap labour, there would be much less illegal border traffic, she added.

Building more walls and stricter border enforcement simply means that the smugglers, traffickers and illegal migrant workers move into more remote regions, damaging formerly untouched ecosystems, Flessa said.

In their efforts to stem this incoming tide, border guards themselves do a lot of damage. They build roads, burn wide areas to improve visibility, fence off wildlife trails, and fill in valleys and estuaries, he said.

Illegal immigration and border enforcement have the potential to damage some of our country's most beautiful landscapes, said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of the U.S.-based non-governmental organization Defenders of Wildlife, in a statement.

In particular, Schlickeisen expressed concern about the environmental impact of massive wall-building projects in the U.S. Southwest that are part of the immigration bill being debated in the U.S. Senate. According to Flessa, such barriers would impoverish the biological diversity of the United States.

In general, Mexico's borderlands are in better ecological health than they are on the U.S. side, and are home for many species that are endangered just across the border, such as the Sonoran pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana sonoriensis).

"The few jaguars in Arizona come from Mexico, and so will the Mexican gray wolf (Canis lupus baileyi), which is being re-introduced into New Mexico," he said.

Most famously of all, the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus linnaeus) migrates between central Mexico and central and eastern United States and into Canada. However, deforestation in Mexico has severely reduced their numbers.

These are all examples of how human activities and environmental conditions on one side of the border can affect the quality of life and the environment on the other, said López-Hoffman.

This reality means working together at the local level to solve issues and problems, and it also means taking a hard look at national government policies that create
the conditions of poverty in Mexico, and the demand for cheap labor in the United States, she said.

"Policies made many miles away in Washington, DC and Mexico City come to a head at the border," said Flessa.

* Stephen Leahy is a Tierramérica contributor.

Copyright © 2007 Tierramérica. All Rights Reserved


External Links

Society of Conservation Biology

Defenders of Wildlife

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

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