Where Are We Really Building Walls? – How to use Permaculture to Help Create More Connected Society

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).

Mental barriers

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.

Applying permaculture

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. – retrieved 20/2/17

2. Bhagwat, S, 2017. ‘The Environmental Cost of Trump’s Wall’. The Conversation, 11/2/17. – retrieved 20/2/17

3. American Civil Liberties Union, 2017. ‘ACLU: Trump’s 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. – retrieved 20/2/17

5. Hemenway, T, 2010. ‘How Permaculture Can Save Humanity and the Earth, but not Civilization’. Talk given at Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, North Carolina, USA and uploaded 9/2/13 to Films For Action: – retrieved 20/2/17

6. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon Books: New York City

7. Steves, R, 2013. ‘The Security Fence, The Anti-Terrorism Barrier, The Wall’. Huffington Post, 18/11/13. – retrieved 20/2/17

8. UNHCR, 2006. ‘Western Sahara Atlas Map as of 2006’. – retrieved 20/2/17

9. Thomas, M, 2007. As Used on the Famous Nelson Mandela: Underground Adventures in the Arms and Torture Trade. Ebury Press: London

10. Downward, R.J, Bromell, J.E, 1990. ‘The Development of a Policy for the Management of Dingo Populations in South Australia’. Proceedings of the fourteenth Vertebrate Pest Conference 1990: University of Nebraska Lincoln. – retrieved 20/2/17

11. International Rivers, 2017. ‘Mekong Mainstream Dams’. – retrieved 20/2/17

12. H Su, L-J Qu, K He, Z Zhang, J Wang, Z Chen, H Gu, 2003. Heredity: The Great Wall of China: ‘A Physical barrier to Gene Flow?’ Archived item from Nature available online here: – retrieved 20/2/17

13. Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel, 2003. ‘Environmental Impact of Israel’s Wall’. – retrieved 20/2/17

14. Atlas Obscura, 2017. ‘Dingo Fence’. – retrieved 20/2/17

15. International Campaign Against the Wall of the Moroccan Occupation of Western Sahara, 2017. ‘Impacts of the Wall’. – retrieved 20/2/17

16. WWF, 2016. ‘Irrawaddy Dolphins Functionally Extinct in Laos’. Phys.Org, 26/10/16. – retrieved 20/2/17

17. Siler, W, 2016. ‘Trump’s Wall Threatens 111 Endangered Species: And yes, the Bald Eagle is on that list’. Outside, 3/5/16. – retrieved 20/2/17

18. 10,000 Birds, 2017. ‘What is the National Bird of the United States?’ – retrieved 20/2/17

19. Ilya, 2017. ‘Wildlife Crossing in the Netherlands’. Unusual Places, 2017. – retrieved 20/2/17

20. Office of the United States Trade Representative, 2017. ‘Mexico: U/S-Mexico Trade Facts’. – retrieved 20/2/17

21. United States Census Bureau, 2017. ‘FFF: American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month: November 2017’. – 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. – retrieved 20/2/17

23. Permaculture Principles, 2017. ‘Permaculture Design principles’. – retrieved 20/2/17

Charlotte Ashwanden

Charlotte Ashwanden (nee Haworth). Born in London, I am very interested in peace and community and have a degree in Peace Studies. I got my Permaculture Design Certificate in 2011, from Treeyo at Permaship in Bulgaria, and my Permaculture Teaching Certificate in 2018 at Aranya in India. For me, permaculture is about so much more than garden design; I am mainly interested in applying ‘human permaculture’ as a complement to peace practices. In particular, I like to look at how human permaculture can be applied through psychology, communication and education techniques. In 2015 I got married in a pagan ceremony in a field to David Ashwanden and changed my surname to Ashwanden. With my husband, I’ve travelled a lot in Europe and Asia and encountered many permaculture and community projects. I have lived in various situations, from squatted land to intentional communities, as well as more ‘normal’ places, in the UK, Spain, Italy, Thailand and Vietnam. A professional dancer, I do fire and hula dance and sometimes run dance meditation workshops. Currently, I live in the Andalucian mountains.

One Comment

  1. You can take this so much further! Political ideology and actions of any description only comes into play once human communities get beyond a certain size, and where a contextualised, pragmatic and unique response to circumstances where a communal consensus approach is required is no longer possible. For all our globalisation, no one individual human is capable of relating in any depth to any more people than would occupy a village.

    So within larger democratic communities, there’s an attempt to codify response patterns so those delegated the task of looking after community interests can proceed with tacit consensus. The moment this becomes necessary, there’s disagreement over how those response patterns should be codified. People are no longer being asked their opinion in how to proceed with respect to a specific context, but to set out guidelines for all situations.

    This is where it all goes wrong. All such codes are detached from context. Therefore no code can ever be appropriate in every situation, still less applied universally across a diverse population within a given geographical area. What’s appropriate in a city isn’t appropriate in rural areas, etc, etc. So each time one code is used exclusively for a given time, the situations in which it’s not appropriate are thrown into ever sharper relief, those who disagree with the approach get ever more frustrated and vocal, and we fall into the inevitable game of ping pong between competing ideologies. People are split in their allegiances and come to see themselves in opposition to others in their immediate community rather than – as they should be – working together for their mutual benefit within their specific context. And because ‘them’ is too great a number for personal relatedness and understanding to come into play, we create unidimensional caricatures of the mythical ‘opposing forces’ and try to wall them out of our lives, even while allowing exceptions for the members of ‘them’ we might happen to personally know …

    The crux of the matter here is that if something isn’t working, then it’s not fit for purpose. Isn’t it time we realised that the solution can never lie in any political ideology?! Don’t we need to return governance to village-scale communities? Do we even need countries, still less global institutions? (Cue John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’.)

    As for how we get there from here? Well the present system is collapsing. Trump and his team will take it down in short order, given the chance to do so. SO let them! We then have an unprecedented chance to re-envision our way of being on this planet. Rather than fall back into the trap of yet another political ideology, why don’t we use our knowledge of natural systems to design human community in imitation of them? An inherent quality of any natural system is that it’s self-organising. Humans are no exception. All we need is a basic set of ethical guiding principles from which everything else can be derived within any specific context. Something like an amalgamation of the Christian Ten Commandments, the Five Pillars of Islam, the Buddhist Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths,
    etc, etc, but basically “Good thoughts, good words, good deeds.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Back to top button