From Red Zone to Green Refuge

By Durham University

No-Man’s Lands are not simply desolate, ruined landscapes. Often these spaces tell a story of environmental revival and conservation. This visual story documents the intricate ways No-Man’s Land becomes a sanctuary for natural habitats, but also  the persistent damage that scars these environments.

No Man's Land - once a forest in "Flander's Fields" (c1919) by UnknownDurham University

Say "No-Man's Land", and this is the image you're likely to come up with. Taken after the war, this photo captures the unthinkable damage caused to areas caught between the trenches of WWI.

Today, most of those visiting WWI battlefields will focus on grand memorials like the Douaumont Ossuary. These are striking reminders of the war's horrors, but tell only part of the story.

Habitat Refuge Sign (July 2018) by Elliot GravesDurham University

Only two minutes walk from the Ossuary, a sign indicates that this is also a wildlife refuge. Surprisingly perhaps, the devastated spaces of war have now become critical environmental sites.

Carte spéciale des régions dévastées; Commercy, France (Map of special completely devistated regions; Commercy, France) (1919) by Service géographique de l'armée de FranceDurham University

Bombs, wreckage, poisonous gases and human bodies that were never recovered made entire regions uninhabitable after the war. The French government created the 'zone rouge' (red zone) to control these hazards.

in 1929 France began planting forests across the ruined landscapes using Black Pines gifted by Germany as a war reparation. This "green sarcophagus" buried the dangers of No-Man's Land.

Wildlife - Where the wild things are (2014) by Sarah Webster and James BeasleyDurham University

Around the world, no-man's land is increasingly emerging as a key site of environmental revival. The Chernobyl exclusion zone created after the nuclear disaster of 1986, is now home to wild animals largely protected from hunting and habitat destruction experienced outside it.

A Turkish Spruse Sapling (July 2018) by Elliot GravesDurham University

In recent years, the French Zone Rouge has become a site for environmental conservation. Tree varieties under threat due to climate change are being transplanted by the Forest Agency to these cooler regions in the north. At the same time, the Black Pine is threatened by bark beetle infestation and are replaced by Turkish spouse, seen here.

Map of Burning at the Korean DMZ (December 2008) by NASADurham University

Yet these spaces are far from environmental havens. They often reveal much deeper destruction, either remains of past conflicts or recent damage caused. Here, satellite images expose scars from fires along the Demilitarized Zone locked between North and South Korea.

Visable Munitions Of WW1 (July 2018) by Elliot GravesDurham University

Although nature has a tendency to recover at a surprising pace, the greenery often disguises violent remnants. Tons of metal from munitions and weaponry remain buried under the forest floor. Arsenic and lead—invisible to the naked eye—continue to pollute the soil and groundwater.

In central Colombia, areas previously controlled by FARC guerrilla are exposed to extensive deforestation, now that the rebels have disarmed. Here, the end of the no-man's land did not bring about a recovery of the natural environment, but ushered in new threats.

Sunset over the Zone Rouge (July 2018) by Elliot GravesDurham University

For the past century, No-Man's Land has been locked in a contradictory relationship with the natural environment: modern warfare has been instrumental in its destruction while natural habitats have been revived in spaces devoid of human presence.

If, in the past, no man's land have emerged out of violent conflict, the next century may see climate change become a powerful catalyst for the emergence of new 'red zones'.

Credits: Story

Drone, Photography and Post Production: Elliot Graves

Producers: Noam Leshem and Alasdair Pinkerton

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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