Boll weevil: U.S., Mexico fight scourge together
Cotton growers count on bilateral help to fight pests.
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.
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.