How Ecological Science Produces More Than Just Knowledge: A Critical Physical Geography of the U.S.-Mexico Border

Authors: Rachel Arney*, The University of Georgia
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Political Geography, Human-Environment Geography
Keywords: critical physical geography, political ecology, political geography, ecology
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/9/2021
Start / End Time: 3:05 PM / 4:20 PM
Room: Virtual 10
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The production of ecological knowledge is assumed to be apolitical and value-neutral; yet, ecology and biophysical science more broadly are inherently social and political processes. This is particularly relevant in politically-charged spaces like the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, which have been central to broader political debates in recent years. While many governmental and academic institutions are active in producing ecological knowledge about and along the U.S.-Mexico border, the connections between these scientific activities and border maintenance regimes have ignored – if not reproduced – the humanitarian crisis and larger racist and xenophobic ideas about migrants. This paper uses a case study of U.S. federal government land stewardship agencies - and in particular the Bureau of Land Management and the Southern Arizona Project - in order to highlight how supposedly objective biophysical research at the border is mobilized in service of larger political projects that are harmful to both marginalized peoples and the environment. Focusing especially on the way that scientific reports and documents demonize undocumented border crossers and humanitarian workers, I argue that decontextualized, ostensibly apolitical ecological knowledge as practiced by these institutions ultimately works to reproduce and reify the hardening of international borders and larger racist and xenophobic political narratives. I call for a move toward more emancipatory ecologies and biophysical research that both accounts for and moves away from colonial narratives in scientific production.

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