Episode 23
Bearing Witness in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands with Conservationist Laiken Jordahl

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a staggering number of businesses and much of our public life are paused across the country in the interest of health and safety. There is one place where activity has amped up since the shutdowns – construction sites along the U.S. Mexico border. Our guest is conservationist Laiken Jordahl, who works as a campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity near Arizona’s Organ Pipe National Monument. He documents the heightened activity of border wall construction on National Park land, which sits next to the Tohono O'odham tribal nation reservation and encompasses a UNESCO bioreserve.

Jordahl posts on-the-ground reports and footage to his Twitter feed. He shares evidence of the Trump Administration’s disregard for federal Environmental Protections and the desecration of Native American heritage sites. He notes the Administration attempts to complete broad sections of the wall ahead of the election – and in the middle of the pandemic.

As Jordahl shares, “This crisis has brought the world to its knees in a way that nothing else could. It's changed everything about our day to day lives and that's why it's so mystifying and enraging that border wall construction is continuing, and it's actually accelerating across Arizona. There are hundreds of construction workers here in our state right now that are building new miles of wall.” 

This episode, we speak to Jordahl, during the time of self-isolation and quarantine for COVID-19, about the accelerated pace of construction of the border wall. He shares the devastating impacts on the land and residents of the region, the ecological outcomes on endangered species and water systems, and the importance of bearing witness in the borderlands.

Paul Farber (Host):    Laiken Jordahl. Welcome to the Monument Lab Podcast.

Laiken Jordahl:    Thank you Paul. Great to be here in these wildly uncertain times.

Farber:        We're in the midst of the coronavirus shutdowns across the country, including where you are in Arizona. What is the status of the construction of the U.S. Mexico border wall?

Jordahl:        This crisis has brought the world to its knees in a way that nothing else could. It's changed everything about our day to day lives and that's why it's so mystifying and enraging that border wall construction is continuing, and it's actually accelerating across Arizona. There are hundreds of construction workers here in our state right now that are building new miles of wall. They're gathering in large groups, they're staying in hotels. It's just so bizarre to see life as we know it change, but this wall, this thing that I've dedicated most of my last four years to fight, it's pushing full steam ahead.

Farber:        You mentioned that this is full steam ahead and people are coming from around the country in this time of shutdown. What does that look like on the ground to you?

Jordahl:    I was down on the border this week and there is just this bustling construction zone in an area that used to be just this serene, peaceful wilderness lands. There are hundreds of cars parked in these parking lots with lots of out-of-state license plates. Actually a lot of license plates from Sonora, Mexico. I mean it is a large industrial scale construction zone down there. Earlier this month, the Trump Administration actually announced that they would grant all of these new contracts that essentially will wall off the entirety of the border in Arizona, California, and New Mexico. And it's just, it's heartbreaking for us because all of the mechanisms that we usually have to organize to fight these projects aren't available to us right now. We can't organize rallies, we can't organize protests. It's been really difficult to get media because the media market is so focused on the coronavirus pandemic and it feels like we've been neutered while the administration is actually stepping on the gas in order to build more miles of wall right now.

Farber:        Through your Twitter feed, you have shared information about a number of laws that have been waived in the name of border construction, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and several more. What is the result of that on the ground for residents or even for inhabitants of the spaces along the border?

Jordahl:    Yeah, so I mean every single environmental cultural resource protection, public health law that exists that would pertain to projects like border wall construction has been completely cast aside. Border communities are not protected by the same laws that apply everywhere else in the country. Laws like the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act have all been cast aside to rush border wall construction. And it's important to note that the government can't waive laws for any other projects if they want to approve an air force base or if they want to do almost any federal action, they have to follow all of these laws.

But for border wall construction they have been able to cast every single relevant law aside, and this is because of a little known provision in the Real ID Act in 2005 that allows the Secretary of Homeland security to waive laws to rush wall construction. And this law was passed not that long after 9/11. It was kind of framed as as these environmental lawsuits were getting in the way of building the border wall, the government saw it as a national security issue, so they sought to exempt this project from all legal review. And the result has been absolutely devastating. We've seen endangered species habitat completely bulldozed. We've seen the extraction of millions of gallons of groundwater imperiling aquatic habitats that are home to endangered species. We've seen the bulldozing of protected plant species of Saguaros, of Organ Pipe Cactus. All of this destruction that we're seeing would not be possible, would not be legal if these laws were in place.

Farber:        One of your primary areas of focus is Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which is both a national monument and a UNESCO biosphere reserve. Would it be fair to say that you both work as a conservationist with the Center for Biological Diversity and in some ways a journalist reporting from that site where the border construction and the destruction of the landscape are going hand in hand?

