Ecology in Times of War

This interview with Kamuran Akın by Make Rojava Green Again was first published in the May/June 2021 edition of Kurdistan Report, 19 June, 2021

In 2021, too, the war in Kurdistan has a great impact on the struggle for an ecological society there. So we need to take a closer look at how these two issues relate to each other and what an ecological stance can look like in times of war. To that end, Make Rojava Green Again conducted an interview with Kamuran Akın from Humboldt University in Berlin.

Would you briefly introduce yourself and explain how you came to deal with the topic of “ecology and war”?

My name is Kamuran Akın, I am a Kurdish political refugee and activist scholar in Berlin. I am doing my PhD at Humboldt University and writing my thesis on the colonial rule of the Turkish state in North Kurdistan. If we only look at the recent history of the Kurds, there has been a war in North Kurdistan for 40 years. But if you look at the history of the Kurds, you can say that this state of war or struggle for existence of the Kurds has actually been going on for 100 years. And I am investigating the destructive effects of this colonial endeavor on the geography and ecology of North Kurdistan through the HPP (Hydroelectric Power Plants), Kalekols (military high security checkpoints), and forest fires. So, in a sense, I am examining how Turkish colonialism affects the geography and ecology of North Kurdistan.

Wars can cause severe environmental damage. Throughout history, it has not been uncommon for drinking water to be contaminated, agricultural land to be burned, or soil to be rendered infertile by salinization. Dams and levees have also often been targeted. How do you evaluate the environmental damage caused by the current war operations in Kurdistan?

It is a reality that has been known for centuries that geography is used as an instrument of war, including ecology. If we look at the example of Kurdistan, we see that in the past, for example, in the Kurdish-Alevi province of Dersim, dams were built for the purpose of repression and counterinsurgency, and military outposts were built on the most important hilltops. A similar policy is being implemented today in almost all Kurdish cities under the guise of the security discourse. And in my thesis, I insist that these geopolitical infrastructure projects (such as Hydroelectric Power Plants HPP, Kalekols and also forest fires) are carried out with colonial intention. Today, these geopolitical infrastructure projects not only serve as a security strategy in the war against the guerrilla, but they also mean the irreversible destruction of the geography of Kurdistan as they are still being expanded. We can already foresee the enormous scale of ecological destruction that began immediately after the completion of the Ilısu Dam, which was built in what was the historic Heskîf (Hasankeyf) and the Tigris Valley. According to official documents of some state institutions, many HPPs built in Kurdistan, especially the Ilısu Dam, are considered `security dams`. Under their concept of “security” we can understand that the local residents and the people of the region, who had returned full of hope to their villages that had been burned down in the 1990s, are irrevocably forced to migrate. In the reports published by ecological activists of the Mesopotamian Ecological Movement (MEH-Mezopotamya Ekoloji Hareketi), there is statistical data about the ecological disaster caused by these dam constructions. For example, cutting off the water supply to Rojava in the summer months, discharging dirty sewage into the agricultural areas of Rojava, and siltation of areas are only the most well-known of the ecological war tools used by the Turkish state in recent years. I don’t want to repeat anything, but share some notes from the interviews I did for my PhD thesis. Today, cancer cases are increasing in Dersim due to gold mining activities involving the use of cyanide. The retention of water by weirs and changing the direction of the natural course of rivers, the ambiguity of seasonal transitions due to the effects of the global ecological crisis have caused the degradation of the ecosystem existing in the region and a noticeable decline in biodiversity. Dams, kalekols and security roads built along a line in Şirnex (Şırnak) and Colemêrg (Hakkari) are turning the nature of Kurdistan into a concrete desert. Burning down all the surrounding forest areas to protect the respective Kalekols, tells us the following: The aim of the Turkish state is to use these three interlinked geopolitical measures as a means of ecological warfare to eliminate the possibility of a future life for the Kurds in an autonomous Kurdistan.

How are resources used as weapons today? For example, why is it geostrategically important for NATO to have control over water resources?

