Today as part of its second annual International Symposium on Conservation Impact, the Salazar Center for North American Conservation at Colorado State University awarded its first-ever Connectivity Challenge prize to Borderlands Restoration Network.
With the $100,000 prize, Borderlands Restoration Network will create and implement a sustainability certification for producers of bacanora, a regional mescal distillate. By establishing a framework for these farmers with their project, “Bacanora for Bats: Binational Conservation and Sustainable Agave Spirits,” the team hopes to engender a range of positive impacts in the region, from enhancing landscape connectivity for nectar-feeding bats to celebrating regional food heritages and restorative economies.
Nectar-feeding bats rely on wild agave plants for sustenance as they migrate through the binational Arizona-Sonora borderlands, and they in turn serve as the plants’ primary pollinators. Agaves in this region are disappearing due to increased production of the regional agave distillate, bacanora. To address threats to bats and to agaves—and at the same time ensure the sustainability of bacanora production—this project team believes that policy changes are needed to prevent further ecological degradation.
In order to realize these policy changes, Borderlands Restoration Network and their partner Colectivo Sonora Silvestre will collaborate with universities, herbaria, government agencies, local policy regulators, non-profits, producers, and consumers in Mexico and the U.S. to better evaluate connectivity of wild agave populations and the impacts of fragmentation to pollinators on both sides of the border. It is already well known that bacanora producers clear land for cultivation, and they also harvest wild agave to supplement their crops used for distillation, both of which practices threaten landscape connectivity and pollinator species’ access to nectar. What is more, bacanora harvesting and production decrease genetic diversity in agaves across the landscape, leaving producers’ crops potentially more susceptible to disease and shifting environmental conditions. The ecological impacts of the burgeoning bacanora industry are further compounded by other contributing factors that degrade habitat for agaves and their pollinators, such as groundwater pumping, development, overgrazing, and changing fire regimes.
Despite these known impacts, conservationists in the region lack baseline data on agave population distribution in relation to the migratory routes of pollinators, and cross-border barriers and diverse stakeholder interests are often viewed as competing with conservation, hindering multi-faceted collaboration. On-the ground surveys and modeling performed by the Borderlands team will address this knowledge gap, and their new data will be used to inform restoration efforts and, ultimately, support the creation of a cooperative, science-based, sustainability certification for bacanora. The team has already built a number of important binational relationships with diverse stakeholders, and they are embedded in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands—a strong foundation from which to further unify producers, consumers, policy makers, and scientists in a common cause that can improve quality of life for bat, agave, and human communities alike.
This new sustainability certification will not only change how bacanora is produced for the better, it will enable producers to secure their livelihoods by conserving the resource on which they depend. The team also hopes this new certification and the policies that support it will provide a model for sustainability regulation that can be adapted and implemented in other regions that produce agave-based spirits.
“We’re thrilled to be able to award this funding to Borderlands Restoration Network to help them realize their vision for landscape connectivity along the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Center founder and former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. “This work is critical, now more than ever, and I hope the example they set inspires others across the continent to think of new and creative approaches to their own unique conservation challenges. We so look forward to witnessing how the Network’s project advances over the coming months and hope they’re the first of many to benefit from the Center’s investment.”
Borderlands Restoration Network was one of five finalists in the running for the Connectivity Challenge, and the team was chosen as the winner following a live pitch event hosted by the Salazar Center on Sept. 16.