Jordahl:    Yeah, I think that's fair to say. I see my role really as a storyteller and there are so few people that are on the ground covering this issue. I try my best to share images of what we're seeing down here every day. I think so much of this destruction, of this devastation is going unnoticed because these are wilderness lands. It's hard to get out to some of these locations. They are remote, desolate, beautiful. So I've been doing everything I can to try and convey to the world all of this heartbreaking destruction that's happening.

Farber:        I'm curious who you encounter or what you encounter on the ground. Are you coming face to face with those who are doing construction along the border? Are you encountering wildlife? Do those parties ever also encounter one another?

Jordahl:    Yeah, I actually, I used to work at Organ Pipe for the Park Service. That's kind of how I got into all of this. I worked as an ecologist helping write their wilderness stewardship plan. So when I'm out there, sometimes I run into my old coworkers and they're doing science out there. I always, always see border patrol. Oftentimes we'll see construction workers and this area is so remote that whenever you see somebody out there, you talk to them. It's always a good opportunity to talk to border patrol and construction workers about what they're seeing. My first question to them is always, "What wildlife have you seen? What activity have you seen?" And I've heard accounts of people seeing mountain lions drinking from this beautiful spring right next to the border. We've heard people talk about coyotes.

There's so much wildlife out here and when I'm out especially this time of year, especially in the spring when the desert is just blooming with beauty. It's just so full of life. I also really like asking that question to try and open up the minds of these border patrol agents and construction workers to realize that the desert is this place of incredible life, of refuge. I think there's this really interesting disconnect between how environmentalists and ecologists see the desert and how border patrol agents and wall construction workers see the desert.

To me, it's this place that is so worthy of protection. Organ Pipe specifically is the best preserved Sonoran desert ecosystem on the planet. But to border patrol agents, they see every cactus, every arroyo, every drainage as a place for migrants or smugglers to hide. There's just such a different way of reading the landscape. It's almost contradictory notions of preservation and also of the desert itself being a threat, a place for illicit activities to take place. And that disconnect has always really interested me in terms of how we're talking about the place, how we're talking about the value of the desert.

Farber:        Are the border guards wary of you? You have a phone or, or a camera with you? Are they suspect of you being there in that place, interacting with them at the border?

Jordahl:    I've been harassed and accosted and threatened and yelled at countless times. I always try to film border patrol. A lot of these young agents are fresh out of college. They perceive everything out there as a threat. So, yeah, it's kind of nerve wracking to encounter somebody out there, someone who has a gun belt, someone who views everything, including me as a threat. But again, I feel like it's my mission to try and open their eyes to the beauty of this landscape. I have to say, if I wasn't white, I think those encounters would be drastically more nerve wracking. I definitely try to exercise my privilege of being a white male to allow me to get into some of these situations and locations and press these agents on what they're seeing and what they're doing and try to open their eyes to the beauty of the desert and what's at stake.

Farber:        Are you ever joined by colleagues of color who are not white males? And what is that dynamic like when you're onsite, if that happens?

Jordahl:      Certainly, yeah. Some of the most recent trips, we've actually been out there with Tohono O'odham travel members, and the Tohono O'odham nation is this large tribal nation and Organ Pipe and all of these surrounding areas are ancestral homelands for this tribal nation, O'odham members still use the national monument there to gather plants. They use it for ceremonies. And notoriously, O'odham tribal members have been systematically harassed, racially profiled, and really just threatened for decades by border patrol. So when I'm out there with my O'odham friends and colleagues, there's, I feel like another level of suspicion that border patrol agents approach us with, which is so infuriating because these are the people that are native to this landscape. There's something so disheartening, something so deeply wrong about these indigenous people being asked to show their papers to move through the lands from which they came. So yeah, it's difficult.

Farber:        For those who haven't been to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, can you give us some context about the landscape, both the ecological landscape and also a sense of where the Tohono O'odham reservation is, where the border is and where you're coming from when you visit there from Tucson?

