A leading source for news and analysis about Mexico and the U.S.-Mexican border.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Political Equator border crossing through drain culvert
political equator logohas international impact in media

By David Gaddis Smith

UCSD professor Teddy Cruz wanted Political Equator 3 to have international impact — and it already has with the wide distribution of stories and photos about its mass, legal "political walking in culvert photo by leslie ryantheater" crossing of the San Diego-Tijuana border through a smelly drain culvert Saturday.

A large number of media organizations, such as in Connecticut, ran the Associated Press stories and photos about the event. In Tijuana, Political Equator got noticed, too, in the media and also because three buses Political Equator 3 participants traveled in were given police escorts whose flashing lights helped clear the roads of traffic. Story, Frontera (Sunday). Story, El Mexicano (Monday, from The Associated Press). The AP article also was published in Canada. The story likely got less coverage in the San Diego-Tijuana region than it might have otherwise because former Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon got arrested on suspicion of illegal arms possession early Saturday, diverting resources that otherwise might have gone to the Political Equator event.       
                                                                      Photo of culvert crossing by Leslie Ryan

The June 3-4 event attracted people from all over the world and was labeled "Conversations on Co-Existence: Border Neighborhoods as Sites of Production." It focused on community work by Casa Familiar in San Ysidro and cross-border environmental problems that U.S. border security measures and pollution from communities in the Los Laureles Canyon in Mexico are causing for the Tijuana River Estuary in the United States.

About 100 participants crossed a U.S. checkpoint holding their passports and then passed through the huge and smelly culvert, where they received visas from Mexican officials on the other side and climbed up to an area next to the road that goes to Playas de Tijuana. After about 100 more people who could not or would not cross the culvert arrived in a bus after going through the San Ysidro border crossing, there was a series of short speeches. Three buses escorted by Tijuana police using flashing lights then took participants to a community whose construction eight years ago caused the destruction of what Oscar Romo described as a pristine salt-marsh ecosystem. The community was about three miles away as the crow flies, but much farther away by road.

Romo, watershed coordinator for the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, said it took about a year to get the permissions for the unusual border crossing.

Romo, who also is a UCSD lecturer, started the event Saturday by saying the estuary is an outlet for a 1,700-square-mile watershed. "All the water drains through this stretch of land, only 5,000 acres, that is what is left," he said at the Tijuana River Estuary Visitor Center in Imperial Beach.

He said, "Thirty years ago, this was the dump site for the city of Imperial Beach."

He described how an attempt to turn the area into a residential marina about 25 years ago was stopped by citizens. The area then was bought by federal government. He said the estuary is a "regional asset" and is an important stop in the flyway for birds flying from South America to Alaska.

He said, "This place would not exist without the sediment coming from Mexico , but it is now overwhelming" and choking the estuary.

He then spoke about a Los Laureles canyon community that was the last stop for Border Equator 3 and which has been a major source of problems for the environment.

"Eight years ago, a developer decided to remove all the vegetation on a former ranch to create a new community called Progressive Rural Development." Romo wondered why it was given such a name, as he said in this case, progressive meant "no paved roads, no sewer, no electricity, no water, that's progressive. Rural, I guess that means the lots should be large. They are tiny."

political equator mapHe said, "Somehow that developer got away with a permit to build that in the middle of the city. He removed the vegetation, coincided with an El Niño storm, and ... we lost 20 acres of a pristine ecosystem like this in one single night. If we put a value to it, a monetary value, we lost about $40 million in one night."

He said that now, "years and years after, we haven't found the money to restore" the site, although measures are being taken to try to mitigate the problems.

The map at right shows the three main staging areas for Political Equator 3 (red circles): San Ysidro, the Tijuana River Estuary and Goat Canyon, and south of the red line, Los Laureles Canyon in Tijuana.

At the border, storms dump tons of trash and sediment from Tijuana into Goat Canyon on the U.S. side, where the drain culvert crossing was made, and the garbage and and earthen material eventually find their way to the estuary. "Every drop of water that falls in Tijuana winds up here really fast." Still, Romo saw that there could be solutions, "one micro basin at a time." His focus is on educating Mexicans to improve erosion control through planting native vegetation and other measures.

Later, speaking at the 8-year-old community from a soccer field in the Parque Frontera that is a reclaimed dump site, he spoke of how Tijuana has created a watershed council. He said about 10,000 tires were collected "from the environment" to form retaining walls. Native vegetation was planted. The non-profit Alter Terra organization he directs is teddy cruz tracking where the trash that winds up in the United States comes from in Tijuana. He said such measures have helped reduce the amount of sediment and trash arriving at the estuary.

The soccer field was 749 feet above sea level; the tent in Goat Canyon 3.4 miles away was at an elevation of 86 feet.

Cruz (right), an architect and professor of visual arts at UCSD who was a driving force behind the event, said 85,000 people were "pushing the border" from Los Laureles Canyon.

He said many discarded U.S. materials recycled by Mexicans to build houses wind up as trash back on the U.S. side at the estuary.

