Tuesday, April 7, 2009

A Tale of Two Countries

I have made my career as a photographer by working with conservation groups like Conservation International and the WILD Foundation. Most of the time the work takes me to remote villages and research projects where it is possible to find sanctuary in nature. More and more often, however, some of the areas in the world that harbor the lion's share of our planet's biodiversity and that have seen the most environmental degradation, the biodiversity hotspots, are also the stage for violent conflict. In a recent article I co-authored with other scientists on the subject of Warfare in the Biodiversity Hotspots we outline some of the effects of warfare on biodiversity. I however, would like to write about a couple of areas where I recently have worked where violence has exploded around us.

During a recent RAVE (Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition) of the International League of Conservation Photographers

The war that has been brewing in Mexico for the past few years and is now finally exploding and spilling into the United States is not only Mexico's fault. It is fueled by the monstrous consumption of illegal drugs in the United States, the failed immigration policies of the United States and the 8 years of neglect these issues suffered during the Bush administration. The implications are serious for both countries and we need to understand that Mexico's stability and well being are in our own best interest.

So, why should we care about Mexico's cartel war?

I can offer a few ideas:

1. National Security. The biggest threat to our national security does not come from poor illegal Mexicans crossing to find jobs. This is an undesirable effect of our own lack of effective immigration policies and our reluctance to help Mexico's economy (mixed in with a little racism and xenophobia). The threat comes from a powerful country, like the United States, allowing its next door neighbor to become violent, politically unstable and lawless. How foolish is it to say: "Mexico is not our problem" when much worse enemies can take advantage of the unstable situation to infiltrate the US. This of course is not my own thinking. It was brilliant UCLA professor Jared Diamond who outlined it in his book "Collapse; how societies choose to fail or suceed". When Dr. Diamond talks about the 5 events that might cause societies to collapse, he talks about catastrophic climate events and economic depression, but he also talks about allowing our neighbors to become weak.

2. Financial Security. Protectionism is bad economics and worse foreign policy. Did you know that Mexico is the U.S.’s second largest trading partner after Canada, and that Mexico-U.S.
trade reached $232 billion in 2002? Mexico-US trade has increased by over 225
percent since the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994. U.S. exports to
Mexico total $62.5 billion (year to date, while imports were $90.2 billion.
(Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, International Trade Administration). All the talk about "American Made" only makes sense if you have strong trading partners to buy your stuff!

3. Environmental security.The Rio Grande is the fourth longest river system in the United States and one of the most important watersheds in the southern US. The Rio Grande provides water for more than 2 million acres of croplands along its way including potatoes, alfalfa, cotton, pecans, grapes, vegetables and citrus fruits. These crops are a very important source of income for local farmer, are the fuel of local economies and are also critically important from a food security standpoint. I wonder who the genius was who decided that building an enormous fence along the river was a smart idea? Sure it provides cushy jobs for contractors but beyond being a horrendous eye sore and the most effective way of fragmenting important habitats and wildlife corridors, the fence will have serious impacts on the watershed and most importantly, it will not stop Mexicans from crossing illegally. Pieces of the fence are currently being used to build river crossings and are being dismantled and sold as scrap metal in Mexico!

4. How can we call ourselves a civilized society if we stand idle or turn a blind eye when our next door neighbor is the stage of massive violence and chaos? In the past 2 years over 6300 Mexicans have died in the cartel wars; that is more than all the US casualties that have ocurred during the entire war in Iraq! Sure, that number of deaths includes a lot of bad guys and Mexican soldiers, but it also includes hundreds of innocent victims of kidnappings, rape, mutilation and murder. If we want to call ourselves civilized, then we cannot ignore our neighbor's problems. Mexico has been there for us in our hour of need; during Hurricane Katrina, Mexico sent soldiers to help with the rescue efforts. Quite simply, from a moral standpoint, we must do everything possible to help Mexico fight this war....even if it is just to save our own skins. After all, I am sure we don't want the violence to spred like wildfire into our own nice suburban neighborhoods.

5. Most people I know enjoy some recreational marijuana. Many of them also call themselves environmentalists. What a shock they are going to get when they learn that you cannot call themselves "greenies" and be "potheads" at the same time. In South America Coca, once grown for local consumption in the Andes, is now produced in massive quantities for the US market, often also sparking armed conflict. In order to eradicate the plantations, large areas have to be sprayed with plant killers; campaigns force traffickers and growers to cut new tracts of rain forest to plant new crops causing the devastation of thousands of hectares of rain forest. Here in the United States, national forests and parks have become heavily polluted with toxic chemicals needed to yield lucrative harvests. So, let's not pretend that marijuana is a benign personal choice; it has profound effects on our planet's ecology and it is fueling one of the ugliest wars this country will ever see....one that if we decide to ignore, will come and bite us right here at home.

Just my opinion.

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