Boll wee­vil: U.S., Mex­ico fight scourge to­gether

Cot­ton grow­ers count on bi­lat­eral help to fight pests.

Austin American-Statesman - - FATAL BUS CRASH - Kirk Sem­ple ©2017 The New York Times

It has be­dev­iled the United States for more than a cen­tury, be­com­ing a bane of the Amer­i­can South, caus­ing wide­spread job losses and set­ting off count­less de­bates about stop­ping mi­gra­tion from Latin Amer­ica.

This is a wave that even the big­gest, most ex­pen­sive wall might never hold back.

We’re talk­ing about the boll wee­vil.

It is just one of the many is­sues that rely on bi­lat­eral co­op­er­a­tion be­tween the United States and Mex­ico, and it em­bod­ies, in mi­cro­cosm, many of the es­sen­tial qual­i­ties of the broader re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two coun­tries: an al­liance bor­der­ing on code­pen­dence de­spite eco­nomic, po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural dif­fer­ences.

Thought to be na­tive to Mex­ico and Cen­tral Amer­ica, the boll wee­vil is a bee­tle that at­tacks cot­ton plants. It first crossed into the United States in the 1890s around Brownsville, Texas, and quickly spread to the At­lantic Seaboard, nearly wip­ing out the cot­ton in­dus­try.

Since then, decades of in­ten­sive, costly erad­i­ca­tion ef­forts have man­aged to an­ni­hi­late the pest in nearly the en­tire coun­try. The only place still bat­tling in­fes­ta­tion is at the southern tip of Texas. The rea­son? Mex­ico. While Mex­ico has cleared the boll wee­vil from nearly all of the cot­ton-grow­ing re­gions in its north­ern bor­der states, the prob­lem lingers here in Ta­mauli­pas, a state that for years has been dam­aged by war­ring drug gangs and cor­rup­tion.

Ham­pered by vi­o­lence, in­se­cu­rity and a lack of money, the state’s in­con­sis­tent erad­i­ca­tion ef­forts have en­sured a steady sup­ply of boll wee­vils mak­ing their way across the bor­der into the Rio Grande Val­ley of Texas.

The prob­lem con­tin­ues to con­sume U.S. cot­ton grow­ers, as well as state and fed­eral of­fi­cials, as they try to hold the line against the wee­vil.

In this long-stand­ing strug­gle — of­ten marked by frus­tra­tion and mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween the two coun­tries — there is a telling les­son for the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion as it re­assesses the United States’ re­la­tion­ship with its southern neigh­bor: What hap­pens in one coun­try of­ten bears heav­ily on the other, a con­nec­tion that de­mands col­lab­o­ra­tion and con­stant main­te­nance.

“One way or the other, Ta­mauli­pas and Texas, they aren’t going to do it with­out the other,” said Ed­ward Her­rera, the Rio Grande Val­ley man­ager for the Texas Boll Wee­vil Erad­i­ca­tion Foun­da­tion. The lin­ger­ing boll wee­vil prob­lem is all the more re­mark­able — and, for U.S. cot­ton grow­ers, frus­trat­ing — con­sid­er­ing the rel­a­tively puny size of the cot­ton in­dus­try in Ta­mauli­pas. In 2016, it had about 7,000 acres in cul­ti­va­tion. In con­trast, Texas had har­vested more than 5 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est es­ti­mates by the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture.

Ray Fris­bie, the re­tired head of the depart­ment of en­to­mol­ogy at Texas A&M Univer­sity, de­scribed the out­size in­flu­ence of Ta­mauli­pas as “this lit­tle tail that’s wag­ging this great big dog.”

The stakes, he said, are high: “If we don’t fin­ish it off, the boll wee­vil could rein­vade the United States and we could be back to the bad old days of spray­ing a lot of in­sec­ti­cide.”

Ta­mauli­pas knows all too well the heartache the boll wee­vil can wreak. Cot­ton was once king here, too; about half a mil­lion acres were in cul­ti­va­tion in the mid-20th cen­tury.

But the tyranny of the bee­tle forced farm­ers to drop cot­ton and shift to other crops. Cot­ton farm­ing re­turned only spo­rad­i­cally, most re­cently in 2004, the same year the state be­gan a boll wee­vil erad­i­ca­tion pro­gram.

