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In a few days, the “United Nations Decade on Biodiversity, 2011-2020” will come to a close, likely without much public awareness or fanfare. As our modest contribution to the global efforts to mitigate the intensifying biodiversity crisis—last year (Sept. 28 – Dec. 28, 2019), 516 ARTS in Albuquerque and UNM Art & Ecology in partnership with numerous academic and cultural institutions from across the Rio Grande / Río Bravo watershed organized Species in Peril Along the Rio Grande exhibition and public programming; and this year (Sept. 14 – Dec. 3, 2020), the Species in Peril project at UNM in partnership with Office of U.S. Senator Tom Udall, Office of Congresswoman Deb Haaland, New Mexico BioPark Society, Southwest Environmental Center, and the Indigenous Design + Planning Institute at UNM organized the UNM Biodiversity Webinar Series—Fall 2020. You will find the videos of the four webinars on the WEBINAR VIDEOS page in the Species in Peril website.

As we close this year and look ahead to the New Year—we take a moment to honor and celebrate the efforts of two champions of environmental conservation and justice, and fierce advocates of Indigenous rights: Senator Tom Udall and Congresswoman Deb Haaland.

We celebrate you, Congresswoman Haaland, for your nomination as the U.S. Secretary of Interior in the Biden-Harris administration. Since its founding in 1849, the U.S. Department of the Interior, more than any other federal agency, advanced actions to erase and exterminate Indigenous peoples and to destroy Indigenous homelands, traditional food sources, languages, and cultural practices. Congresswoman Haaland is a member of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico. Her nomination to lead Interior is historic and a page-turner in U.S. history. Of her nomination, her friend and mentor Senator Udall said this: “President-Elect Biden has chosen an outstanding leader. She will undo the damage of the Trump administration, restore the department’s work force and expertise, uphold our obligations to Native communities, and take the bold action needed to tackle the accelerating climate and nature crises.”

On Saturday, Congresswoman Haaland delivered an acceptance speech that you can VIEW HERE. She said: “I will be fierce for all of us, for our planet and all of our protected land, and I am honored and ready to serve.”

I have had the honor to work with you, Congresswoman Haaland, and the caring and committed members of your staff, including Brenda McKenna, Molly Callaghan, and Eric Werwa—for the UNM Biodiversity Webinar Series this year, and the Community Hearing: To Defend the Arctic Refuge & Indigenous Rights that we organized last year. Congresswoman Haaland, I thank you and your team, and wish you a speedy nomination and best wishes for the exciting journey ahead—for you, for us, and all our nonhuman relatives.

We celebrate you, Senator Udall, on your retirement from the U.S. Senate. In my estimation, no U.S. lawmaker has done as much for conservation of public land, water and biodiversity, and advocating for Indigenous rights in the U.S. Congress over the past two decades as you have done. You are a true friend to so many Indigenous nations and to the committed environmentalists all across our nation. In October, Defenders of Wildlife celebrated your career in the U.S. Congress. In that celebration, Congresswoman Haaland referred to you as “my friend, colleague and mentor” and said this: “His steadfast commitment to addressing climate change and protecting our environment throughout his service to New Mexico have had positive impacts for families across our state and nationwide. His historic bill to comprehensively reform toxic substance regulation improves the health of our environment and of our families, as we speak. I’m proud to partner with Senator Udall on the 30x30 Resolution that sets a goal for the United States to conserve at least 30% of the oceans and lands by 2030, which scientists say is the minimum step needed to pull us back from the tipping point that nature and our climate have reached” (VIEW HERE).

Senator Udall, your splendid, fierce and heartfelt farewell speech at the U.S. Senate, on December 8, will surely be remembered as a historic farewell speech and a bold call to action to reform the U.S. Senate (VIEW HERE). As I write this on Sunday, December 20, the Editorial Board of the Albuquerque Journal has just published a very generous tribute “Sen. Tom Udall has been a humble, effective legislator for New Mexico” (READ HERE).

It has been the honor of my life to serve with you this Fall as co-host of the UNM Biodiversity Webinar Series, and to co-author an op-ed “We Must Mobilize to Avert a Lone Earth” in Scientific American on a subject we both care about so deeply. When in Feb. 2018, I convened the last oil: a multispecies justice symposium, which was the first national convening to address the misguided and reckless Arctic and offshore energy policy of the Trump administration, which endangers biological nurseries of global significance, violates indigenous human rights, and threatens to derail the efforts to mitigate climate change and the Sixth Extinction—you wrote a very kind and generous welcome to the attendees (I read your welcome letter at the opening of the conference as you could not attend the event in person). Over this past one year, I have had the honor to work with the caring and committed members of your staff, including Rene Romo and Ned Adriance. I do not have adequate words with which to thank Rene for his support and guidance; along the way, we have become friends. Even though you are retiring from the U.S. Senate, and looking forward to returning to New Mexico and go horseback riding with family—I’m certain that you will not be retiring from conservation; we need your voice and leadership. I wish you my very best as you chart the next chapter in your journey.

I ended the last e-note with these words: whenever we organize an event—a conference, an exhibition, a webinar series (first for us)—it is not the end but the start of something to come. Here, we share a glimpse of what to come in the New Year.

In the Species in Peril Along the Rio Grande exhibition last year, we included two illustrations by artist Zeke Peña: The River, and All Against the Wall (that you see here). Zeke created All Against the Wall for Southwest Environmental Center (co-organizer of the UNM Biodiversity Webinar Series) to call attention to the harm that the U.S.-Mexico border wall causes wildlife and our communities. 

In my essay in the exhibit catalog, I wrote this: “All Against the Wall is intergenerational and interspecies and makes a plea for accommodation (or living with wild animals), not extermination. It is an exemplary illustration of multispecies justice.”

