Biodiversity Has No Use for Walls
By Stephen Leahy*
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
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
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,
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,
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
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.