Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home pageNo. 39, Spring/Summer 1996

One man's story

For the whole story, see: Building The International Sonoran Desert Alliance

Manuel Romero stands up, his hands on the table for support. He has never done anything like this before. He looks around. There are more than 90 people in the room. His gray, Pancho Villa-style mustache quivers as he draws a breath to speak.

"It is my daughter," he says. "She is diabetic and cannot cross the border for the medical attention she needs. I draw the blood and carry it to Phoenix myself, where they analyze it. I inject her with the insulin as I was trained.

"She is my daughter. What am I to do?"

It is October, 1993, the eighth meeting of the International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA). The meeting convenes in Sonoyta, Sonora, and is hosted by that growing border town's Mayor Lic. Armando Celeya Duarte. The issue is the difficulty in crossing the international line, an issue dear to many hearts, particularly to those of the Tohono O'odham, whose historical land base, families, and farms were wrenched apart in the diplomatically hostile 1854 Gadsden Purchase.

The ten government agencies with jurisdiction over both sides of the border were invited to the meeting to describe their disparate roles and responsibilities. Each is so different and yet so similar that it is confusing. The agency representatives were invited to educate us about the rules and regulations and to explain what really happens on "The Line." An ulterior motive was to begin a two-way dialogue, one that included two-way listening.

Border crossing isn't the only issue on the agenda. We also learn about a mine scheduled to begin operations near the tiny ejido community of Quitovac, Sonora.

Minera Hecla, a Mexican mining subsidiary of a company headquartered in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, is bringing economic prosperity to Quitovac and Sonoyta in the form of 200 jobs. But there are questions about the impacts of increased water use on Quitovac Springs, one of the few remaining artesian springs in the Sonoran Desert; about the effectiveness of emergency response plans filed with the state in case of toxic release or spill; about the potential for contamination of groundwater and native soils from the cyanide the mine will use in the leaching process; and about the impacts on surrounding flora, fauna, and the still vibrant cultural heritage of the Hia-Ced O'odham.

Only A Beginning

These two issues represent only a subset of the many concerns the ISDA had considered or addressed since December of 1992, when the Alliance first met as a group and resolved to build better relationships along "La Lina."

In January 1994, for example, the Alliance had held its second international forum, framed as a "cross-border exchange." It was a grassroots effort geared to getting local residents to identify their own goals and objectives, to produce a blueprint for the region and a guide for future activities of the Alliance.

Nine working groups developed strategies for meeting regional needs in health care, tourism, management of protected areas and biosphere reserves, information exchange across international borders, economic development, environmental education, and trade and transportation. Two panels, "Stories of the Region" and "Science & Research," brought together noted researchers and scientists who shared knowledge and historical information about the area. The proceedings for the conference were published with support from the Arizona Game and Fish Department and Bank One.

Recommendations made during the conference were prioritized and funds were made available through a $250,000 appropriation from the U.S. Congress, spearheaded by then Senator Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ).

The forum's mix of participants reflects ISDA's structure.

Three of the organization's board members are from the O'odham Nation, three are from the Cucupa Nation, three are resident citizens of Mexico, and three are resident citizens of the U.S. Government representatives serve in an advisory capacity as non-voting committee members. By successfully creating a vital link between community residents and government, the Alliance represents an innovative, transnational public-private partnership.

The ISDA's membership structure is flat: one person, "one vote." "Membership" in the Alliance is open; anyone who attends is a member. Every "member" is an equal. There is little hierarchy. It is a highly participatory, open process, geared toward developing active participation from the grassroots level.

Decisions are made by consensus as described in the bylaws: "The corporation shall strive to reach consensus among members and to respect dissenting and minority opinions when consensus is not possible." This consensus-driven process, though cumbersome, respects the cultural differences prevalent in this border area. It is key to the organization's future success.

Cultural diversity, represented by each Alliance member, is ISDA's strength. Each individual brings a new set of eyes and ears, a new perspective and opinion. Each member represents an opportunity for developing innovative solutions and strategies for resolving differences. This idea was so essential to the framework of the Alliance that it, too, was codified in the bylaws.

It Is About My Daughter. . .

It is November 12, 1993, the ninth meeting of the International Sonoran Desert Alliance. This meeting convenes in Ajo, Arizona.

Manuel Romero raises his hand. He wants to speak. Mr. Romero remains seated this time, relaxed, among friends.

"It is about my daughter," he says. "She is now able to go to Phoenix and receive the medical attention she needs."

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