I am very pleased to share that Zeke Peña has accepted our invitation to be the 2020-2021 Artist-in-Residence at the newly established Center for Environmental Arts and Humanities, which is situated in the Department of Art at UNM (for which I serve as the founding director). As part of his residency, Zeke will be creating a series of illustrations with the broad theme of "Biodiversity in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands." He will also give a public lecture which the Center will co-host with UNM Art Museum during Spring 2021; and share with our students his creative practice and the process.  

In my humble opinion, Zeke Peña is one of the most exciting illustrators of his generation. The manner in which Zeke is able to address ecological and social tragedies through visual comedy is exemplary and inspiring, as is evident in All Against the Wall. The illustrations he created for the book Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide, which was published by the Getty Museum in 2018, honored the life of Mexican artist Graciela Iturbide, one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century. Earlier this year, Zeke made illustrations for an article by Maria Esquinca, “Climate Change is Disproportionately Affecting Black & Brown Communities in Texas.” 

Zeke Peña makes comics and visual narratives to reclaim stories and remix history. He was born in Las Cruces, New Mexico and grew up in El Paso, Texas. While doodling in the margins of his notebook, he received a degree in Art History from the University of Texas at Austin. His transmedia work uses a mash-up of political cartoon, border rasquache and Hip Hop culture to address universal themes of identity, politics, ecology and social justice. He has won awards for his book illustrations and his work is in several collections of American and Xicano art. Zeke is currently digging into family history to write stories for future projects.

Zeke, we welcome you and wish you our very best as you begin your residency with us today, December 21, 2020!

Between 2001 and 2005, aerial surveys were conducted over 6.4 million acres of land in New Mexico, which revealed that Ips confusus, a tiny bark beetle, killed an estimated 54.5 million piñon trees. In many areas of northern New Mexico, about 90 percent of mature piñons perished. Prolonged drought combined with rapid warming led to the mass die-off of piñon. From 2006 through 2010, I walked almost every day around my home and made photographs to make sense of the peril of piñon and to understand the entangled and inter-dependent ecology of the desert—from avian creatures to underground dwellers with plants on the ground connecting the two ecological spaces. A selection of photographs I made were shown in the exhibition Where I Live I Hope to Know at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas (March 28 – August 28, 2011), and most recently in the exhibition Long Environmentalism at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, New Mexico (December 13, 2019 – June 17, 2020). 

Although I had no answer at the time, I did wonder about the larger ecological loss that would arise from the tree die-offs across western North America, as I wrote in August 2010: Hundreds of millions of trees have recently died and many more hundreds of millions will soon be dying. Now think of all the other lives, including birds and animals, that depended on those trees. The number of these must be in the tens of billions. What happened to them and how do we talk about that which we can’t see and will never know?

Despite a few isolated exhibitions and articles, the peril of piñon, one of the most expansive and consequential species die-offs of this century in the United States, never received wide public acknowledgement, not even in New Mexico, unlike the imperiled polar bear that has become the poster child of global climate change communication. Over the past fourteen years, I have been trying to encourage fellow artists, students and scholars in my home state to engage with peril of piñon. I have some encouraging news to share with you.

In Fall 2018, I taught a class on biodiversity crisis and conservation. Leia Barnett was a student in the class, at the time a senior in anthropology. For final project, Leia created a Story Map, “The Loss of A Namesake: Bird Population Decline on the Pajarito Plateau.” She interviewed ornithologist Dr. Jeanne Fair, who with colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory had conducted a study of bird die-offs, following the pinion die-off. The study conducted over a decade and published in the journal Biological Conservation in 2018 revealed very troubling findings: between 2003 and 2013, population of birds in the Pajarito Plateau in New Mexico declined by a staggering 73% while the diversity of birds dropped by 45%.

For Leia, the class project was not the end but the start of a deeper engagement to come. She graduated the following spring and continued her exploration of piñon. She has now completed two more Story Maps (Story Map #2 HERE and Story Map #3 HERE), creating what she calls a trilogy. 

In the final story map, Leia writes: “This project was inspired by loss. It was meant to be a creative response to loss. Fatigued by the constant tragedy porn documenting percentages of species extirpation, of critical habitat destroyed, I longed to be a body in the world not overcome with grief and sorrow, but pledged to tending to and noticing. The phenomenologists tell us that the central structure of an experience is its intentionality. Every experience is directed towards some object, is about some thing. When we bring our consciousness to the world, fully awake and in our body, we offer the world the gift of our intention and attention.”

This year, the piñon in northern New Mexico, the ones that had survived the die-off and the new ones that have since sprouted—bloomed, which happens once every four to seven years. Leia’s beautiful photograph “New piñon cone” in the third story map offers promise in the midst of our troubled time. I take a moment to honor her commitment and thank her for the gift that resulted from sincere engagement.

Leia Barnett works in large landscape conservation for WildEarth Guardians. She was born and raised in the piñon-juniper foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in northern New Mexico.  She graduated in 2019 from the University of New Mexico with a degree in cultural anthropology, and continues to strive to practice an anthropology beyond the human. Her writing appears regularly on CounterPunch and on WildEarth Guardians’ blog.

As the “United Nations Decade on Biodiversity, 2011-2020” comes to a close and we look forward to the New Year, I have no doubt that Congresswoman Haaland in her new role as the Secretary of Interior (following Senate confirmation) will make mitigating the intensifying biodiversity crisis a top priority at Interior, alongside the necessary work on mitigating the climate crisis. We wish her well and pledge our support.

I wish everyone a safe and joyous winter break!

Subhankar Banerjee

Director and Founder, Species in Peril project at UNM
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