Cruz, who recently won a $100,00 award from the Ford Foundation as being one of 12 visionaries, said at the border: "Probably very few places in the world can you have that very critical proximity of environmental zones, informal settlements, militarization, systems of formal and informal governance and economy, a very few meters from each other, very close to each other."

He spoke of a "collision between jurisdictional and natural systems" where a 150-foot-wide band at the border wound up belonging to Homeland Security after the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Measures to improve U.S. access to and control of the area have contributed to the watershed's problems. Cruz said, "We have to understand the impact of the construction of the new walls and the whole infrastructure of surveillance, the impact it has on the environmental stability of this region." He added, "We need to absorb environmental issues into security issues."

He called the crossing at the culvert an act of political theater.
Voice of San Diego story on Cruz and Casa Familiar connection

sergio fajardoMany others were brought in to speak Friday and Saturday.

The main featured speaker for the event was the former mayor of Medellin, Colombia, Sergio Fajardo, (right) a mathematician who led an independent movement to clean up politics in the city famous for having been the home of drug cartel leader Pablo Escobar. Fajardo became mayor, and built numerous innovative public works projects such as libraries and community centers in poor neighborhoods during his 2003-2007 term. He gave two inspiring speeches, one in English at Casa Familiar and one in Spanish at the Parque Frontera, about how to organize communities and how to accomplish beautiful things without getting trapped in the snare of corruption.

Story on his Friday speech in Saturday's Frontera (the story says he was going to cross the border through the drain culvert, but he had to cross in the bus, apparently because of paperwork problems.)

Fajardo discusses funding his projects (YouTube video).

eyal weizmancynthia hooperPalestinian Eyal Weizman (far left) discussed de-colonizing architecture. He said a damonb richformer Israeli watchtower was found to be "the perfect place for bird watching."
Artist and filmmaker Cynthia Hooper (left) showed her film about Tijuana's waterworks.
Damon Rich (right) spoke about moving from being a community activist to becoming an urban designer and waterfront planner in Newark, N.J.

Political Earthquake 3 said its event was "co-organized by the Center for Urban Ecologies at the Visual Arts Department at UCSD, and two community-based, non-profit organizations on both sides of the border, Casa Familiar in San Ysidro, California and Alter Terra in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico." Political Earthquake 3 had major funding from the Ford Foundation.

The two previous Political Equators were held along the San Diego-Tijuana border. Cruz said he was considering holding the next one in Buenos Aires or Bangkok and hoped that all the work that went into Political Equator 3 would help change the way people think and help effect actions that transcend politics and and economics to make the world a better place.


sergio fayardo speaks at parque frontera

Former Medellin Mayor Sergio Fajardo (standing in left middle ground) speaks at Parque Frontera in Tijuana. The scene on the video screen set up on a truck bed is of Fajardo with King Juan Carlos of Spain, when Juan Carlos visited Medellin and inaugurated the Spain Library Park in an extremely poor section of the city. Fajardo said it was the only occasion he wore a tie.

parque frontera walls used as retaing walladalberto olivas and bruno diaz at the park





Abandoned tires were used to help form a retaining wall for the Parque Frontera soccer field. In right photo, Adalberto Olivas, 70, and Bruno Diaz, 71, stand overlooking the park, where a tent (far right) had been put up for Political Equator 3. Olivas moved to the community seven years ago and said it took major effort to get electricity and water service.

los laureles canyon communitylos laureles canyon community commerce








The Los Laureles canyon community built eight years ago, at great cost to the environment.


oscar romo and border model


border patrol

The Border Patrol was present outside a tent erected in Goat Canyon, known as Los Laureles Canyon in Tijuana. At right, Oscar Romo (far right) points to a site on a model of the border area.



approaching the culvert leslie ryan photo

Participants approach the drainage culvert Saturday. Photo by Leslie Ryan.

view to next meeting site from tent

After meeting in a tent in Goat Canyon on the U.S. side, participants walked through a drainage culvert and up to an area near a yellow pedestrian bridge in the upper-middle-right of the photo, after passing through a temporary passport checkpoint.

view down goat canyontent taken down on u.s. side

meeting on the tijuana sidebus and tijuana police














The logistics involved in putting together Political Equator 3 were tremendous. At left, the view down Goat Canyon past the border wall down to the road area where the tent that had been used on the U.S. side is being dismantled and placed in a truck that says Party Rentals. Right top photo, the tent being dismantled further. Right middle photo, participants near the yellow pedestrian bridge near the border listen to a talk amplified by a megaphone. Right bottom photo, Tijuana police and one of the buses used to transport participants. Although those crossing through the culvert had their passports examined, those crossing by bus did not.


mario lopez and andrea skorepa

The Tijuana Reacciona group seeking to improve Tijuana formed part of Political Equator 3. This Tijuana Reacciona T-shirt says "Your actions for good are the ink that cannot be erased."
In right photo, Mario Lopez and Casa Familiar CEO Andrea Skorepa listen to a discussion at Casa Familiar in San Ysidro on Friday.