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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Mexico's Spoils Forcing Immigration?

Air Date: Week of

As the Sierra Club wrangles over immigration limits, another group is probing the link between environmental degradation in Mexico and the high rates of migration. More people emigrate out of Mexico each year than from any other country in the world, although many do so only seasonally. This is according to a study by the Natural Heritage Institute, a California based environmental think-tank. They also say that many of the migrants might not be here if Mexico's environment, especially its forests and agricultural fields, were not so badly damaged. Steve Curwood spoke with Michelle Leighton, co-founder and senior legal counsel of the Natural Heritage Institute. She says their survey shows that the $2 to 3 billion dollars the U-S spends each year for border enforcement might be better used to help make Mexico's forestry and farming more sustainable.


CURWOOD: As the Sierra Club wrangles over immigration limits, another group is probing the link between environmental degradation in Mexico and high rates of immigration. More people emigrate out of Mexico each year than from any other country in the world. That's according to the Natural Heritage Institute, a California-based environmental think-tank. Michelle Leighton is the group's co-founder and senior legal counsel. She says the $2 to $3 billion the US spends each year for border enforcement would be better used to help make Mexico's forestry and farming more sustainable.

LEIGHTON: Land degradation is so severe in Mexico that it's reducing the ability of people to survive in these rural dry land areas. And they are forced to leave whether they like it or not, whether they've ever given thought to making higher wages in the US or moving to the big cities. They are forced to leave and they leave and come and find jobs seasonally and try to go back, actually, to the lands that they left to try and harvest what they can. And then they're forced to leave again as the lands become more and more eroded, in order to keep their families alive, really.

CURWOOD: What's happening that's new, now? I mean, there's always been drought, there's been dry weather for -- for eons, presumably. Why is this land in Mexico becoming so unfarmable today?

LEIGHTON: Well, it's one of those exponential factors. You get more and more people on the land having to eke out an existence. You get more and more livestock grazing in unsustainable ways. Decades and decades of fertilizers that eventually leach out all the nutrients. And you've got drought, periodic drought that then exacerbates that problem. So we're looking in the 90s at a phenomenon that's going to carry us well into the year 2000.

CURWOOD: Well, what's the Mexican government doing to try to fight these trends?

LEIGHTON: Well, as far as we can tell, they've actually pulled resources from programs that could help address this, and have cut many education and training programs. So the agencies that could be helpful in working with local farmers in these very affected areas are just not there. There aren't any resources.

CURWOOD: Well, why did they do that? Why would they pull those resources?

LEIGHTON: The government has put most of its money into industrialization of Mexico as a means of trying to create greater economic prosperity in Mexico that would eventually trickle down to all of these people who are forced to leave the rural areas and search for jobs. They're going to have to create about a million jobs a year to keep up with the population trends. But if you've also got a million people a year leaving these dry lands, which is the case now, they may have to double that. That will be almost an impossibility for them, but I think the government has thought that export and economic growth in those sectors would be the way to change this dynamic.

CURWOOD: But it's not working, you're saying.

LEIGHTON: It's not working yet, and we're not sure that it will in decades to come. The economists cannot predict whether or not the severe economic reforms undertaken by the government will actually have the kind of impact they want. This is all sort of economic speculation. Meanwhile, we've got a lot of people who are forced to leave these dry land areas and who will continue to leave.

CURWOOD: What percentage, do you think, of the migration from Mexico into the United States is due to environmental degradation?

LEIGHTON: That is very difficult to estimate. No one has yet documented how many people are crossing the border because of this phenomenon. They may go into the cities first; they may displace others from jobs who may then cross the border, or they may go directly across the border.

CURWOOD: And you wouldn't be surprised if the research showed it was 20, 30, 40 percent.

LEIGHTON: Not at all.

CURWOOD: What should the United States do to help Mexico deal with this problem, make its land more productive?

LEIGHTON: It should work with the government to ensure that the Mexican government has the expertise and resources it needs to go out into these rural areas and help farmers change the management practices of the lands. Because in actuality you can address some of these desertification problems through better management practices, rotating lands, rotating livestock patterns. And that's not being done. We have a great deal of expertise in this country that is untapped and not being used in cooperation with Mexico. And our government has not seen that as a priority.

CURWOOD: Michelle Leighton is the co-founder and senior legal counsel for the Natural Heritage Institute in San Francisco. Thanks for joining us.

LEIGHTON: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.



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