The Politics of Border Fences: Animal Edition

August 23, 2023
IMA Research Team

By Zander Bamford Brown

In the past few decades, the world has seen a dramatic increase in the construction of border walls and fences. Often, like in the case of the US-Mexico wall championed by Donald Trump, the barriers are built for political gain. As one analyst puts it: they benefit those in power because “they look great on television, they look strong and impenetrable, and it suggests to the viewer ‘We, the government, are protecting you from something.’” In the vast majority of cases, the ‘something’ the barriers are meant to protect against are people on the far side of the wall. It is widely understood that “nationalism is the central geopolitical fantasy that encourages, justifies and legitimates contemporary border walls.” There are, however, examples of border fences meant to prevent disease carrying animals from crossing between countries rather than humans. Examples of sanitary boundary fences can be observed in Botswana, Bulgaria, and Denmark.

Botswana built fences along two of its borders to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease (FMD) among cattle, a socially and economically important animal for rural Batswana. FMD is a long standing issue in much of southern Africa that weakens cattle, and to stop its spread, Botswana built a fence on the Namibian border in 1996 and on the Zimbabwean border in the early 2000s. In Europe, the construction of sanitary fences was motivated by the 2014 spread of African swine fever (ASF). The disease is often contracted by contact between wild boar and domesticated pigs, and it kills almost every infected pig within 10 days. Bulgaria completed a fence to stop wild boars entering the country from Romania in 2018. Denmark then constructed a fence along the German border in 2019 to keep out wild boars and protect its $1.7 billion pork industry. 

Extensive agriculture along the border between Denmark and Germany. Imagery from Esri’s World Basemap, boundary data from Sovereign Limits.

On the surface these undertakings have “more to do with sanitation than geopolitics” (taken from a BBC description of the Botswana–Zimbabwe fence) and may be seen as operating in a distinct sphere from human-oriented border barriers. Without a doubt the sanitary concern in all three countries was very real, and the spread of disease had the potential to harm livestock and cripple local economies. However, there is a resounding lack of evidence proving the effectiveness of these sorts of fences. In fact, in all cases, it was known that infected animals would easily be able to circumvent the barrier. Why then did the governments choose to implement this unusual, costly, possibly ineffective, and environmentally damaging solution with a high risk of international backlash? The answer, though not clearcut, certainly involves politics. At the very least, these fences may be used to tell citizens that ‘the government is protecting you from disease and financial ruin’. Yet, the strikingly similar contexts under which all of these barriers were built suggests that these fences may be the product of a specific set of political circumstances. 

The sanitary fence on the border between Bulgaria and Romania. Image from Romania
A sanitary fence on the borders of Botswana. Image from Cornell University.

A central component of this is the interplay between these fences and local perceptions of nationhood. Academics have found that these barriers, like fences meant to block humans, help draw a line between the nation and an ‘other’. An analysis of Danish border regulations for humans and pigs crossing the German border found that the two are woven together to help define the boundary of the nation and emphasize the worth of people and pigs that are viewed as Danish. These conclusions are echoed in a paper about the Botswana–Zimbabwe fence which determined that the barrier, though officially meant to keep out animals, may manifest “the desire to distinguish citizens of Botswana from ‘others’”. The ‘others’ are largely seen to be Zimbabweans, and Batswana officials have even admitted that the fence is unofficially meant to stop people from entering the country outside of official crossing points. In Bulgaria, no research has been done on the socio-political impact of the wild boar fence on the Romanian border. However, Bulgaria had previously built a fence along its border with Turkey to prevent asylum seekers and other migrants from entering the country. Research on this barrier found that it bolsters “nationalist, exclusionary visions of [the] political community.” This fence can be seen as part of a larger project to encourage xenophobia that has been ​​spearheaded by the state’s political elite. This suggests that the Bulgarian government had the understanding and motivation to use the Romanian fence to harden the line between Bulgarian and an ‘other’. While the justification for these fences may be apolitical, the end result is likely similar to human-oriented fences: to harden the conceptual boundaries of the nation.

These fences have only ever manifested under a specific set of political conditions: a threat of disease carried by animals, a sharp rise in anti-immigrant sentiment before the fence was built, and shared membership in an intergovernmental organization (IGO) on both sides of the fence. IGOs are entities involving multiple countries that are meant to work on issues of common interest. With the increase of globalization and the interdependence of nations, they have come to play a significant role in international politics. Furthermore all the IGOs in question encourage the free movement of people over their borders. Denmark, Germany, Bulgaria, and Romania are part of the European Union which considers borders between member states to be internal. Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe are all in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) which promotes free movement of people between member states. It should be noted that despite their membership in the SADC, Botswana had tense relations with Zimbabwe and Namibia during the construction of the respective fences. 

All three countries also saw an uptick in anti-immigrant sentiment just before the construction of the sanitary fence. Denmark was once among “the most progressive in the world on asylum policy and refugee protection.” But the country saw a steep rise in anti-refugee sentiment in the 2010s, a shift clearly marked by the Prime Minister’s declaration that Denmark wanted ‘zero asylum seekers’ the same year the fence was constructed. A similar trend has been taking place in Bulgarian society, though the country was never known as particularly welcoming to refugees. In the years leading up to fence construction, xenophobia grew severe enough that the United Nations Human Rights Office expressed their concern about the situation. Botswana again stands out, this time because the government did not fan the anti-immigrant flames like the Danish and Bulgarian governments. Nevertheless, there has been a clear shift in opinion among Batswana. In the 1980s and early 90s Botswana was known as a “country of immigration”. Yet around the time the fence was constructed on the Namibian border, anti-immigrant sentiment began to rise, and six years later when the first fence posts were placed on the Zimbabwean border, surveys found that Batswana were ‘highly intolerant of outsiders’. 

Despite the official apolitical rationale for these fences, they only appear on relatively open borders where the governments and people have an antagonistic stance towards an ‘other’, whether it be the neighboring government or migrants. An argument could be made that these conditions encourage the construction of animal barriers. They can be seen as an attempt to manage the anti-other sentiment domestically while limiting backlash from an allied neighbor by providing a more neutral justification for its construction. Whether or not this can be proven, it would be extremely limiting to try to separate these fences from the political realities surrounding their construction. As border fences continue to be built and the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened awareness in the general public about the threat of spreading disease, these sorts of fences may become more common and have implications beyond their stated apolitical sanitations projects.

If you’re interested in learning more about other kinds of border fences, our friends at This American Life have a great story about “The Walls,” featuring a detailed interactive map made by us at International Mapping!

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