Jordahl:    Yeah, so Organ Pipe, it's this beautiful sprawling national monument and wilderness area. It's in Southern Arizona right on the border and it is the heart of the Sonoran desert. This monument, it's home to the best preserved, best protected Sonoran desert anywhere on the planet. And it's surrounded by all of these other protected lands. There's a wildlife refuge, there's Bureau of Land Management land. And then South of the border, which really is an invisible line to wildlife, to ecosystems, there are these massive national parks in Mexico. El Pinacate Biosphere Reserve, and El Gran Desierto. These beautiful, rugged, wild volcanic landscapes. So Organ Pipe is at the center of all of these other protected areas. And I think one thing that makes it so special, and actually the reason it was designated as a national monument is to protect the Organ Pipe Cactus, which is this beautiful columnar cactus species that doesn't exist anywhere else in the U.S. Like many species in the borderlands, this cactus reaches the northern extent of its range right at Organ Pipe. So it's got some of these almost tropical influences and you see other plants like elephant trees, like senita cactuses that grow almost nowhere else in the U.S. So there's something about it. It does feel like you're kind of at the edge of two worlds. You have Rocky Mountain species and you also have all of these species from the Sierra Madre in Mexico and the allure and the mystery of this landscape, it really comes through when you're out there. 

Farber:        How does the ecological landscape interact with the U.S. Mexico border?

Jordahl:    It doesn't. The border is this invisible imposed line on a whole and connected ecosystem. Wildlife have evolved for millennia to migrate freely through the desert, to search for food, water, shelter, mates. And only in very recent times have we imposed this linear line through this connected ecosystem. There's no historical equivalent to what we're doing with the border wall right now. We are creating this landscape scale obstruction that will stop all wildlife migrations, all species of wildlife larger than a pack rat from migrating North or South along this invisible line. So the act of severing this ecosystem, it will change the evolutionary history of wildlife here.

Farber:        In February, as the chair of the Tohono [O'odham] nation Ned Norris went to D.C. to testify in front of Congress, border control officials detonated land along Organ Pipe's Monument Hill. Were you there? And if you were there, would you describe it? If you were not there, what was the fallout from that that detonation.

Jordahl:    Yeah, so for almost six or seven months, I had been hearing rumors that border patrol was actually going to have to use explosives to blast a path through this beautiful Hill right along the border. The border is dynamic and rugged and there are mountains and canyons and all of this topography that makes it really hard to plow a massive 30 foot wall through the landscape. So in February, border patrol actually started detonating ammonium nitrate explosives in this national monument in designated wilderness lands in a UNESCO biosphere reserve in order to build the wall. And essentially they are blasting this massive path through a mountain in order to to to build the wall there. Monument Hill, like many sites in Organ Pipe is a sacred ceremonial site for the O'odham.

There are burial grounds on Monument Hill and of course because the Trump Administration waived all of the cultural resource protection laws, the tribe was not consulted. They weren't even told about this blasting until the very morning that it was occurring. I've been out there documenting and trying to film the blasting since it started in February, but border patrol finally announced that they were going to allow the media to come and film one of the detonations. They announced this PR stunt, this publicity stunt, on the very same day , at the very same time that the tribal chairman, Ned Norris was testifying in D.C. about the destruction of these sacred sites. 

It was bizarre. It was almost to the minute that Norris started speaking in D.C., border patrol set off these detonations and I went out there with some of my O'odham friends with some other activists from Tucson to protest this desecration. And it was absolutely sickening. We heard these blast warning sirens go off and we waited 60 seconds and we watched these huge clouds of dust shoot up from the mountain and then half a second later you heard explosions and it was this wave of explosions that just rippled down the hillside.

We could see Saguaro and Organ Pipe cactus arms shaking. The tribal folks I was with just dropped to their knees and cried and the the way that they saw it, the way that they talked about it, it was like releasing these spirits, the spirits of their ancestors were being disturbed and released by this blasting. And it was just so offensive and so preposterous that border patrol timed all of this to coincide exactly with the testimony that the tribal chairman was giving in D.C.

And the reason that they did this is because they wanted the media to be focusing on the blasting rather than hearing the account from the tribal chairman about what this desecration really meant. This was the first time that border patrol allowed the media to come and film the blasting after about a month of blasting. A lot of my connections who are journalists have been asking them repeatedly if they could come and film and they didn't allow it until this very moment. So that was a thinly veiled attempt to silence the testimony of the tribal chairman. And that's why we went out that day to protest.

Farber:         In the days and weeks after those blasts, you described some really harrowing and potentially traumatic reactions to seeing such a violent approach to land that was otherwise supposed to be protected. What kind of fallout did you document both in the land but also amongst your colleagues who were present with you or for you yourself?

Jordahl:      Yeah. It's really hard to convey all of the trauma, all of the loss, all of the heartbreak of this work. So much of my job now is just bearing witness to the destruction of these irreplaceable landscapes, of these sacred sites of the incredible biodiversity on the border. For me, working at Organ Pipe four years ago for the National Park Service, when I was there, that really opened my eyes to the beauty of the desert. I fell in love with the Sonoran desert working at Organ Pipe and back then, I had hoped to continue my work with the Park Service. I wanted to work with the government to preserve these places. Never, never once did I imagine that I'd be returning to this monument every week to document its destruction. There is an immense amount of collective heartbreak, especially in Southern Arizona about what's happening right now. So I think it's important that we don't minimize the pain.

