Exequiel Ezcurra receiving the AAAS Award for Science Diplomacy in 2020.

Protecting the Biodiversity of the United States-Mexico Borderlands: An Interview with Dr. Exequiel Ezcurra

environment environmental protection Interview Award for Science Diplomacy Americas

Exequiel Ezcurra is a professor of ecology at the University of California Riverside and the 2020 recipient of the AAAS Award for Science Diplomacy. Dr. Ezcurra helped establish Mexico’s first natural protected area along the border: the El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve. Past roles include adviser to the United Nations Environment Programme, provost at the San Diego Natural History Museum, and director of Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology. Most recently, he was the director of the UC Institute for Mexico and the United States, also known as UC Mexus. Ezcurra was recognized for his leadership in bringing together research, education, outreach and policy in service of environmental protection, particularly at the United States-Mexico border.

Dr. Ezcurra spoke with Jordan Schwartzbach, AAAS Meetings Associate, about how his passion for conservation led him into the field of science diplomacy on the sidelines of the AAAS Annual Meeting in Seattle, Washington, in February 2020.

Jordan Schwartzbach: Hello, I’m speaking with Dr. Exequiel Ezcurra, the most recent winner of the AAAS Award on Science Diplomacy. Please share with us some of the work you have done to earn such a prestigious award.

Dr. Exequiel Ezcurra: Thank you for inviting me. I’m incredibly thankful to AAAS for the award, which quite frankly, I did not expect at all.

I became involved with international issues, especially international collaboration during my PhD research for reasons that have to do with my interest and the possibility of finding funding for my research. I started working in a wonderful place in Mexico that is called Gran Desierto de Altar—Great Desert—which is this corridor of land that goes from the state of Sonora to the lower Colorado river and the peninsula of Baja California, which is—together with the Death Valley—the most extreme desert in North America.

Working there, I realized how difficult the interaction between the two countries has been historically. There were obstacles, both in Mexico City and Washington, DC, for federal authorities to collaborate more for conservation of the incredible biodiversity of the borderlands. Added to that, there is an additional problem in that area, which is the existence of the traditional lands of the Tohono O’odham nation, normally known in Western culture as Papago Indians. They are a binational tribe crossed in the middle by the border established in 1852, but they have members on both sides of the border and for them, the Great Desert is a sacred site. Initially, when they heard about the possibility of creating a protected area, they were hostile to the idea because they were afraid of losing their sacred site.

Apart from being a researcher, I developed love for this region. If we wanted to protect this region, we needed to do something more. To interact with the Tohono O’odham traditional legislative authorities, that was the easy part because they live there in the desert, so I started interacting with them. Another [part of the task] was to interact with authorities in Washington, DC and Mexico City, which was a more complicated part because bureaucracies can be heavy and difficult to work with. So, that was the time I started interacting—apart from doing my own research—between nations and countries on trying to protect an area of extraordinary biological richness.

Schwartzbach: That’s fantastic and incredibly interesting that you were able to use your love for science and to spark this additional interest in culture, to add a new section of intersectionality to what you were doing, starting in research and then just spreading into diplomacy. What were some of the challenges of working with the Governments of Mexico and the United States throughout the years?

Ezcurra: The border challenges were very strong at that time and unfortunately, they are still complicated. Let me start with an anecdotal, but fun part of it. For the Tohono O’odham, the Great Desert has one wonderful pilgrimage route, which is a coming of age event for them. When kids turn 16 or 17, they have to walk from their traditional lands near Lukeville, Arizona, and then cross the desert on foot, go to the coast of California to the legendary Sea of Cortez to a beautiful salt flat there, and collect salt and bring back to their tribe a bag of salt. They hadn’t done it for a while because of border difficulties. At that time, when I was 30 years old, we organized a pilgrimage where I participated so they wouldn’t be bothered by the Mexican authorities with paperwork, and it was amazing. The border’s salt flats are littered with millennia of artifacts made of shell, clay pottery, and for these guys, doing what their ancestors have done for thousands of years, was like a total epiphany. That simple act—which was a lot of fun for me—really opened doors for me with the elders in the tribe, that is when we started working with them.

In Mexico City, there was a concern about national parks in the border. The federal government didn’t want anything in terms of protected areas in the border because they were afraid that by leaving areas empty, unprotected, they will lose sovereignty. I started working with Mexico City authorities. Also, at that time, there wasn’t a lot of interest in the US government either. There wasn’t hostility, but there wasn’t a lot of interest because the Northern counterpart of the Gran Desierto is an Air Force gunning area, a bombing range so they weren’t interested in making sister parks at that time.

A good friend of mine once said, ‘the good thing about being an environmentalist is that you develop patience. You have a perception for deep time, the Darwinian idea of evolutionary time’ he said, ‘you have all of history in front of you’. So that’s what we did, we started working without stopping with the Mexican government and the US government, and I maintained my collaboration with the Tohono O’odham.

