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Tracking a Rocky Start

Researcher explores sustainability of Mexican beach pebbles

Tracking a Rocky Start

In Baja California, Christian Zlolniski, professor of anthropology, noticed migrant and indigenous workers engaging in small-scale mining. It was essentially a type of harvesting, but they weren’t gathering fruits or vegetables; they were collecting beach pebbles. A new direction for Dr. Zlolniski’s research into labor issues spawned from there.

Mexican beach pebbles are sold in the U.S. as sustainably sourced products for landscaping, landscape architecture, and beautification projects as a substitute for mulch along walkways, gardens, and other outdoor areas. The market for beach pebbles has expanded rapidly in recent years, and Zlolniski, who is also the director of the Center for Mexican American Studies, is tracking the commodity chain across Mexico and the United States and investigating the branding strategies used by U.S. companies in marketing and selling the pebbles.

His work, funded by a $255,000 National Science Foundation grant, explores the labor and environmental implications of natural resources being marketed as sustainably sourced.

“When people see products that are part of the green industry, they are looking for products that aren’t impacting the environment,” Zlolniski says. “It’s important to take it a step further and learn where the products come from, the labor conditions of the workers who gather them, and how the extraction of these natural resources impacts their communities.”

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