Last month, the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, where I work, hosted Dr. Debora VanNijnatten, an Associate Professor and Chair of the Political Science and North American Studies department at Wilfrid Laurier University. She specializes in issues of bilateral governance across North America, and is working with a research group examining how institutions coordinate across borders to tackle environmental challenges, including climate change. Although she has also studied the U.S.-Mexico border, currently her work is focused on the Great Lakes region to understand how the United States and Canada handle shipping, resource management, and other activities. It is a region with a long history of treaties and binational agreements, which has forged a highly institutionalized space to address concerns of land and water use.
During the seminar, Dr. VanNijnatten noted that although there are a number of binational institutions in place, significant environmental problems that are difficult to resolve continue to face the region. Organizations have successfully addressed targeted problems, but larger, and more complex issues, such as dealing with cross-sector challenges that affect numerous communities and public/private interests, are a much harder task. Many scientists who study the Great Lakes area are concerned that this border region is at an ecological tipping point.
As a historian of the US-Mexico borderlands, what struck me most about Dr. VanNijnatten’s work is the importance of thinking about the history of institutions and transboundary governance. Certainly, issues of water and land use have deeply marked the U.S.-Mexico border region as well; from the impact of building of the Hoover Dam for the Colorado River Basin to modern-day disputes over water management in times of severe drought. A multidisciplinary approach that incorporates an understanding of policymaking and quantitative/qualitative methods, within an historical context, can be useful to chart the longue durée of local, state, and federal decision-making in everyday life along the border. The industrial and transport infrastructure built between nations affects economic access for regional communities (benefitting some places more than others) and also leaves a lasting mark on the natural environment. An historical understanding of the institutions that were formed to determine and enforce bilateral agreements is critical to developing a clearer view of how people cope with the challenges of managing borderlands resources.
Returning to Dr. VanNijnatten’s work, her group is developing a model to understand transboundary governance. They’re looking at a wide range of topics that affect communities and institutions, including degrees of compliance, info-sharing, and legal and political legitimacy. She notes that an important aspect of transboundary governance is how networks (people and communities) interact with institutions (government agencies, etc.) to understand and respond to regional problems. Her team finds that even in borderland areas, like the Great Lakes, with a long history of bilateral agreements, there still occurs considerable amounts of fragmentation and lack of coordination between nation-states. Thinking about how these themes address the history of the U.S.-Mexico border can inform our own work on the institutionalization of political and economic priorities in this region.