Illustration of a human figure surrounded by plants
Illustration: Mariia Petrova

IAnimals, people, food, products and more regularly cross the border lines we see drawn on maps and globes. But not everyone has access to this freedom of movement. 

Alicia Barceinas Cruz (x’24), a graduate student affiliated with the Department of Geography and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, researches human interactions with the natural world at the Mexico–Guatemala border. This movement, as well as the restrictions around it, are a big part of her studies.

“Not everyone can migrate,” says Barceinas Cruz, who is from Veracruz, Mexico. “There is privilege in being able to move across borders or not.”

Barceinas Cruz’s focus is the southern state of Chiapas in Mexico, a region known for its vast rainforest and mountains, bordering Guatemala. Chiapas has experienced extensive deforestation. Since 2000, there has been a 15% loss of total tree cover, according to the World Resources Institute.

As a researcher, Barceinas Cruz is particularly interested in everyday life found along the border — and what that means within a broader geopolitical context. Working from the Mexico side of the border, she explores the passage of people, commercial goods and animals into and from Guatemala. Between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of Guatemalan workers in Chiapas increased by 30%.

“There is not a wall,” Barceinas Cruz says. “It’s a forest. There’s a lot of fluidity between the communities on both sides of the border. People cross without showing papers.”

In Chiapas, Barceinas Cruz has found that some migrants are permanently leaving the region, often for other Mexican states or the United States, in search of employment opportunities and selling their land. She chalks it up to increasingly restrictive immigration policies and the high price to migrate. But the land left behind is not getting bought by neighbors or community members. Instead, businesses are sweeping in.

Cattle ranchers and palm oil producers are infiltrating the region, contributing to deforestation and other environmental crises, Barceinas Cruz says. Globally, palm oil production has grown exponentially over the years. In 1970, the world produced just 2 million tons of oil. By 2018, 71 million tons were produced annually.

Usually, if you don’t have people, the forest will take over. In this case, when people leave, the forest is taken down.

Alicia Barceinas Cruz

“If this region is changing toward producing more commodities, the commodities have to move across the border,” she says. “It’s interesting that the restrictions on people’s mobility are facilitating the movement and the production of global commodities.”

For Barceinas Cruz, this exemplifies a contradictory development along the border, showcasing the web connecting humans with the natural world.

“That’s paradoxical,” she says. “Usually, if you don’t have people, the forest will take over. In this case, when people leave, the forest is taken down.”

This close examination of the border is not what originally piqued Barceinas Cruz’s academic interest as an undergraduate student. After studying biology at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and working as a conservation biologist in Chiapas for seven years, she found herself ill-equipped for the job.

“I only knew biology, ecology and evolution,” says Barceinas Cruz. “I didn’t have enough skills to deal with social issues related to conservation of biodiversity.”

Studying the humanities helped Barceinas Cruz contextualize different perceptions of the border as well as environmental conservation within the region. Her work with Indigenous peoples in Chiapas and other communities across the region further informed this development. She found it particularly important to reconsider human connections to nature within the context of migrations.

“Some people don’t see mountains or forests as separate from the human experience,” Barceinas Cruz says. “They see us all as a part of nature.”

Barceinas Cruz hopes to develop strategies to cultivate a world where all individuals, regardless of background, can exert the freedom to move but also exercise the choice to remain in place. The manifestation of how ethnicity, citizenship and other identities shape migration patterns and access makes her question why the border is there in the first place. In her opinion, the movement of humans is only natural.

“Borders restrict mobility and portray migration as aberrant,” Barceinas Cruz says. “But what is aberrant is a system that produces forced displacements, violence, conflict and environmental disasters.

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