Territories of Chance Meet Territories of Choice


Conservation across Borders. Biodiversity in an Interdependent World. Chester, C. C. 2006 . Island Press , Washington , D.C. 277 (xv + 262) pp . $60.00 (hardcover). ISBN 1-55963-610-6 . $29.95 (paperback). ISBN 1-55963-611-4 .

Conserving biological diversity across national borders is difficult. Mobilizing civil organizations across borders to work together over an extended period of time toward any goal is even harder, especially when that goal involves working within and across complex social, ecological, and political systems on a large scale. The great strength of Charles C. Chester's Conservation across Borders: Biodiversity in an Interdependent World lies in his detailed and carefully researched case studies of the experiences of two very different transboundary civil organizations: the International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA), operating across the U.S.–Mexico border, and the Yellowstone to Yukon conservation initiative (Y2Y), covering the “wild Rockies” from Wyoming in the United States up to the Yukon territory in Canada. Both organizations came together in the early 1990s, seeking to manage biodiversity conservation on an unprecedented scale, and both faced considerable challenges, internal and external, in meeting their goals. Chester's nuanced account of their very different experiences is based on interviews with key participants, archival research, and a keen understanding of the political contexts in each region and makes compelling reading for natural and social scientists and students working on biodiversity issues and civil society activism. This book would work very well in environmental studies courses that focus on transboundary and nonstate environmental politics in North America. It is also a good model for graduate students seeking to do similar research.

From its beginnings, the ISDA was a “tri-cultural” alliance, bringing together U.S., Mexican, and Native American representatives to focus on environmental protection, sustainable development, and international communication in the western Sonoran desert region. Its broad mission also included taking into account human needs in a region identified with economic depression and border problems such as illegal immigration and drug smuggling. Its very inclusiveness and breadth of mission made its work critical and quite a bit harder, marking the first time such cross-cultural (and multilingual) cooperation had occurred in that region. Chester enumerates the very different activities that the ISDA has been involved in. At the core of the story (amid numerous, although smaller, successes) is its failed attempt to work with U.S. and Mexican governments to set up an International Biosphere Reserve in the region in the mid-1990s. This turned out to be a badly timed initiative, with U.S. federal authorities turning away from international environmental agreements and a significant domestic backlash against UN-led conservation initiatives (such as UNESCO-designated world heritage zones). More important than this failure, however, Chester demonstrates how ISDA picked itself up and carried on in the western Sonoran desert, albeit at a lower profile, working toward, for example, a rejuvenation of the gateway town of Ajo.

The Y2Y, by contrast, was a very different sort of organization from the outset. Chester traces how the iconic “Yellowstone to Yukon” landscape served as a mobilizing and unifying “vision” for an alliance made up primarily of conservation science and activist organizations across the region. In its early years it remained more or less within these communities, but began to broaden its reach in the early 2000s, particularly by reaching out to Native American communities. Rather than specific achievements, Chester points to Y2Y's success in reframing the conservation debate in the northern Rockies, encouraging conservationists to think across borders and on a far larger scale than they had previously and providing a highly effective networking venue. Like ISDA, Y2K has not gone unchallenged. It, too, faced something of a right-wing, “anti-Black Helicopter” backlash. Yet, for reasons the author enumerates, the organization has prevailed and, in the words of some, redefined the conservation landscape in the northern Rockies.

In the final comparative chapter, Chester identifies eight variables that shaped the impact and effectiveness of each organization: mission breadth, constituency inclusion, communication systems, scientific participation and support, leadership dynamics, political backlash, and landscape vision (pp. 228–234). Chester wisely avoids the trap of comparing the two organizations directly, instead taking into account the very different organizational and political conditions under which each was operating. The ISDA, for example, by aiming for a broad reach from the outset was constantly mediating tri-cultural and tri-lingual challenges and had to deal with far more toxic border politics than did Y2Y. It is significant that the only real discussion given to the U.S.–Canadian border is in terms of “cross-border learning,” as opposed to the significant space given to problems within and between the United States and Mexico around regional cooperation and environmental protection. Even within the limits of these two cases, he draws out insights worthy of further research. The one I found most striking is that full participation by all local stakeholders from the beginning may not be the most effective way to achieve material goals, although it may have critical “by-products” in terms of communication and learning. I may be exaggerating Chester's findings somewhat, but given recent trends in community-based conservation, it is worth some thought.

In the early chapters of Conservation across Borders, Chester discusses the way human-made borders, particularly in North America, create “territories of chance,” which rarely coincide with the ecosystems across and around those political boundaries. His story is one of how civil-society—and not government—actors are critical in attempts to create “territories of choice,” visions of landscapes and communities that are integrated, rather than divided. In key, albeit different, ways, both Y2Y and ISDA have made headway toward this goal. It is to be hoped that the lessons to be drawn from this volume will be usefully extended and applied not only in North America but in other border regions of the world.