(de)Bordering the human and non-human worlds

By Bridget Anderson.

In October 2016 the French authorities evicted more than a thousand people from their shelters in the Calais ‘Jungle’. This had become a hub for people seeking to cross the Channel to come to the UK, and a focus of solidarity and rights activism. It was to be replaced with a nature reserve. Who can object to the restoration of an ecosystem, symbolised by the re-establishment of endangered native species? To uncovering and nurturing back to life the seeds of the Liparis loeselii, the endangered fen orchid, dormant under 60 years of detritus and topsoil? The subsequent Fort Vert nature reserve is now a resting ground for migrating birds but designed so it provides no shelter for migrating humans. Calais has been a point of tension between England and France for centuries, yet today the UK Border Force is a partner in this ‘projet de territoire’.

The Liparis Loeselii orchid, now growing on the site of the Calais ‘Jungle’ (image: orchidsworld on flickr)

The ‘natural world’ is often imagined as pre-political, as a kind of innocent space that must be conserved and protected from human beings. Yet environmental issues are bound up with power, domination and forms of violence that cannot escape politics. Moreover, at the same time as being pre-political, ‘nature’ is also imagined as national – think about national parks, the claiming of iconic national animals and the determination to stamp out ‘invasive species’. Fort Vert is incorporated into France’s ‘National Restoration Plan’.

The interface between environment and human mobility is likely to become increasingly politically fraught. There is growing anxiety about ‘environmental refugees’ and the consequences that environmental change will have for mobility to rich countries. This raises extremely important questions for the politics of migration and global justice. It also demands that we think carefully about the language used in environmental and migration justice. The pollution and destruction that people are seeking to escape compounded by racism easily becomes associated with them. Migrants are routinely seen to scurry, scuttle, sneak and swarm. It is legitimate to respond to vermin through the creation of a ‘hostile environment’.

These metaphors pass unremarked into press coverage. We often hear the language of insects and vermin, low down on the animal phyla, invading not the national territory but the national home. One insect is trivial, of no consequence, but they travel in swarms, so just one is likely to presage millions. Unlike beasts of burden, these are not perceived as productive animals. They are strongly associated with human waste and thrive in the places we try to forget: sewers, empty lots, derelict buildings, mountainous landfills. In the same way that vermin serve as a reminder of ecosystems of dirt and waste that are thrown up by and live on the by-products of production, so the people at the borders of Europe and those whose bodies wash up on Mediterranean beaches are part of the ecosystems of global economic, social and political relations, and the living histories of colonialism and patriarchy – ecosystems that many would rather forget.

Fort Vert exemplifies the ‘green washing’ of border enforcement. It is vitally important to be able to think about environmental justice, sustainability and mobility justice together, rather than as a zero-sum game. A pristine national space is a fantasy, but that does not mean it is not important to act on environmental destruction, climate change and migration justice: rather, it is important to act on them together. This demands analysis and mutual learning, and universities are an important space to facilitate these conversations. At Bristol, MMB has been working with the Brigstow Institute and two fantastic artist/gardeners, Charli Clark and Paul Hurley, to develop a living lab where we can observe, debate and learn from the multiple mobilities that are part of our worlds. (de)Bordering explores ideas of the native, the natural and concepts of place, and how they feature in the politics of environment and ecology and the politics of migration and mobility.  

The (de)Bordering project is set in the University of Bristol’s Royal Fort Gardens and comprises two plots planted up to attract migrants and welcome weeds and out-of-place plants. The summer garden, for example, has different thistle species and mallow, ideal for the painted lady butterfly to lay its eggs on and for its caterpillars to pupate. The painted lady migrates to and from North Africa. Cow parsley, summer ragwort and lady’s bedstraw will attract insects such as the marmalade hoverfly, an aphid-eating pollinator that arrives in its billions in the summer months. They are food for swifts and swallows.

A painted lady butterfly, migrating to the UK from North Africa, feeds on a thistle as planted in the (de)Bordering plot (image: hedera.baltica on flickr)

The winter friendly garden will be stocked with berries and seeds from hawthorn and ivy – the food of fieldfares and redwings – and from elder and dogwood – beloved of blackbirds and robins. Did you know that while most robins in the UK scarcely leave their ‘territory’, some (mainly female) ones fly to southern Spain in the winter? Those that stay put are in turn joined by robins from Scandinavia escaping the severe winter up north. We hope both long-term residents and those passing through will enjoy the rosehip and blackthorn they will find on our plot.

There are also two structures being built in this space. One is a hide, where two people will be able to observe insect life, and the other, larger structure is a space for debate, modelled on the shelters in the Calais ‘Jungle’ from which people were evicted. We hope that both will enable us to learn from the ways that people co-exist with and in our world, and how we can co-exist better. We will be completing it and making a firepit on 28th June, finishing with poems and stories around the fire. Come and join us then!

Bridget Anderson is the Director of MMB and Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol. She leads the online course Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship: The MMB Online Academy 2021.

Bridget would like to thank Professor Miriam Ticktin and acknowledge the organisers and participants of the conference ‘Invasive Others’, held on 20th-21st April 2016 in the New School for Social Research, New York, for the conversations that helped her develop these ideas. Those wanting to know more might be interested in the special issue of Social Research that was dedicated to the conference papers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.