Agriculture & Autonomy in the Middle East

This article by Sean Keller was published by Local Futures, 23 January, 2018

Spotlight on Rojava, North Kurdistan, and the Mesopotamian Ecology Movement

Editor’s Note (March 29th, 2018): An earlier version of this article incorrectly described MEM as operating in Rojava. In fact, MEM only operates formally in North (Turkish) Kurdistan, though its goals and principles are also being pursued by groups in Rojava, including the Internationalist Commune of Rojava.

In the predominantly Kurdish regions of Syria and Turkey, known respectively as Rojava and North Kurdistan, a groundbreaking experiment in communal living, social justice, and ecological vitality is taking place. Devastated by civil war, the Middle East is often seen as a place where little more than a cessation of hostilities can be hoped for. But Rojava and North Kurdistan have set their sights much higher. What started as a movement for political autonomy has blossomed into an attempt to build a radical pluralist democracy on the principles of communal solidarity — with food security, equality for women, and a localized, anti-capitalist economy at its core.

The Tigris River. Photo credit: Ercan Ayboğa

The Mesopotamian Ecology Movement (MEM) has been at the heart of the region’s democratic revolution since its inception. Though it only maintains a formal presence in North (i.e. Turkish) Kurdistan, its principles and platform have led to a growing informal movement for ecological resilience in neighboring Rojava as well. MEM grew out of single-issue campaigns against dam construction, climate change, and deforestation, and in 2015 went from being a small collection of local ecological groups to a full-fledged network of “ecology councils”. Its mission, as one of its most prominent founding members, Ercan Ayboğa, says, is to “strengthen the ecological character of the Kurdish freedom movement [and] the Kurdish women’s movement”.

It’s not an easy process. Neoliberal policies, war, and climate change have made for an impressive roster of challenges. Crop diversity has been undermined due to longstanding subsidies for monocultures. Stocks of native seeds are declining. The region has been hit by trade embargoes from Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, and villages have been subject to forced displacement and depopulation. Groundwater reserves are diminishing, and climate change is reducing rainfall. Many wells and farms were destroyed by the self-described Islamic State (ISIS), and many farmers have been killed by mines. Much of the region is without electricity. And there has been an influx of refugees from southern Syria, fleeing civil war.

Hasankeyf, a predominantly Kurdish historic town in Turkey, and the proposed site of a large hydroelectric dam which would threaten the local ecosystem and water supply. MEM has been active in opposing the project.

As MEM sees it, the solutions to these overlapping problems must be holistic and systemic. Ercan gives an impressive rundown of MEM’s priorities: Decreasing the Kurdish regions’ dependence on imports, returning to traditional water-conserving cultivation techniques, advocating for ecological policy-making at the municipal level, promoting local crops and livestock and traditional construction methods, organizing educational activities, working against destructive and exploitative “investment” and infrastructure projects such as dams and mines — in short, “the mobilization of an ecological resistance” towards anything guilty of “commercializing the waters, commodifying the land, controlling nature and people, and promoting the consumption of fossil fuels”.

In 2016, MEM published a declaration of its social and ecological aims, and it is a thing of beauty. “We must defend,” it says, “the democratic nation against the nation-state; the communal economy against capitalism, with its quick-profit-seeking logic and monopolism and large industries; organic agriculture, ecological villages and cities, ecological industry, and alternative energy and technology against the agricultural and energy policies imposed by capitalist modernity.”

A 2016 interview with Ercan Ayboğa of the Mesopotamian Ecology Movement

Getting children involved in all of this is critical. For example, schools in Rojava teach ecology as a fundamental principle. In 2016, with the support of Slow Food International and the Rojava Ministry of Water and Agriculture, MEM helped build a series of school gardens in villages around the city of Kobane, Syria, in order to provide a ‘laboratory’ for children to learn about the region’s biodiversity and how to care for it. These gardens are growing fruit trees, figs, and pomegranates, instead of corn and wheat monocultures. Some have been planted on land that was once virtually destroyed by ISIS. For MEM, even cultivation can come inherently infused with a spirit of resistance. As the MEM declaration says, “Bringing ecological consciousness and sensibility to the organized social sphere and to educational institutions is as vital as organizing our own assemblies.”

“We grew up on this land and we haven’t abandoned it. As a people of farmers and livestock breeders, we have always tended the crops using our own techniques, which are thousands of years old.”

— Mustafa, a teacher whose school was one of those to receive a new garden in 2016

The spirit of resistance is as alive in the realm of society and economics as it is on the land. In Rojava, the co-operative economy is booming. Michel Knapp, a longtime activist in the Kurdish freedom movement and co-author of the book Revolution in Rojava, observes that most co-operatives in Rojava are “small, with some five to ten members producing textiles, agricultural products and groceries, but there are some bigger co-operatives too, like a co-operative near Amûde that guarantees most of the subsistence for over 2,000 households and is even able to sell on the market.”

A vegetable garden grown by Kurdish refugees from Iraq, with the help of MEM activists

The local government of the Kurdish regions of Syria and Turkey is democratic and decentralized, with residential communes and local councils giving people autonomy and control over decisions that affect their lives. Municipal-level government bodies are often systematically integrated into the operations of MEM, in a one-of-a-kind partnership between the public and nonprofit spheres. And the prison system is being radically reformed, with local ‘peace committees’ paying attention to the social and political dimensions of crime in passing judgment. Most cities contain no more than one or two dozen prisoners, according to Ercan.

And to top it all, women have taken a leading role in every facet of the revolution. Women’s co-operatives are a common sight, as are women’s councils, women’s committees, and women’s security forces. Women’s ecovillages have been built in Rojava and Turkish Kurdistan, aimed at helping victims of domestic violence and trauma. Patriarchy is just one more aspect of the neoliberal program being cast aside here, on the road towards building what MEM describes as “a radical democratic, communal, ecological, women-liberated society.”

Dig deeper into Rojava, North Kurdistan, and the Mesopotamian Ecology Movement on the following pages:

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