I think it's so important that we collectively mourn what's happening and I try so hard. I go out there every week and I see these really traumatizing things. I see protected Saguaro cactuses chopped up and pushed into brush piles. I see all of this freshly bulldozed land. Every trip I try to just remain in this state of being sensitized. It's so easy to become desensitized to this work, especially when you see all this damage every day. But I think it's so important that we hold on to our sense of collective heartbreak.

Farber:        The work of bearing witness is so important and I appreciate that you say to stay sensitized. One of the ways that you bear witness is as a storyteller and it reminds me of an online essay that you published and you shared with us and I'm just going to read a few lines that that stuck out to me where you write, "I feel like a disaster tour guide, like an ambassador to the pain inflicted on these stunning sacred lands. As someone who worked for years to protect this place, I feel like it's my duty to share these images with the world. I want everyone to know the true cost of Trump's wall." How do you balance the difficulty being on the ground and the heartbreak with the need to tell the story outward? How do you hold those feelings of being an ambassador of this difficulty but also as a really important and vital source for others to know what's happening?

Jordahl:    fI think there's something really cathartic about sharing these stories and these images. It's so important that we never look away. That we document all of this damage. I think about how important it is to create this historical record of what's happening and this record of resistance and make it clear to the world that we fought this thing with everything we had. We did everything in our power to stop this travesty from happening.

And I think the more we bring light to these stories now, the more we talk about just the horrors of what's happening, the more likely it'll be that we will be able to rip this wall down as soon as possible. The more likely it'll be that we'll be able to restore these lands, give the border communities and the species that live here the respect that they deserve. So I think there's nowhere in the world I could live with myself being other than right here. This is not the life that I chose. This is not what I expected to be doing, but I don't think I could live with myself if I was anywhere else.

Farber:        When you share stories, whether it's with journalists that you take with you or people on your Twitter feed, what interactions do you have in those moments?

Jordahl:    A lot of people are shocked. I think folks are so shocked to know that this is happening, especially in in this place that has all these layers of federal protection. People are shocked that the wall is actually being built. People are in disbelief. Some people say "That's not a wall, that's a fence." There's this sense of wanting to minimize what's happening in this, especially among Democrats and liberals saying like, "Oh, that's not really Trump's wall. When Trump talked about a wall three or four years ago, it was this massive concrete structure. He talked about a moat with alligators in it."

And it's actually been really hard to combat this notion from liberals that this isn't Trump's wall. I think they would rather not acknowledge the damage that is happening in order to not give Trump a win on his signature and most vile campaign promise. So my mission is this mission of truth telling, of illuminating what's actually happening on the ground, of sharing all of the images, all of the videos, all of the stories that I can to make sure that we as a country can't look away from what we're doing right now.

Farber:    If you had any sense as we moved toward the election, how will that impact the work that you're doing either in terms of documenting on the ground or in those exchanges with people who may be skeptical or want to look away, but you wanting to make sure that they know what's actually happening along the border?

Jordahl:    From day one, this wall has been nothing more than an election prop. And in the last year specifically, we have just seen the rate of construction just completely accelerate. I think at some point in the last year, Trump realized, "If I don't build hundreds of miles of this wall, I might not get reelected." So he has pulled out all of the stops in order to deliver on this campaign promise. And that's why we see all these laws being cast aside. That's why we see just probably more than a thousand construction workers descending on Arizona to build as many miles as fast as possible. If Trump gets his way, all of Arizona will be walled off by November.

If Trump gets his way, the whole thing will be done by at the time the election comes around. So I think there's this accelerated push to get it done by the Trump Administration. And on our end where we're just trying to make people realize what's really at stake here. So much of the discussion around the border wall, it takes place in this rhetorical sphere, this hyperbolic place. It erases the actual landscapes, the actual communities, and the reality of what the borderlands really are. And   across the country were able to come down here and see for themselves, see the beauty, see the incredible culture, see these sweeping glorious vistas for themselves, there's no way that we would still be talking about building a border wall.

Farber:        Preach. The Center for Biological Diversity along with several other partners have filed suit against the Administration as they've channeled military funds for border wall construction. Is that tied into the work that you do? Is that separate? How do you imagine that that struggle against the wall playing out in different venues including in the court system?

