With President Trump’s recent executive order that calls for an expansion of the border fence on the United States-Mexico border, there has been substantial attention to the rapid growth in border fences around the world, where almost 70 mark political borders globally, and the cost and effectiveness of these barriers. However, an often overlooked consequence of the construction of border walls is the impact of border militarization on the environment.
The landscape of the southwestern United States, with vast deserts and scrublands occasionally crossed by craggy mountains, allows for sweeping and dramatic views of seemingly endless open space. The sense of a limitless place to roam created a home for thousands of Native Americans and later drew restless European migrants, who fought for political control of the land but never really controlled the vast landscape itself, where human impacts are less visible than in the rest of the United States. At first glance, the arid lands appear unable to support much wildlife, but a closer inspection finds many species thriving, from insects to large mammals. The larger animals that live in the desert Southwest include the javelina (a relative of the wild boar), mountain lions, bighorn sheep, coyotes, deer, tortoises, and jackrabbits. The animals that inhabit this land often have wide ranges, as they move through the sparse vegetation and dry landscape foraging for food. The lack of human impact on many of these lands makes the 6.4-meter (21-foot) US border fence, which is visible from many kilometers away, all the more jarring. The fence is designed to prevent the movement of only one species, humans, but it inevitably also disrupts the habitats of all the other large animals. The fence’s construction includes small gaps at the bottom, 15 centimeters (6 inches) high, in order to allow insects and very small animals the ability to pass through. However, anything larger than a small rodent is blocked by the fence in the same way that humans are.
In addition to animal habitats, the fence affects the runoff of water in the normally arid desert, which only gets rain in brief, heavy deluges. The water forms mighty rivers in arroyos as it rushes away. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, located in southwestern Arizona on the US-Mexico border, is a 1,338-square-kilometer (517-square-mile) UNESCO biosphere reserve that contains the only wild organ pipe cactus in the United States. All of the arroyos in the park run downhill, from north to south, into Mexico, but the fence on the border disrupts this process by blocking flows, snagging debris, and creating dams. A National Park Service report in the aftermath of a 2008 flood concluded that the design of the fence failed to accommodate the normal runoff patterns at the border and would affect the habitat of the organ pipe cactus by diverting floodwater away from Mexico and sending it horizontally along the border.The report concludes that the fence would change vegetation in the area by allowing water to pool and altering sedimentation patterns. Over the longer term, the floodplain will change, as new arroyos develop that run parallel to the fence rather than into Mexico. Similar floods have occurred at other sites along the border fence, including in Nogales, Arizona, where flooding caused by the wall damaged cars and homes in 2008 and 2014.
The full extent of the fence’s damage to animals and the environment is unknown because of an unusual provision in the REAL ID Act of 2005. The act created rules that standardized the data and security features on state-issued identity cards like driver’s licenses, but it also had a provision that gave the Secretary of Homeland Security the ability to waive any federal laws necessary to build a wall on the border, even though the act itself had nothing to do with the border or building walls. When Congress passed the Secure Fence Act in 2006, which authorized the construction of the border fence, DHS secretary Michael Chertoff used the waiver authority from the previous act to waive thirty-seven laws in the construction of the fence. These included the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Wilderness Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the Antiquities Act. Many of these would have required environmental impact assessments and remediation for any damage to sensitive habitats, such as for the Sonoran desert turtle, whose range in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument included a watering hole on the Mexican side of the border, or historical sites, such as Native American burial grounds.
There is little doubt that the hardening of borders often has a direct negative impact on the environment in border areas. Patrolling borders requires large deployments of agents, who trample through the landscape, disturbing vegetation. Because many borders are security zones, they tend not to be well maintained and often accumulate trash, debris, and the detritus left behind by previous migrants. Barbed wire and concertina wire are designed to snag clothing and human flesh, but they are also very good at capturing and entangling plastic bags. The wind and flowing water accumulate trash along the base of border infrastructure.The construction of walls and other defensive structures require clearing vegetation, leveling ground, and building roads and other infrastructure. During the construction of the wall in the West Bank from 2002 to 2007, Israel dug up tens of thousands of olive trees (Braverman 2009). The Indian border fence blocked traditional elephant migration routes along the border with Bangladesh and funneled elephants to more populated areas. From 2002 to 2015, 226 people were killed by elephants and 62 elephants were killed by people, forcing the Indian government to reopen corridors for elephants to pass through the area (Dhaka Tribune 2016).
The environmental consequences of border militarization are only just being realized. As there is a global turn towards anti-migrant policies and stronger border security, governments, scholars, and activists need to keep an eye on not simply the staggering human costs of these interventions but also the impact they have on other species and the environment.
* This piece is adapted from Chapter 7 of Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move (Verso, 2016)
Almost 70 border walls have been built. Why are so many countries turning to walls? Do you think border walls are effective? What other approaches could be taken? How heavily should environmental impacts of border walls be weighed against the desire for security? Is one more important than the other? How can they be balanced? Join the discussion in the comments section below.
Cover Image: ["Israel–Egypt barrier" via Wikipedia]