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20.2.04

A Fence In The Wasteland

Sebastian Holsclaw points to this story about a defensive wall being built by Saudi Arabia along its border with Yemen. Some commenters argued that this wall is not the same as the wall Israel is building to keep the Palestinians out, because the Israeli wall cuts through Palestinians' land, disrupting communities and cutting people off from ameneties like farmland and places of employment. This was my initial reaction as well. After all, much of the Saudi-Yemeni border runs through the Rub' al Khali, the "Empty Quarter." There aren't even any significant oil fields under that stretch of desert (the big ones are up north along the Persian Gulf).

Then I looked back at the story and saw that it described the frontier as running through "mountainous tribal territory." The land in question, it seems, is inhabited. The people affected are presumably bystanders, caught up in a dispute between two states.

I should have known better than to jump to the conclusion that any place is objectively a wasteland. It's a mistake that has underpinned countless abuses of indigenous people. For example, Native Americans in the southwest have been kicked off their land and subjected to secondhand radiation due to nuclear weapons testing because the people making the plans saw the southwest as desert, and therefore land that was otherwise useless (granted, the injustice would have been worse had they decided to, say, test the Manhattan Project in Manhattan, since there would have been more people affected). Most of the land along the Saudi-Yemeni border is useless to people in more "modern" cultures, such as myself of the Saudi elites. But the tribes who live there have developed a way of life that makes use of the land.

Desert areas complicate the assumption of wasteland problem because they are generally migratory. The modern eye measures the use of land by its degree of obvious modification by people. This assumes an intensive use, in which any area that's part of the production system is being used at all times. But intensive use of land requires large inputs of labor and capital, and it requires land that will sustain intensive use. The Arabian desert, like most, will not accept intensive permanent use (except for a few industries, like oil drilling). And population densities are so low -- and hence land so plentiful -- that there's little reason to go to all the trouble of intensification.

Nomadism is an extensive land use system. It involves a pattern of use shifting across a landscape. The less intensive the subsistence strategy, the more land is needed and the longer any particular parcel will be in its "rest" mode -- hence not obviously "in use," but necessary in the long run for the continued functioning of the nomads' livelihood. Colonial powers in Africa forced the native people into overintensification because they didn't understand shifting cultivation. They interpreted land not currently producing crops as wild (though degraded) land and turned it into parks and game preserves. In reality, the land was part of the agricultural system, but lying fallow at the moment. It would be needed later.

In the Saudi wall case, the interpretation of the land as wasteland may allow the connection among the various parts of a tribe's territory to be severed, disrupting the long-term functioning of their livelihood. Of course, I'm assuming there is such a tribe with a cross-border territory. It wouldn't surprise me, since the border in question is less than a century old and its exact location was disputed until recently. I don't know how much patrolling of the border would have already disrupted any nomadism there is in the area, and given that Native American tribes whose territories span the longer-standing borders of the US haven't given up, the fence may exacerbate the problem. Perhaps the Saudis know exactly what they're doing and just don't care -- I wouldn't put that past them.

UPDATE: Looks like Saudi Arabia and Yemen have agreed to call off the fence. Incidentally, you'd think that al-Jazeerah could 1) afford some better web design, and 2) figure out that the Saudi Arabia-Yemen wall is different from the Israeli-Palestinian wall and change their accompanying graphics accordingly.

Also, the World Tribune is not the most reputable source, but they're quoting the Yemeni media (also probably not the most reputable source) as saying that there are in fact tribes whose territory is being cut, and that they're hopping mad about the fence. Luckily for them the fence has been canceled, although they may not be too keen on the joint military patrols that will take its place.

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