Nature v. the Department of Homeland Security: Eco-War on the Rio Grande

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A True Oasis

The Rio Grande rises in the mountains of southern Colorado near the Continental Divide, flows south past historic Albuquerque and Las Cruces in New Mexico, and turns to the southeast at El Paso, Texas where it becomes the border between the U.S. and Mexico for 1,254 miles.  All along its route — through the San Luis valley in Colorado, central New Mexico, the arid Chihuahua Desert, and the rugged brush country of south Texas and northern Mexico — the Rio Grand is a true oasis.

An Oasis under Stress

The Rio Grande (known as the Rio Bravo del Norte in Mexico) is the third longest and most environmentally stressed waterway in North America.  The river is polluted so badly that it is creating a creeping dead zone in the coastal waters where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

The pollution in the Rio Grande is a toxic mix of industrial waste discharged mostly by the maquiladora manufacturing plants on the Mexican side of the river (many of which are dirty industries exported from the U.S. rather than being cleaned up), both treated and untreated sewage and garbage dumped in the watershed by the booming border towns, agricultural run-off from the farms in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and increasing amounts of transportation pollution from the heavily traveled NAFTA corridors.

The river environment is also being stressed by the unplanned and unregulated colonias populated by the poor that are developing on both sides of the river and by the pressure of illegal river-crossing traffic that contributes significantly to riverine erosion and leaves scattered refuse in its wake.

The Defenders

Fortunately, the Rio Grande has champions.  Notable in the Laredo region is the Rio Grande International Study Center (RGISC), which relies primarily on volunteers to pursue its mission of improving and protecting the quality and quantity of water in the river.  RGISC has initiated a plastic bag reduction program, several wetland preservation and restoration projects, and, in conjunction with the Lamar Bruni Vergara Environmental Science Center at Laredo Community College (LCC), is developing an ecologically sound carizzo cane (an invasive plant) control project as an alternative to the destructive combination mechanical, chemical, and introduced plant-predator defoliation plan now under consideration by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

In addition, the RGISC is challenging another major assault on the Rio Grande launched by the DHS.

The Battle at Laredo

The DHS, which has already built a fence that separates the LCC Environmental Science Center from the Rio Grande (the primary focus of its study program), wants to increase border security at Laredo by building a new, wider patrol road through the environmentally sensitive river bottom.

The environmental impact of the proposed road will be dire.  The new road (which has already been surveyed) will totally destroy sections of the Paso del Indio nature trail that has been developed by LCC and RGISC as an educational tool and will disrupt ongoing river protection and restoration projects.  The DHS proposal calls for installing numerous culverts and topping the new road with packed caliche in order to prevent erosion — both measures will cause extensive environmental damage.

A RGISC report being prepared by Dr. James Earhart and Val Moreno that will be submitted to the Laredo City Council (the local authority that must approve the DHS project) asserts that the proposed road will be an environmental disaster and that it is not maintainable in either the short or the long run.  In a video presentation that accompanies the report, Earhart and Moreno offer compelling images of the remains of an old patrol road that was all but obliterated by a major flood in 1998 and scenes of the environmental damage being compounded by ongoing efforts of the Corps of Engineers to control the erosion of the existing road.

All of the evidence documented by Earhart and Moreno reinforces the time-honored wisdom that building in the Rio Grande flood plain is a bad idea.

To be sure, both the DHS and the U.S. Corps of Engineers know this; the fact that no section of the new fence that the DHS wants to build along the Rio Grande is going to be located in the flood plain proves it.  Equally certain is the fact that the DHS knows that it will have to complement the new border fence by bulldozing patrol roads through the river bottom like the one proposed for Laredo.  The outcome of the battle at Laredo, then, will surely shape the future of the entire border section of the river.

To understand the eco-war on the Rio Grande, of which the battle at Laredo is only one skirmish, we need to examine the global politics at play.

A Local Skirmish in a Global War

The eco-war on the Rio Grande is one consequence of U.S. capitalism’s efforts to expand and maintain control over the people of the Global South.  Under the rhetoric of the global war on terror, the DHS is doing the work of empire.  By sealing the southern border, DHS is preparing the way for a pending U.S. guest worker program that will establish state-sponsored access to the labor of the people of Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean nations for the maintenance of the U.S. empire (for a full discussion of the push for a national guest worker program see “Transient Servitude: The U.S. Guest Worker Program for Exploiting Mexican and Central American Workers”).  This critical issue, though it has been tabled until after the upcoming U.S. presidential election, is at the top of U.S. capitalism’s agenda and will be taken up again soon after the new president is inaugurated.

Meanwhile, time is running out for the Rio Grande.  For millennia it was an oasis for the indigenous people whose lives depended on the river and who lived in harmony with nature.  Walking along the Paso del Indio today with knowledge of the politics at play on the Rio Grande makes one realize that the surrounding environment is at risk of becoming more collateral damage in the global war that is raging against working people and the environment everywhere.

It’s not hard to find a place to take a stand — the fight is all around us.

Join the good fight!  The RGISC is now seeking a candidate for the position of executive director.  This opportunity is far more than a job; it is a key post on the frontline of the battle to protect the environment and safeguard the future.  Contact Dr. James Earhart at:

Support the struggle!  RGISC is involved in key litigation and environmental projects that will affect the future of the entire Rio Grande Valley.  To volunteer or send financial contributions contact:

Rio Grande International Study Center
West End Washington Street
Laredo, Texas 78040

Richard D. Vogel is a political reporter who monitors the effects of globalization on working people and their communities.  Other works include “The NAFTA Corridors: Offshoring U.S. Transportation Jobs to Mexico” and “The Fight of Our Lives: The War of Attrition against U.S. Labor.”  Contact:

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