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Why Eastern Europeans Are Drawn to Sonora Desert


A unique, grass-roots program on the Arizona-Mexico border is now attracting the attention of officials half a world away in Eastern Europe.

About 35 representatives of Poland, Germany, and the Czech Republic will head out to the Sonora Desert in mid-October to examine not the giant Saguaro cactuses, but the Arizona-Sonora Visioning Plan. It's a three-year-old program that treats both states as a single, borderless region for promoting economic growth.

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The aim of the visit, says AnnDee Johnson, an official of the World Trade Center Arizona, is "for people to start thinking of themselves as a region, to think of themselves as partners, as being able to effect change ... without waiting for a distant national capital to do something about the problems."

Europeans have problems along their borders similar to those along the 2,000-mile US-Mexico boundary: disparity of incomes, illegal immigration, and environmental degradation.

Although the model that the Europeans will examine is still young, its roots go back almost 40 years to the establishment of two groups - the Arizona-Mexico Commission and its Sonoran counterpart, the Commission Sonora-Arizona. Established primarily as goodwill ambassadors, they recently have taken a more businesslike approach, developing strategies to realize the potential of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The idea is "to get people talking about how they can expand marketing opportunities globally," says Margie Emmermann, vice chair of the Arizona-Mexico Commission. "The market isn't Mexico or the US; it's anywhere our products and services are sold and where we can complement each other."

The groups, made up of people from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, works on proposals with a consortium of four Arizona and six Sonoran universities and research centers.

Such a framework is unique among the four US and six Mexican states along the border, says Gail Howard, director of economic development at Arizona State University, who has overseen the plan's development.

Making regional decisions in a border environment can be difficult, Ms. Howard says, with competing city, state, provincial, and federal jurisdictions. "Chances are, the federal government is far away and does not really understand what is going on at the border, so the usual infrastructure for getting things done doesn't exist.''

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In the past year, the groups resolved a trade dispute involving a ban on Arizona beef shipments into Sonora. And a Sonoran institute that had advanced research on a fungus that attacks wheat assisted Arizonans in halting the spread of the disease in their state.

THE cooperation that has evolved between Arizona and Sonoran officials has even caught the eye of leaders in the two respective capitals. Mexico City allowed Sonora to test relaxed entry inspections for Arizonans traveling only within the state of Sonora. Results so far have been encouraging, raising the prospect that the pilot program may be expanded.

Washington, meanwhile, has given the go-ahead to a pilot port-management program. Customs activities will be streamlined to speed up the flow of commercial traffic at Nogales, where as many as 1,000 Mexican produce-carrying trucks cross the border each day in the winter months.

But the plan is noticeably lacking in recommendations in such areas as illegal immigration. That was intentional, Howard says, because the issue was felt to be too politically charged.

Instead, the plan focuses on more attainable goals. "Our recommendations were geared more toward finding appropriate avenues for people's concerns about quality of life to be taken into consideration by decisionmakers, rather than just saying, 'We need tougher water-quality laws' because, in theory, we don't,'' she says. "In theory, the [existing] standards should be good enough. The problem is they are not being met.''

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