When the invasive species met the illegal immigrant

How to simultaneously achieve border control and energy independence, with the help of a "noxious weed"

Published May 10, 2007 11:29PM (EDT)

Arundo donax is a bamboo-like grass that can grow up to 18 feet tall, doesn't require much in the way of water or nutrients, resists most pests, and generates a huge amount of biomass per acre. The plant is therefore considered by some to be an ideal candidate for bioenergy production, should the costs of converting its tough cellulose into ethanol or other fuels be brought down far enough to be economically feasible.

But in the United States Arundo donax is also considered a nasty invasive species. Even worse, it has been targeted as a facilitator of illegal immigration.

Here's what the Journal of the Department of Homeland Security had to say in January about Arundo donax, which in Texas is referred to as "Carrizo cane."

Several hundred years ago, a particularly noxious weed from Europeb

The DHS is being very hurtful. In its native Mediterranean region, Arundo donax has a long and intimate history of connection with humanity. Some of the earliest Stone Age flutes are thought to have been made from Arundo canes, and to this day the plant is still used to make woodwind reeds. The DHS also gives the strong impression that Arundo donax is some kind of illegal immigrant itself, which may not be true. Other accounts maintain that the so-called "noxious weed" was brought to the United States on purpose to help control erosion. Cheap labor, if you will. But I guess it's a fine line between helpful cheap labor and "potentially dangerous."

Homeland Security Department officials have called for an immediate operational plan to control Carrizo cane -- and no wonder. This weed is very good at what it does. It is dense and seemingly impenetrable, spreading itself quickly with underground rhizomes and shooting upwards of 18 feet. Carrizo cane is a major impediment to Homeland Security Department, Customs and Border Protection, and Border Patrol operations on the international border between Laredo and Del Rio Texas, overrunning border access roads, reducing visibility, and providing dense cover for illegal activities.

The DHS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are now funding research into biological control methods. Arundo donax has no natural enemies in the U.S. or Mexico, but there are bugs from Europe that might work.

To which one can only say, "yikes!" Biological controls are notoriously risky. Introducing new species to an ecosystem to control old invaders often causes even more problems. Just ask Australia. And even if the Arundo wasp or Arundo fly took care of the Rio Grande Carrizo cane infestation, such success could breed a different kind of failure. Just suppose commercial cultivation of Arundo donax as an energy crop did prove feasible, but the new plantations were attacked by the pests that were purposefully introduced by DHS. Doh!

Introducing new pests from Europe so as to kill weeds that make it hard to see illegal immigrants should get an award for being one of the most bonehead approaches to border control ever imagined. Economic pressures spur illegal immigration, whether or not there are giant canes standing around to provide cover. Arundo donax's habit of rhizomatic propagation metaphorically suggests a different approach -- perhaps some attention to root causes should be paid here? Instead of spending taxpayer dollars on weed control research, DHS should be putting those funds into cellulosic ethanol technology development, thus seeding the way for a future when Mexican campesinos could farm Carrizo cane for biofuel production -- on either side of the Rio Grande.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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