February 26, 1999
By Jeff Banister
Last March nearly 400 concerned citizens, from local activists to academics, converged on Ciudad Juárez to attend one of Mexico's largest binational summits on environment and public health. The Annual Meeting on the Border Environment, co-sponsored by the Ford and Mott Foundations, represented the first attempt to organize an inclusive forum responsive to the breadth and depth of challenges facing borderlanders.
The event was originally conceptualized in a series of binational workshops held in Guaymas, Sonora and later in Texas. Participants uniformly agreed that efforts to address environmental stresses on the US-Mexico border were largely carried out in isolation. Exponential demographic growth, meanwhile, had brought with it an increase in community-based and non-governmental organizations created to deal with the growing complexity of social problems. But thus far there had been no attempt, no public forum, to bring together the increasingly diverse array of actors. And those conferences and symposia that explicitly dealt with border issues were audience specific, even exclusive. They failed to bring together the most important elements of environmental discourse, borderlanders themselves.
Ideas generated in the Guaymas and Texas workshops soon crystallized into plans for a more inclusive meeting on the border environment. A proposal was drawn up and sent to the Mott and Ford Foundations which generously granted funding for two years. Planning committee members were then selected. They, in turn, promptly agreed upon a date and venue. Ciudad Juárez, located about half-way between Tijuana and Matamoros, seemed both symbolically and logistically appropriate. Representatives from the Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey, Universidad Autonoma de Ciudad Juárez, FEMAP, and SADEC began making local arrangements. The core planning committee, including members of Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambiental, Texas Center for Policy Studies, again the Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey, La Red Fronteriza de Educación Ambiental and the Latin American Area Center at he University of Arizona, meanwhile, set out to draft a bilingual agenda sensitive to the needs of a diverse audience.
By late January it was already clear that attendance would far outstrip originally-projected figures. For weeks the planning committee and conference coordinators, along with researchers at the Incitra, had been building a fairly exhaustive database on institutions and people working on environment and public health issues. Uniquely, the meeting also made travel and lodging grants and fee waivers available to organizations with insufficient resources to participate. All of these efforts, combined with growing widespread concern for the border environment, attracted nearly 400 participants from all over Mexico, Canada and the United States to Ciudad Juárez.
Setting an agenda for such a diverse crowd was complicated. But more than a training session, the overarching task of the first meeting was to physically bring people together and create a nurturing environment for dialogue. The final result was a series of round table discussions, workshops, funding meetings and, most importantly, free time for networking. Session topics ranged from a general plenary on the future of the border environment to roundtable discussions addressing specific issues such as the right to know about pollutants, local knowledge, and project funding. Informal conversations and impromptu regional caucuses yielded some of the most encouraging results. Borderlanders concerned about the proposed nuclear waste site in Sierra Blanca, for instance, convened an impromptu meeting out of which grew more concrete plans for action. They later held a press conference. Environmental educators met and discussed ideas for a broader education coalition. And in the end, representatives from some of the larger foundations strengthened personal ties with their grant recipients and vice versa. According to participant evaluations, with the exception of some minor logistical and theoretical shortcomings, the event was overwhelmingly successful.
Plans are now underway to do it again. The Second Annual Meeting on the Border Environment is scheduled for April 22-24, 1999. It will be held in Tijuana, Baja California, at the Hotel Camino Real. To make the conference still more responsive to the needs of its participants, the Planning Committee sent out a "Call for Workshop and Session Proposals." Non-governmental and community-based organizations, research institutions, government agencies, and community activists were highly encouraged to send in proposals.
The general focus for 1999 is "Strategies and Solutions for the Border Environment," and proposals were drafted with this in mind. The primary concern in the selection of workshop ideas is to ensure balanced representation from Mexico and the United States, as well as direct participation from NGOs and CBOs. Over fifty proposals from Mexican, Native American and Northamerican organizations were received by the planning committee. Once proposals have been selected, funds will be made available to cover travel/lodging expenses for up to four members of the organizing group. (Additional conference travel grants will be available to attendees-especially those from Mexico-who are not directly involved with a panel or workshop).
For more information, contact the Latin American Area Center at the University of Arizona by phone, fax, mail, or e-mail: Latin American Area Center, University of Arizona, Douglass Building PO Box 210028 Tucson, AZ 85721-0028. Tel (520) 626-8197. Fax (520) 626-7248. E-mail: email@example.com
Our website contains detailed information on the call for proposals, as well as a report from the 1998 meeting in both English and Spanish: http://w3.arizona.edu/~laac/bordconf.htm
We look forward to seeing you in Tijuana!
Banister is Coordinator, Annual Meeting on the Border Environment.