How border walls trigger ecological disaster | Georges monbiot


TThis is the century in which humanitarian and environmental disasters converge. Climate degradation has driven millions of people from their homes and is expected to drive hundreds of millions more. The famine currently raging in Madagascar is the first to have been designated by the UN as likely to have been caused by the climate emergency. It won’t be the last. Big cities are running dangerously low on water as aquifers drain. Air pollution kills 10 million people a year. Synthetic chemicals in soil, air and water impose untold effects on ecologies and people.

But it also works the other way around. Humanitarian disasters or, to be more precise, the cruel and irrational responses of governments to them, trigger an ecological disaster. Nowhere is this more evident than in the construction of border walls.

At present, with the help of 140 British military engineers, Poland is starting to build a 5.5-meter-high steel wall, along 180 km from its border with Belarus. Aid from British troops will help secure a new arms deal between the UK and Poland worth around £ 3 billion.

The wall is described as a “security” measure, but it protects Europe not from a threat but from the desperate needs of some of the most vulnerable people on the planet: in particular refugees from Syria, Iraq and Europe. Afghanistan fleeing persecution, torture and massacres. They were cruelly exploited by the Belarusian government, which used them as political weapons. Now, in the dead of winter, they are trapped at the border, frozen and starving, with nowhere to go.

When the Berlin Wall fell, we were promised that it marked the start of a new era of freedom. Instead, many more walls rose than they fell. Since 1990, Europe has built border walls six times longer than the Berlin barrier. Worldwide, the number of fenced borders has increased from 15 to 70 since the end of the Cold War: there are now 47,000 kilometers of hard borders.

For those trapped at these borders, the cruelties of capitalism are hardly distinguishable from the cruelties of communism.

The humanitarian effects of these walls are well documented. But their ecological impacts are also devastating. Roads and farmland isolate wildlife, but nothing cuts off some species as effectively as border walls. Just as we understand better than ever the importance of ecological connectivity, we are carving and separating habitats at unprecedented speed.

We now know that even in large reserves, wildlife can decline to extinction if they cannot disperse and mix with populations from elsewhere. Their genetic diversity is shrinking, which reduces their reproductive success and makes them more susceptible to disease. Barriers prevent them from moving when conditions change. Conditions are now changing very quickly, due to the degradation of the climate. A trapped population, in many cases, is doomed to failure.

The new wall between Poland and Belarus will cut, among other grim impacts, the Białowieża Forest, the largest old-growth forest on the plains of Europe, in two. Already, a temporary barrier of coiled razor wire has been hung in the middle of the forest, blocking the movement of its famous populations of bison, wolves, wild boars, lynx, deer, moose and other wildlife, and preventing bears, which come to start coming back, to recolonize the woods.

Again, despite the best efforts Scientists like Dr Katarzyna Nowak of the Białowieża Geobotanical Station, the massive ecological consequences are largely ignored. There was no assessment of the environmental impact of the Polish wall, in violation of both the European Habitats Directive and international treaties.

Similar disasters are happening all over the world. The border fence erected between Slovenia and Croatia in 2015 could cause the gradual extinction of the lynx in the Dinaric Mountains. The carcasses of deer that died horribly after clinging to its cruel beards have been found along its entire length.

The barrier between India and Pakistan caused a collapse of the Kashmir markhor (rare and remarkable wild goat with corkscrew horns) population. The longest border barriers in the world separate China, Mongolia and Russia. They isolated residual populations of wild donkeys, Mongolian gazelles and other endangered species from the steppes. Trump’s wall, which separates the United States from Mexico, poses a threat to several rare mammal species, as well as the pygmy owl, which flies too low to cross the barrier. In the expanding and slowing desert ecology, populations survive by recolonizing areas after being driven out by drought. The wall, in many cases, will make this impossible.

There is a trend towards right-wing environmentalism, going back at least 100 years, which equates immigration with pollution. Madison Grant was one of the founders of the American conservation movement, which helped establish its system of national parks. He was also the author of a book called The Passing of the Great Race, published in 1916, which Adolf Hitler described as “my bible”.

Grant believed that by conserving the ecosystems of North America, he was protecting the domain of the Nordic “master race”, which was “overtaken” in the United States by “worthless breed types.” As secretary of the Zoological Society, he helped get a kidnapped Congolese Ota Benga caged with the monkeys on display at the Bronx Zoo.

In 2018, Fox News host Tucker Carlson proclaimed, “I actually hate garbage, which is one of the reasons I’m so against illegal immigration. The European far right has suddenly gone from denying the environmental crisis to arguing for the exclusion of immigrants. He claims that people elsewhere do not share “our” environmental ethics. This insult is easily repudiated: Surveys have long shown greater environmental concerns among the public in poorer countries.

Not only do these attitudes conflict with all that is best in environmentalism – its empathy and consideration for all human beings and all non-human life – but the policies of separation and containment they promote. are ecologically disastrous. Although border walls cause a lot of death and suffering and are only partially effective in their stated purpose of excluding people, they are fully effective in excluding many other species.

It’s not like anyone who cares about people needs more arguments against the vicious policies that separate us from each other. But there are more arguments, and they are powerful. Border walls accelerate the extinction crisis and make ecosystems unviable. Just as humanity knows no borders, neither does wildlife. There is no conflict between caring for the planet and caring for its people. In fact, you can’t have one without the other.


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