Various histories of displacement and spatial segregation converge across the contested and fragile ecologies of the Rio Grande river, which marks the easternmost section of the US-Mexico land border. From attempted expulsions of Native American and Hispanic inhabitants in expanding settler colonies to the establishment of water-intensive agricultural settlements (Items 2, 3, 4 and 5), conflicts around water have fundamentally shaped this landscape and the regimes of mobility that traverse it. In the transition from indigenous land use to ranching and finally intensive farming, water has been forcibly redirected from zones deemed non-productive towards those deemed profitable, frequently partitioning the borderlands into a chequerboard of water-rich regions and devalued landscapes which have been left-to-dry (Items 1 and 6).
In the lower section of the river’s course, US governmental agencies have recently designated a perennial reed species (Arundo donax, known as Carrizo Cane) an "invasive species" and a threat to border security (Items 7, 8, 9 and 11). The rapidly growing cane is said to provide cover and natural refuge for migrants crossing the Rio Grande. Within the logic of the border, herbicides and bulldozers, as well as methods of biological controls such as wasps and infectious plant diseases have been deployed to eliminate the Carrizo Cane and make the valleys of the Rio Grande into a landscape that is more amenable to surveillance and control (Item 10).
Through these systemic alterations, the river has come to be a medium of drought and disposability as much as abundance. The words of Chicana feminist author Gloria Anzaldúa still ring true: the ‘tragic valley’ of the Rio Grande is a ‘serpent nailed to the fence’ of the border, its waters serving less as a source of life and connection than as a marker of their absence.
Research by Avi Varma
The waters of the Rio Grande river are part of a highly contested political ecology that is deeply entwined with histories of dispossession and migration. Over centuries, primarily white, US settlers of European descent displaced Native American and later Hispanic inhabitants and established water-intensive agriculture settlements along the Rio Grande Valley. This process did not simply partition the landscape into water-rich regions (with access to agricultural capital) and devalued landscapes (deprived of access to water and the resources that come with it). It also effectively changed seasonal cycles, introducing water management systems that extended the watering period from three to nine months (February to September). In this sequence of satellite images, one sees agricultural growth visualized in bright green over this time span. The water in the reservoir at the top of the image is stored over the winter months and supplies New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico. As drought increases with accelerating climate change, these waters become increasingly a source of conflict.
In this colonial map of the Rio Grande Valley, one sees a series of four colonial missions (no. 16-19) beside a text that reads ‘Riego de las Misiones’, near what will come to be El Paso (15. Paso del Norte). This section of the map depicts the emergence of settler colonial infrastructure of small townships, irrigation canals, and agricultural production. Settlers along the Rio Grande frequently attempted to enclose vital river crossings, often the crux of activity in a sensitive semi-arid environment. At these key sites, European settlers began to assert power through the importation of Spanish, British, or American military and agricultural architectures, as well as through the displacement, racialisation, and subjugation of indigenous populations. The Rio Grande Valley, its watersheds, nutrient-rich soil, and floodplains, became a critical infrastructure maintaining and availing the development of the nation-state.
The Tigua Indians of the region had historically used acequias (earthen canals operating through gravity) to harvest waters of the Rio Grande in May, June, and July during flooding season for agricultural production. Through the overuse of these irrigation methods and the construction of a new system of canals and drains, US settlers extended watering season to nine months, past the point of sustainability. Irrigation was used as a method of creating borders between green zones of growth/profit – visible in lush, productive orchards often owned by white farmers – and red zones of aridity.
Jovita González’s folktale, ‘The Mocking Bird’, is an allegory that describes the ecological transformation of the Rio Grande Valley at the turn of the twentieth century, during the early period of settler irrigation and agriculture. In it, a male mockingbird, in love with his voice’s ability to make birds, arroyos (dry creeks), and even nature itself hush and listen to his song, believes he can make the spring. The bird, according to scholar Priscilla Solis Ybarra, represents the arrogance of settler farmers in believing that they could make the semi-arid regions of the southwest bloom through a ‘never-ending ‘spring’ of irrigation fed by the Rio Grande.’ What Gonzalez fails to mention, though, is that this transformation was preceded by an earlier displacement of Native Americans from the Rio Grande Valley.
The Rio Grande river has become an environmental infrastructure that serves as a hydrological border separating the US from Mexico. However, this border is as much internal as it is external. The management of the Rio Grande watershed for the sake of sustaining agricultural profit is dependent upon the re-desertification of nearby sacrifice zones alongside the de-development of structurally under-resourced communities nearby. These images show that the effort to make an ‘eternal spring’ that Jovita González warned against in ‘The Mocking Bird’ is alive and well, as are the consequences of such a vision of an infinitely abundant nature: desertified-regions, water-deprived landscapes, and resource-excluded townships.
In recent years, the increasing presence along the lower section of the Rio Grande river of a perennial reed species known as arundo donax, or carrizo cane, has been described as a threat by US governmental agencies. Proliferating through underground rhizomatic networks and fragments of plant matter spread by flood, carrizo cane grows rapidly along riverbanks, canals, streams, and ditches, reaching heights of 10 meters while cloning itself in dense forests. On the one hand, the rapidly growing cane has been described as an "invasive species" and blamed for water scarcity and species loss; on the other, border agencies have accused the tall grass of thwarting border security efforts by concealing unauthorized crossings of the river.
As carrizo cane comes to be defined as a threat to national and environmental security, it has increasingly become the target of control and eradication activities along the Rio Grande’s course. Journalists, legislators, academics, environmentalists, agricultural scientists and the water management business often justify these interventions using nationalistic language which ascribes blame to the alien nature of the cane and argues for the restoration of native vegetation. In addition to the use of chemical herbicides and the use of bulldozers, burning and manual clearing, recently biological control agents such as wasps and infectious plant diseases are being used. Killing cane does not only make the valleys of the Rio Grande into a domesticated landscape that is more amenable to surveillance and control, it also serves as a catch-all solution to the broader problems of lack of water and species loss.
Typical representations of the carrizo cane rely on satellite imagery similar to the one presented here, where the cane’s alarming presence is depicted as a red mass of vegetal growth swarming the banks of the Rio Grande. Yet, by expanding the typical remote sensing image along the horizontal axis, one can begin to distinguish a more complex field of relations: intensive agriculture leading to phosphorus runoff and complex systems of soil erosion, and water management infrastructures such as dams and canals responsible for changing patterns of intentional flooding. While excessive spread of the reed is undoubtedly symptomatic of critical issues, it displaces attention from the root causes of biospheric devastation near the border: large-scale environmental infrastructure projects such as mega dams, border walls, commercial agriculture and irrigation. In such a context, the proliferation of carrizo cane can be understood as a symptom—rather than as cause—of systemic alterations to the environment.