Community-based Approaches to Environmental Problems on the Arizona-Sonora Border

BARA researchers have worked for more than a decade on community-based projects on the U.S.-Mexico border. The goal of these projects is to involve residents and community leaders in the identification and implementation of solutions to pressing environmental problems. Applying the approach known as community-based participatory research, BARA faculty and students work with partners in local secondary and post-secondary institutions as well as in government, business and industry, and non-governmental organizations.

In 1996, as part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Environmental Justice Through Pollution Prevention Program and at the request of the City Environmental Engineer for the city of Nogales, Arizona, BARA faculty and students conducted an assessment of pollution prevention options for neighborhoods and small businesses in Nogales, Arizona. The project led to a hazardous waste collection effort, plans for a local environmental hotline, and posters designed to help small businesses inform employees and customers about environmentally safe practices.

In May 2001, students from the University of Arizona (UA) worked with high school students from the Centro de Estudios Tecnológicos industrial y de servicios No. 128 (CETis 128) in Nogales, Sonora to assess the nature and extent of the devegetation and erosion problem in Ambos Nogales ("ambos" is Spanish for "both" and refers to the twin cities of Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Arizona) and the feasibility of community-based solutions. The assessment was initiated by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) as part of a larger effort of the Social and Economic Development Subgroup of the U.S.-Mexico Border Liaison Mechanism to address air quality issues in Ambos Nogales. The assessment demonstrated that even small increases in plant cover could significantly reduce erosion and that residents and civic leaders in Ambos Nogales would support revegetation efforts, especially if those focused on native, drought-resistant plants. It also revealed that a successful revegetation program would require community education that would raise general awareness of environmental issues and address specific topics such as how to identify and select native plants, how to maintain plants, and how revegetation can reduce erosion. The assessment led to the creation of a partnership of academic, governmental, non-governmental, and business organizations and community residents to focus attention on revegetation and protecting of existing vegetation. In 2003, the partnership became the Asociación de Reforestación en Ambos Nogales.

In 2002, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) initiated the Colonias Monitoring Program to provide the information needed to inventory, analyze, and monitor growth, housing, and infrastructure in border communities. Additional objectives of the program included establishing partnerships with local government agencies and organizations involved in housing and infrastructure development, and promoting collaboration between sister cities. BARA researchers were asked to conduct an assessment of user interest, knowledge, and participation in the development of this geographic information system (GIS) based program. Results of the assessment were published in 2004 in a report, Obtaining and Evaluating User Participation in GIS Database Development in U.S.-Mexico Colonias. Additional information about the colonias web mapping service for Arizona and Sonora can be found at Responding to local concerns about environmental health issues and desires for enrichment programs for high school-aged youth, and with support from the Arizona Department of Health Services' Healthy Gente program, in 2004 BARA faculty and students entered into partnership with the Southeast Arizona Area Health Education Center to develop a summer environmental health research camp. The binational and bilingual camp brings together students from Nogales, Sonora and Santa Cruz County, Arizona to investigate environmental health issues in their community at the same time they are developing community research and leadership skills.

During the summer of 2004, BARA researchers established a partnership with faculty and students at the Instituto Tecnológico de Nogales (ITN) and Bicycle Inter-Community Action and Salvage (BICAS), a non-profit bicycle cooperative of Tucson, AZ, to develop a bicycle recycling program in Nogales, Sonora.

Building upon local interests and partnerships, in 2004 students from the UA Department of Anthropology teamed up with BARA researchers, faculty and students at the Instituto Tecnológico de Nogales (ITN), and representatives from the Clean Cities Coalition and the Arizona Department of the Environment to investigate the potential for the production, distribution, and use of biodiesel in Ambos Nogales. Biodiesel is a renewable fuel for diesel engines derived from vegetable oils and animal fats; it is produced by a chemical process which removes the glycerin from the oil. It has been identified as a potential option to reduce various pollutants including CO² and particulate matter. The study showed that there is a potential to produce biodiesel from used cooking oil in the region, corresponding to available oil and collection infrastructure and increasing demand for biodiesel use. The study found, however, that production of biodiesel from waste vegetable oil would be best implemented at the community, or grassroots, level. In 2005, ITN students established a laboratory on their campus to begin small-scale production of biodiesel. This project is being incorporated into a larger effort, begun in July 2005, to investigate and implement alternative construction, heating and cooking technologies to reduce wood burning and improve air quality.