Jordahl:    Yeah, so the Center for Biological Diversity where I work, we're big time litigators. We've filed more than half a dozen lawsuits against the border wall and litigation is this important tool that we use to stop projects like this. It's been really difficult to litigate this project because all of the normal laws that we would use to stop a project like this have been cast aside. We are challenging the validity of those waivers. And we're actually petitioning the Supreme Court to take our case challenging the waivers. And we hope that they'll do that in the next month or so. And litigation is so important. But if we can't also win the hearts and the minds of the public, we're not doing our job. The litigation is a great tool, but we also have to tell the stories of these places and make people deeply, deeply care about the issue. So at the center, we try to do it all. We do the campaigning, the storytelling, we do the media and we do the litigation that we hope ultimately it will stop these kinds of projects for good.

Farber:         And you mentioned the importance of not just speaking about the borderlands as rhetorical, but actually turning to the landscape, turning to people to understand more deeply. I'm interested to hear from you what have you learned in the years that you've spent so deeply that wouldn't have been possible without being there with your own two feet?

Jordahl:    Interesting question. More than anything, I think I've just learned that this notion of borders, this notion of separation is completely made up. It's all in our heads. This idea of land on this side of this invisible line is ours. And the land on the other side is there's. It's absurd. I also worked at Big Bend National Park in Texas and the border there is the Rio Grande River. And the way it's written in the treaty is that the actual border is the deepest channel of the Rio Grande River, which I think is almost hilarious because the river changes course, the river moves, the deepest channel shifts. Sometimes there's an island that is in the U.S. and then the river changes course and that island becomes ceded to Mexico. The very notion of the river challenges our need, this political need to define what's ours and what's theirs.

And I think we as humans have this tendency to simplify everything, to claim things, to name things. And the borderlands are just this place of deep ambiguity, I think one part of why the border wall is so central to Trump's ideology, so central to Trump's worldview is that it's this beautifully simple summary of his ideology. Three words conveys his entire worldview, his foreign policy plans. "Build the wall." It's this beautifully simple idea that's so easy for people to latch onto. I'm envious of that. It's so much harder to face the reality, which is that everything is interconnected. Borders are all a product of our imagination. We depend on these interconnected ecosystems, these resources, like groundwater that are shared by multiple nations.

Jordahl:    It's so much easier just to say "this us versus them" mentality that Trump has capitalized on and the simplicity of that message I think is why it's such a potent message and so many people believe it. But the reality obviously is much more nuanced. It's much more complicated and it requires some deep thought. So, yeah, I just wish everyone in the country could come down and take a swim in the Rio Grande River and float across this invisible line and just open their eyes to the nuance and the ambiguity of this beautiful world.

Farber:        What are your hopes for your work for the border, even amidst these crises that you face every day? Do you hold hope for the the border and the borderlands?

Jordahl:    I do. I think as a region, as a place in this country, I think the border is where so many answers lie. It's this place where we are so deeply entwined and interconnected with our neighbors and Mexico. And I think it's these communities, these nodes of connectivity that we can learn so much from. I think in terms of actually stopping the wall, I'm really hopeful that as soon as Trump is out of office, the next President will, number one, cancel all border wall contracts on day one. Number two, tear down the border wall in wilderness areas and wildlife refuges where it's causing the most damage. And number three, set up a mitigation fund to infuse millions of dollars into restoring these lands. 

My biggest dream is to establish an international peace park at Organ Pipe, this binational park that is focused on preserving indigenous culture in history and the incredible wildlife that call this desert home. I think the notion of a shared international peace park can reframe the entire discussion around what the border is and it's not a new idea. We have a peace park like that on the Canadian border at Glacier Waterton and all the way back to Franklin Roosevelt, there's been discussion of establishing a peace park at Big Bend in Texas. So I think we should talk about these big ideas. We have to dream big. We have to be bold and put forth a vision of what's possible.

And I can totally imagine someday visiting this international park that actually refutes the whole idea of the border and focuses on what's important, which is wildlife, indigenous culture and this beautiful notion of connection and coming around this shared resource that both countries see value in protecting.

Farber:        Laiken Jordahl. Thank you so much for joining us today and for all of your work.

Jordahl:        Of course. My pleasure, Paul. Thanks for calling me up.

Laiken Jordahl, Borderlands Campaigner, works to protect wildlife, ecosystems and communities throughout the U.S.-Mexico borderlands and draw attention to the costs of border wall construction and border militarization. Before joining the Center, Laiken worked with the National Park Service studying threats to wilderness character throughout the Rocky Mountain West, including Big Bend National Park and Organ Pipe National Monument. He has also worked as a bike mechanic, a clam farmer, and a legislative fellow in the U.S. House of Representatives.