Project aims to help pollinators and people on the U.S.-Mexico border

Along the Arizona-Mexico border, conservationists are restoring habitat for more than 900 species of wild pollinators in an unprecedented effort that’s also designed to create jobs and reduce poverty, reports Alexis Marie Adams in FERN’s latest story, co-produced with Scientific American.

Known as Borderlands Restoration, the group was founded in Patagonia, Arizona — 18 miles from the border — in 2012 by ethnobotanist and author, Gary Nabhan. The area is home to “the highest diversity of native bees, birds and mammals anywhere in the contiguous U.S,” Adams writes. These pollinators face a host of threats from urban sprawl and climate change to pesticides sprayed on nearby monocultures of alfalfa and cotton – part of a larger global crisis.

“According to a report released in February this year by an international group of researchers affiliated with the United Nations, more than 40 percent of the world’s invertebrate pollinator species, particularly bees and butterflies, and some 16 percent of vertebrate pollinators, like birds and bats, face extinction,” Adams reports, which is why Borderlands has focused its approach on restoring pollinator habitat.

“Since 2012 Borderlands staff and volunteers have installed over 2,000 erosion control and restoration structures in riparian corridors and planted more than 40,000 native plants on public and private lands throughout the region,” writes Adams.

Much of that work has been done by high school students hired from local neighborhoods along the border that lack adequate housing or running water. The area’s per capita income averaged at $17,900 between 2010 and 2014. Borderlands Restoration gives students a chance to earn money, while learning about ecology and to work with scientists who are experts in their fields. Those mentors have gone on to write students letters of recommendation for college, something that many would have believed wasn’t an option for them after graduation.

Seventeen-year-old Guadalupe Bueras, told Adams, “I know how to repair a riparian zone. I can heal a river. How many teenagers can say that?”

The organization, which has an annual budget of $500,000, is on a national mission to convince companies and consumers that the fate of bees, hummingbirds and other wild pollinators affects us all. “Wild pollinators are twice as effective as domesticated honeybees in producing seeds and fruit on crops, including almonds, coffee, tomatoes and strawberries, according to 2013 study in Science,” writes Adams. “In other words, the loss of wild pollinators may pose an even more alarming threat to food crops than the loss of honeybees.”