Twelve years after I started working in the region, there was an opening. The Minister of the Environment in Mexico was Luis Donaldo Colosio, a person I loved a lot and a wonderful guy. He was from Magdalena, a pretty colonial city near the border in Sonora. He loved the border and the ecosystem. I would joke with him, he could appreciate the smell of the creosote bush and not everybody can. And Bruce Babbitt, former Governor of Arizona, great conservationist to this day, was Secretary of Interior. Mexico was trying to do ‘good environmental things’ because of the proximity to the signature of [the North American Free Trade Agreement] NAFTA. We put everything together, and Colosio took me to see [former Mexican] President [Carlos] Salinas [de Gortari] and I said, ‘you know what, we’ve been working on this protected area for twelve years, if you decree it as a protected area—the Papago people are very eager to have it now—it will give you a very good image internationally’ and Salinas caught it like that and issued a decree. That was my baptism in scientific diplomacy. Of course, by that time, we had already published a lot of papers, there was a lot of scientific information, there was good research behind so we could get it done.

Schwartzbach: Would you say that having that foundation and research really accelerated your ability to effectively communicate with the diplomatic side, to be able to show the research and say ‘listen, we have proof that this work is important’? 

Ezcurra: That’s a complicated thing, because traditional diplomats work on strategy and are not so permeable on science. Let me give you an example that I find fascinating: In 1994, because of all the things that we’ve done together, the US Fish and Wildlife Service—at that time it was directed by an incredible woman, Mollie Beattie—they suggested my name as scientific president of the [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora] CITES convention for that year. It was an incredible experience to be scientific president of CITES during the conference of the parties. There, we wanted to have some sort of international protection for precious woods, things like mahogany and rosewood, all these precious tropical woods that in many parts are disappearing very fast because of the international market. At that time, the representatives of Brazil—they are amazing, extraordinary diplomats, but they take no prisoners—they opposed it. They were able to prevent the international regulation to protect tropical woods.

But then things happen! A few years later, [former Brazilian President] Lula da Silva came, who was a progressive and a liberal, and Lula was in favor of protecting precious tropical woods because that would help the native people especially in the Amazon. So, we had the same governmental officers, the same diplomats that were opposing the protection of tropical woods, now proposing and defending that. Basically, the reflection I want to make is that—apart from the irony, which is a bit fun—sometimes, traditional diplomats defend what their country says independently of what scientific rationale tells them that should be defended.

The good thing about being a scientist and defending principles based on hard data and information is that you achieve a high level of credibility. I’ve always been surprised that, in Mexico, university professors and researchers –this is tested with interviews and surveys at the national level—are the people with the highest credibility. People believe university professors and researchers, so trying to do diplomacy when you have a long-term mission is wonderful and sometimes it will allow you to achieve great things.

Schwartzbach: That’s incredible. What would be your advice to someone who might be in your position of academic credibility who wants to get more into diplomacy because they see an issue and they would like to work with governmental institutions, whether they are domestic or international, to really affect change?

Ezcurra: I discuss that very often with the graduate students in my campus. The world of academia has changed in the last twenty years in an incredible way, and I’m very often pleasantly surprised in how graduate students have evolved also. Apart from doing good science, which is always at the base of being a good scientist, I expect young scientists to devote more time to outreach and scientific dissemination, even scientific journalism. It’s so important, because unfortunately the president of a republic doesn’t read Science or Nature, but they do read magazines and newspapers, they are informed by their teams on what comes out in the news. Having your voice being heard in more popular media is very important, independently of the fact that, of course, I support and endorse strict publication of the peer-review system and I compete in that system myself. But devoting some time to science popularization is important.

My first advice is, try to maintain an equilibrium, between teaching, hard science and scientific outreach. The scientists that have been heard are the ones that have devoted some of their effort to the dissemination of their ideas and outreach. I think that’s the most important advice.

The second advice is, if you have a dream, if you think from your own research that you can produce a change in the world, follow it because, again, publishing in my beloved [journal] Ecological Applications, won’t change the world in its own, you need to complement it with wider things.

Schwartzbach: That’s great advice, especially for the attendees at this conference who are all interested in science and making an impact, communicating those scientific needs throughout disciplines, whether is theoretical mathematics or environmental studies. What’s something that you hope to see in the next twenty years in the area that you study? What’s your dream to improve in that area?

Ezcurra: It’s a tough time. As the parent of four kids, some of whom are involved in scientific issues, others in teaching, it’s a complicated time. In the area that I love the most, the deserts of North America that lie on both sides of the border, is an even more difficult time. The border wall, the distrust between two societies, the militarization of the border has made ecological conservation pass to a second level, to a lower priority. That’s at the border, but globally I don’t need to say much. The challenge of a rapidly changing biosphere is huge. Interestingly, millennials and young kids are starting a life in science, they seem to be aware of this, they seem to be taking a commitment on these challenges. My advice is almost remorseful: As a generation, we have tried our best, but we have not succeeded always. We need to start working together more. We need to demolish not only those physical walls, but those mental barriers that bloc dialogue between societies. In that sense, science and research play a fundamental role because almost by nature, scientists are almost pariahs, at least intellectually they don’t have a nation. They believe in a broader world of ideas, cooperation and interaction. Science has a great role to play if we are going to solve some of the conundrums that we are going to be facing in the next twenty years.   

Schwartzbach: Dr. Exequiel Ezcurra, thank you so much for joining us at the AAAS Annual Meeting on the Expo Stage. We really appreciate your time and congratulations on your award.

Ezcurra: Thank you very much to the AAAS for what I believe to be an undeserved recognition but thank you.

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