Last month the order was signed (1) to begin construction of a wall, planned to stretch 3,100 km along the border between the two countries of Mexico and the USA (2). The impact such a project could have on human society means it has received criticism from many diverse angles (see for example 3, 4). Yet humans are also part of a wider ecosystem, and the proposed wall would also have a massive effect on the animals and plants as well as the flow of water and air in the region. This article will explore a little about the possible environmental effects, compare the project to other similar barriers around the world and look at ways to encourage a more beneficial relationship with the ecosystem.
Not the first wall
Humans have been building barriers for centuries if not millenia. Some may see the reasons why we create them as valid: protection from enemies or wild animals, or as an organisational aid to control an existing population to keep it in one place. Many writers who have looked into the links between agriculture and modern civilisation have described how, before agriculture in general and monoculture grain farming in particular gave rise to more sedentary and hierarchical societies, we had no need to engage in such protective measures (see for example 5, 6). It was only once we began defining ourselves as being from a particular place which outsiders could threaten that we began dividing up the world.
One flaw in this approach is that intensive-input agriculture degrades the soil and disrupts the ecosystem so much that the places where you can grow food have to be continually moved. This means the society which has chosen to stay in one place paradoxically has to relocate the entire population, or send out armies to colonise land in different places (5).
Regardless of the role agriculture plays in the creation of divisive societies, physical barriers built to define boundaries are now commonplace. A famous historical example is the Great Wall of China, but there are many other contemporary barriers such as the 438km wall in the West Bank of Israel or Palestine (with a further 270km planned) in the Middle East (see for example 7), or the 2,700km wall running through disputed territory in Morocco, Western Sahara and Mauritania in West Africa (see for example 8, 9). Walls have also been built to separate animals, such as the 5614km Dingo Fence in Southwestern Australia (10), and there are also many examples of barriers being built in water such as the 11 dams proposed along the Mekong River in Southeast Asia (see for example 11).
Lessons from example barriers
The Great Wall of China is one of the oldest human-made borders in the world – the earliest report of it “dates back to 656 BC” (12). In 2003, a plant study published in Nature found that the wall has “served as a physical barrier to gene flow between subpopulations separated for more than 600 years” (12) – plants which may otherwise have had a broader range and more stable genetic diversity could not because the wall is too large a barrier for the insects which pollinate them to generally surmount.
The construction of the wall in Gaza destroyed “8000 acres of farmland and thousands of trees” (13) including “63,000 olive trees” (13), the impact of which, as well as threatening food security for the people who live in that area, is that the loss of ecosystems above the soil has disrupted the aquifer beneath the ground, thus contributing to the drying-up of the land (13).
In the centuries since the Dingo Fence was constructed, “rabbits, kangaroos, and emus have seen increased numbers, leading to overgrazing…and disturbing the ecological balance.” (14)
Much of the wall in Western Sahara is only 3m high and made of sand (8), but some sources say that the wall has severely disrupted the flow of water in the area, meaning that there is acceleration of desertification on the Southern side (15).
Disruption of water flows also comes with building barriers in water, such as with the proposed Mekong River dams. The proposals have met with such widespread opposition that only one dam is currently being built (11), but even that one has the potential to interrupt migration routes for many species of fish (11) as well as the Irrawaddy River Dolphins (Orcaella Brevirostris), whose habitat includes only 2 other rivers in the world, and who last year were reported as “functionally extinct in Laos” (16).
Animals don’t have borders
It may seem as though the ecological damage already caused by similar barriers, like the above examples, could be enough to show that the Mexico-USA border wall will have detrimental environmental effects. However, we do not need to rely on precedent to show us this, as ecology groups within the US have already published reports detailing exactly which plant and animal species would be affected by the wall, and which may be in danger of becoming extinct because of the huge loss of habitat, disruption of air and water flows and interruption of migration routes which the wall will cause. Among them are the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) who say the wall could “potentially impact” 111 endangered species of animal, bird and plant (17). Among them are animals with “cross-border populations [including] bighorn sheep, ocelots and bears” (2), as well as the Grey Wolf (Canis Lupus) and the Jaguar (Panthera Onca) (17), which will definitely become extinct in the USA once the wall is up as there is only one known Jaguar in the country, so if he is cut off from potential mates he’ll be the last. Also on the FWS’s list are West Indian Manatees (Trichechus Manatus) and 5 different types of sea turtle, because if the wall is to be an effective anti-human barrier it will have to extend into shallow water (so that humans can’t just wade around it), thus disrupting marine ecosystems as well as land ones (17).
In addition to all of this disturbance of land and sea, the wall would be a severe threat to many bird species as it will damage their habitat. Among the species affected are Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus Leucocephalus) (17), the so-called “national bird” of the USA (18).
