Patagonia Conservation, Arizona, Southwestern U.S.
by Fernando Silva
Through a series of events, this summer’s Doris Duke Conservation Internship took us on an adventure throughout the culturally rich and biologically diverse Sonoran, Southwest. The region is home to over seventeen contemporary native American tribes and simultaneously straddles the U.S-Mexican border within Arizona and California. Due to the confluence of the Sierra Madre range flowing in from south and Rocky Mountain range continuing into North America, the region hosts an abundance of over 1,000 native bee species, 30 native fish species, and more than 350 bird species. The high amount of geologic activity in this region has also produced a substantial amount of mineral wealth that has been exploited for centuries. The convergence of these factors makes for a region that is largely divided among the values of mining, biology, and culture.
Along with a fellow intern named Alex, I spent two months in Patagonia, Arizona, 14 miles from the U.S. Mexican Border. With a population of just over 900 people, its relatively small size gives way to an overwhelming sense of community through social events, political involvement, historical pride, and conservation initiatives.
Because the region contains several geologic formations rich in ore, the area was initially developed around mining in the early 1800’s. The presence of mining settlements and ranching activity during this period agitated relations with the Tohono O’odham and Apache tribes which eventually lead to the death of four mine mangers during separate raids. Military presence was then reestablished in 1867 to maintain order and by 1900, the town installed railroad tracks which promoted the local economy. After the end of World War II in 1945, the demand for metals shrank drastically and by 1962 the local ASARCO mill shut down which was followed by removal of the train track later that year. The once thriving economy of Patagonia plummeted overnight, reducing the population size and property values with it. This sudden loss in economic structure forced the town to innovate and has since been fostering the development of a sustainable, local economy.
During our stay, Patagonia’s underpinnings slowly revealed themselves to us. Since the development of a new mining project is currently being investigated near the town, it quickly became apparent that the local population is still grappling with how to move forward from a mining legacy. Central to the progress of moving the local economy forward are three groups: the retiree population, the pro-mining group and the local store owners. The retiree population is for the most part an environmentally oriented population composed mainly of educators who have moved to the region for its natural beauty. This same group heads the Borderlands Restoration group with whom we collaborated during our stay. Inversely, the pro-mining group is composed of longtime residents, many of who have family ties to historical mining in the area, and have seen the town struggle to get back on its feet. Their main argument is that the mine will provide jobs for residents and consequently, reinvigorate the economy. Local store owners share much the same view, yet their main concern is that the boom created by mine will only be a bubble that will eventually burst, leaving the town back at square one.
My initial mindset, after getting a general sense of the proposed mining project, was that there should be no mining what so ever in the area. But as time went on, I began to take notice of the general age distribution in town and realized that there were very few people between the ages of 20 – 35. This made me reconsider the employment benefits brought to a town by mining and how a mine could essentially restrain the “brain drain” effect from taking place. Yet, as time went on, I observed that many of the mine employees came from out of town and resided in mobile homes or rental properties which caused led to question where the mining corporation’s true interests rested; in the community or in the metal ore. From historical instances, I concluded that the mining corporation have no obligation to the town and once the ore is gone, so is the corporation along with the money. This made realize that the solution does not come from total conservation nor from complete resource extraction but instead a compromise between both.
Land conservation initiatives and eco-tourism, such as the projects initiated by the Borderlands Restoration group, are slow moving tools for developing a sustainable economy. Their final goal is usually a long-term source of revenue but their implementation is sometimes slow to be effective. Inversely, mining operations are fast moving, boom-bust projects that leave a town with less money than before. Thus, what is most important in my opinion is to promote a strong dialogue among community members so to understand their interests and develop an investment plan that takes local revenue from the mining project and reinvests it into projects that have long term employment projections such locally employed, organic farms. This coupled with other projects such farmers’ markets, local artisan investment, and conservation think tanks can give way to a locally engaged economy that is made possible by the initial revenue boom brought by mining activity.