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UA aims to reduce Nogales pollution

By Stephanie Callimanis

Wednesday October 31, 2001

Students work with community members to build awareness of conservation

The drive across the border to Nogales, Sonora is likely to be met with a view of colorful houses cluttering the steep hillsides - and an overwhelming cloud of air pollution.

Border air quality has been growing steadily worse for years, and it has attracted the attention of University of Arizona students and faculty. Together, they have created a study that will try to improve air quality in Nogales by replanting native vegetation in the area.

UA's Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology created the study - the Ambos Nogales Revegetation Project - last summer to initiate the replanting and enlisted community members to help with the project.

To reach the community on different levels, the project has three pilot sites listed for replanting - an elementary school, a high school and a city neighborhood, or colonia.

Before choosing the exact sites that would be used in the study, a group of UA students went door-to-door around Nogales conducting interviews about people's environmental concerns.

"It's difficult when coming from the academic world," said Rebecca Drummond, a geography graduate student who took part in the interviewing. "To us, the word conservation means ecology and plants. They ask 'conservation of what?'"

Despite their differences, those who were surveyed seemed to agree on one thing: The air quality in Nogales is a problem.

One of the sources of Nogales' pollution is the number of unpaved roads in the city. Adding to the amount of dust in the air is the erosion of hillsides, a common problem as the development of homes increases in the area.

When plants are removed during construction, the steep, barren slopes become like dry riverbeds. During heavy rainfall, rainwater rushes downhill, eroding the hillsides and carrying the dirt downhill, dumping it into the roads.

A study in one of the colonias by UA students last summer showed that increasing the vegetation on hillsides by 7 percent could lead to an 80 percent decrease in sediment yield in the roads, preventing loose soil from washing down the hills.

A study on air quality and revegetation has never been done before in pilot communities, Drummond said.

Outreach is extremely important so "once the grant is gone these projects can continue to sustain themselves. That's why these sites were chosen."

Anthropology junior Clint Carrol said the combination of Spanish language usage and the applied anthropology experience of the Covarrubias Elementary School revegetation project was exactly the kind of study he wanted to take part in.

He said the goal of the project is to empower the youth of the community to take environmental preservation into its own hands.

"This is their project," Carroll said.

When the project is over and the UA leaves Nogales, "we want them to feel a sense of possession of the project, a sense of accomplishment."

The historic lack of water in the region and the issues involved with challenging water policies are the most difficult thing to deal with, Carroll said.

Replanting is hard when you don't know the quality of water, and you don't know if you will have enough water to keep the plants alive, he said.

The sidewalks of Jardines del Bosque, another project site, are often uprooted by non-native plants that grow too large for the enclosed space. The residents of the community often complain about this as well as the poor air quality of the region and the ugly appearance of their barren front yards and community garden.

Guided by UA students, including Nick Kawa, an anthropology junior, residents of Jardines del Bosque will soon begin replanting their community with more suitable plants.

One of the main points of the community involvement is getting individuals to actually donate time and start planting on their own. "You can tell people as much as you want, but unless you start actually doing things, it doesn't really matter," he said.

The local high school project allows BARA students to involve young environmentalists. Although the high school stands on an old landfill, a group of its dedicated ecology club members are aware of environmental issues. The club meets weekly with UA students to discuss how they will replant the area around the school and which plant species to use.

"This kids are really excited about the project. They're driven, and things are moving really quickly," said Kaylene Day, an anthropology senior. "It's going to be a cool thing."


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