Holes in the wall
Reports such as the one from the FWS have meant that there is growing concern from environmental and wildlife groups, as well as the many civil liberties and human rights groups opposed to the wall. One suggestion has been that if the wall must block humans from passing, that it might at least provide access for migratory animals, for example with wildlife “bridges” or “tunnels” (2). Such ideas are already in use in some places, for example in the Netherlands there are many animal bridges or “ecoducts” across motorways so that animals whose habitat has been broken up by the roads can still safely cross into the different sections (19). Another thing which those constructing it must consider is that it is against the law to disturb the nests of the aforementioned Bald Eagle, so the wall will have to be shaped to go around any nests they encounter (17).
While such provisions would possibly lessen the detrimental effect of the wall the problem of it existing in the first place still remains. The attempt to stop humans from entering the US from Mexico, which is the third largest supplier of imports into the country (20), seems to suggest that either the USA plans to stop this massive import business or that the people coming with the imports will find it increasingly difficult to cross the border by land, thus potentially encouraging flights and therefore carbon emissions which would further damage the environment. At a more specific level, the amount of materials used to build the wall would represent significant environmental degradation, especially if, as is likely, they use unsustainable or damaging resources such as concrete (2). Not to mention the potential lack of integrity apparent in the idea of building a wall to keep immigrants out of a country where only 2% of the population are of indigenous origin (21).
So taking into account all of the human, economic and ecosystemic factors, the environmental damage, and the lack of integrity, how is this project still happening?
In answering this question we have to consider not only the wider economy and ecosystem but the inner workings of the human mind. All of the separating barriers throughout history – both past and current – have had detrimental effects on the environment as well as on the people they were designed to separate. But without human consent they would not exist. Ideas of separation as well as unification have to begin in the human mind and so if we want to see a more regenerative approach to designing human society we need to first address our mental walls. Much of Trump’s presidential campaign speeches ended with crowds of supporters shouting
“Build the wall! Build the wall!” (22)
For this wall to have created such emotional responses, before it has even begun, shows that the controversy around it seems not based in logical, scientific, social or economic ideas, but actually has a huge emotional aspect. So it doesn’t matter how many “experts” report on the detrimental effects they believe it will cause, those people who support the project on an emotional level will be difficult to sway.
Finding solutions to such a situation may at first seem more difficult than simply showing the data on why the wall should not be built. The data exists, but it is not yet enough. If we want to help preserve the ecosystems which are currently in danger, including the humans inhabiting those ecosystems, we need to show that the whole of society can be organised in a different way.
Luckily, permaculture has at least some of the tools needed to do this.
Permaculture encourages us to look at the whole system, with design principles like ‘Use and value diversity’, ‘Integrate rather than segregate’ and ‘Use edges and value the marginal’ (23). When we look at the whole system we include an awareness of all the interactions involved in it; the animals, the plants, the elements and the energies, and we recognise the value of all of these. Permaculture systems are designed to be naturally integrating and self-supportive, while also allowing for neighbouring energies to be effectively diverted or included.
Perhaps the societies we create, based on holistic integration of humans into ecosystems, will not be enough to stop this particular wall from being built, though we can try. Sensitivity is important because if we break down mental walls too fast there is the potential for crisis and conflict, so perhaps we can start by concentrating on smoothly encouraging connections within ourselves and our own communities.
1. Diamond, J, 2017. ‘Trump orders construction of border wall, boosts deportation fence’. CNN, 25/1/17. https://edition.cnn.com/2017/01/25/politics/donald-trump-build-wall-immigration-executive-orders/ – retrieved 20/2/17
2. Bhagwat, S, 2017. ‘The Environmental Cost of Trump’s Wall’. The Conversation, 11/2/17. https://theconversation.com/the-environmental-costs-of-trumps-wall-72608 – retrieved 20/2/17
3. American Civil Liberties Union, 2017. ‘ACLU: Trump’s Border and Sanctuary City Plans Will Violate Civil Liberties’. https://www.aclu.org/news/aclu-trumps-border-and-sanctuary-city-plans-will-violate-civil-liberties – retrieved 20/2/17
4. The World Staff, 2017. ‘Trump’s plan to build a bigger border wall has plenty of critics’. Public Radio International, 26/1/17. https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-01-26/trumps-plan-build-bigger-border-wall-has-plenty-critics – retrieved 20/2/17
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6. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon Books: New York City
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17. Siler, W, 2016. ‘Trump’s Wall Threatens 111 Endangered Species: And yes, the Bald Eagle is on that list’. Outside, 3/5/16. https://www.outsideonline.com/2075761/trumps-wall-threatens-111-endangered-species – retrieved 20/2/17
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20. Office of the United States Trade Representative, 2017. ‘Mexico: U/S-Mexico Trade Facts’. https://ustr.gov/countries-regions/americas/mexico# – retrieved 20/2/17
21. United States Census Bureau, 2017. ‘FFF: American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month: November 2017’. https://www.census.gov/newsroom/facts-for-features/2017/cb17-ff22.html – retrieved 20/2/17
22. Hains, T, 2016. ‘Crowd in Michigan Erupts into ‘Build the Wall!’ Chant when Donald Trump brings up Trade, Auto Industry’. Real Clear Politics, 4/3/16. https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2016/03/04/donald_trump_crowd_in_michigan_chants_build_the_wall_build_the_wall.html – retrieved 20/2/17
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