In ex­plain­ing the chal­lenges of rid­ding Ta­mauli­pas of the in­sect, Mex­i­can grow­ers and of­fi­cials in­vari­ably blame the sub­trop­i­cal cli­mate. Tem­per­a­tures rarely fall to freez­ing, al­low­ing cot­ton plants, the wee­vil habi­tat, to sur­vive through the win­ter.

In ad­di­tion, wind and rain can be heavy, help­ing to spread the plant and the in­sect, as well as in­ter­fer­ing with pes­ti­cide spray­ing sched­ules. (The grow­ers and of­fi­cials may or may not men­tion that these con­di­tions are ex­actly the same on the Texas side of the bor­der, where re­sults have been sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter.)

When pressed, Mex­i­can of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edged that their pro­gram was spotty for years.

“The cam­paign was in­con­sis­tent be­cause of a lack of re­sources,” said Relbo Raúl Tre­viño Cis­neros, a cot­ton grower and in­dus­try leader in Ta­mauli­pas.

Crime and the gen­eral state of in­se­cu­rity in the bor­der re­gion have also in­ter­fered with the erad­i­ca­tion pro­gram. Some­times crim­i­nal gangs have told farm­ers and erad­i­ca­tion per­son­nel to stay away from the fields on cer­tain days, pre­sum­ably while they smug­gled drugs and mi­grants.

Carlos A. Cam­pos Reu­las, the co­or­di­na­tor of Ta­mauli­pas’ erad­i­ca­tion pro­gram, keeps a re­minder of the dan­gers in his of­fice: a plas­tic boll wee­vil trap rid­dled with bul­let holes. Some­one had used it as tar­get prac­tice.

With U.S. guid­ance, pes­ti­cide ap­pli­ca­tions dou­bled in Ta­mauli­pas last year from the year be­fore. The U.S. has also out­fit­ted Cam­pos’ trap­ping crews with tech­nol­ogy that al­lows each pro­gram to mon­i­tor the other’s trap lo­ca­tions, pes­ti­cide ap­pli­ca­tions and wee­vil cap­tures.

The erad­i­ca­tion ef­fort now rests heav­ily on the shoul­ders of Cam­pos and his U.S. coun­ter­part, Her­rera. Cam­pos works out of a com­plex of agri­cul­tural re­search of­fices on a pot­holed road in Río Bravo. Her­rera’s of­fice is about two dozen miles north­east, in a small strip mall in Har­lin­gen, Texas.

The long, his­toric fight to suc­cess­fully rid the con­ti­nent of the boll wee­vil has, in a way, boiled down to them.

They have known each other for years but say their rap­port has never been bet­ter. In past years they might have talked by phone only a hand­ful of times a year, but they now talk nearly ev­ery day, com­par­ing notes, treat­ing their zones as linked and bor­der­less.

The re­la­tion­ship is a care­ful pas de deux.

“Our in­ten­tion is to make sure it’s suc­cess­ful with­out talk­ing down,” Her­rera said.

In­deed, Mex­i­cans are sen­si­tive about the charge that Mex­ico is to blame for the lin­ger­ing boll wee­vil prob­lem in Texas.

Some Mex­i­cans here in­sist that their crops may, in fact, be in­fected by wee­vils that mi­grated south from the United States.

But the pre­vail­ing winds are not a mat­ter of spec­u­la­tion: They blow from the south­east and can be ex­tremely pow­er­ful, ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing the bee­tles scores of miles in a day, U.S. cot­ton of­fi­cials say.

“A hop, skip and a jump and they’re a ways down the road,” Her­rera said.

U.S. and Mex­i­can of­fi­cials and grow­ers say they are en­ter­ing this year’s grow­ing sea­son with a great deal of op­ti­mism about con­tin­u­ing progress in the fight.

MERIDITH KO­HUT / THE NEW YORK TIMES

While Mex­ico has cleared the boll wee­vil from nearly all the north­ern bor­der states, it lingers in Ta­mauli­pas. An ef­fort to pro­tect grow­ing ar­eas in south Texas is de­pen­dent on bi­lat­eral co­op­er­a­tion.

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