In a war situation, weapons can be anything used against an enemy or to gain a strategic, material, or mental advantage by one group, state, or organization over another. Interestingly, the term “weapon” is not formally defined in international law or treaties regulating the use of force. Since the end of the Cold War, researchers have increasingly explored the links between natural resources, security, and conflict. They distinguish several arguments in the literature for possible interactions between violence and natural resources. According to this, the first possibility is that natural resources contribute to the escalation of events and to violent conflicts. Although the biophysical environment is rarely the sole cause of conflict, natural resources may indirectly contribute to the escalation of violence or be part of a broader political strategy. When coupled with political instability, scarce natural resources can fuel conflict over access to shared transboundary resources between competing states, e.g. the Turkish state uses dams to impede the flow of water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to neighboring countries such as Iraq and Syria, using water as a threat. It is worth noting that the main factor behind the desire to establish hegemony over neighboring states with water policy, despite existing international conventions, is the presence of the PKK in the region. A second possibility is that the biophysical environment becomes a direct or indirect target in violent conflicts, either as a weapon, victim, or beneficiary of the conflict. For example, it may be “weaponized” and used by one of the parties to the conflict as a direct means of exerting violence against the opposing party. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a well-known example of a conflict in which water scarcity plays a role and is used by various parties as a means of exerting pressure. If we again take an example from North Kurdistan, as I am investigating in my doctoral thesis, the construction of hydroelectric power plants with the help of water blockage or the burning of forest areas can be shown to be means of war. Even though the occupation of Rojava (West Kurdistan) by the Turkish state is tolerated or ignored by NATO members and European Union member states today, everyone knows the extent of the ecocide taking place there. For example, we learn from reports of the international organizations what kind of war crimes and natural massacres are taking place in Efrîn today. Let me end the answer to your question with a personal remark. There are two well-known reasons for the way NATO members, especially the U.S., seize natural resources in war zones. The first is the war for hegemony they are waging as a continuation of the Cold War against Russia and Iran. Second, there is the support of terrorist organizations such as IS and al-Qaeda, especially in the Middle East and African countries, only to then act as problem solvers to end the destruction wrought by these terrorist organizations and gain control of natural resources. In short, Capitalist Modernity continues to exploit the people of the region so that they continue to be dependant, and it is turning the geography of the Middle East, especially Kurdistan, into a dumping ground by war.

How is the ecological paradigm of the Kurdish Freedom Movement being implemented? And what is war doing to this understanding of ecology? What does self-defense mean in terms of ecology?

The revolution is based on an ecological ethic, and there is a reason for that. The nation-state and Capitalist Modernity have deprived society of its own resources and made it dependent on the state and often on the benevolence of the state. We see, for example, in North Kurdistan, a systematic plunder and genocide of the environment. The attempts of the states to prevent any environmental sustainability in Kurdistan are part of the broader war against the Kurds and their revolution. Indeed, the relationship between capitalist nation-states and the environment is more severe than ever before. We have a global ecological crisis, and states are still thinking about their short-term profit, which is causing the destruction of our environment, but also migration flows, war over natural resources, famines, etc. War means destruction. The ecological paradigm is based on the idea of sustainability despite the problems caused by nation states and war policies. For example, the ecological paradigm wants to find solutions from within society, and develop approaches for society to organize itself to solve problems such as water scarcity, desertification, and dependence on oil production, etc. Resilience and strength comes from within society and its own resources. This is something that the revolution in Rojava has shown. Abdullah Öcalan has stressed many times that one must not wait for mercy from one’s oppressors. One must not demand something from the state when the state is acting as an oppressor. He has emphasized that all solutions to society’s problems lie within society. Rojava is a good example of the fact that self-defense does not only mean taking up arms against the enemy, such as the so-called Islamic State, but that self-defense means being equipped with an ideology that allows one to build one’s own system, find one’s own solutions to the problems, maximize autonomy, and make the political system self-sufficient, resistant to attacks, and a role model for the world and other oppressed people.

Women’s liberation plays a central role in the paradigm of the Kurdish Freedom Movement. How is the solution of the ecological question related to women’s liberation?

I am responding to your question as someone who is still going through self-reflections on his own masculinity, so the following can only be read from this perspective and with these limitations. The liberation of women is central to the Kurdish Freedom Movement’s understanding of the liberation of society. Nothing can be regarded separately. Liberation is an organic process and must involve all aspects of life and society. Öcalan refers to women as the first colony and has coined the term “housewife marriage” in which men have systematically deprived women of their freedoms. Again, if we understand nature as a colony, then we see how the liberation of women from patriarchy is similar to the ecological question. In this sense, for example, Jineolojî is an essential component. Even if you have enough organizational and ideological power, it turns out that you are insufficient in defining the sociological foundation if you cannot reflect it in the society. Jineolojî grounds the paradigm of the Kurdish Freedom Movement in a scientific field. She regards science neither as a power nor on a positivist ground, but as a definition of life based on a regime of truth. She does this with serious concerns and honest ambitions. Above all, Jineolojî, born from the struggle against all the destruction caused by the male principle embodied in the male state – the representative of patriarchy – proposes a new model of life under the leadership of women. In this sense, women’s self-decolonization will be a dynamic force in decolonizing all colonial practices, especially ecological destruction, in the geography of Kurdistan. Women’s empowerment and autonomy is also linked to the strengthening of women’s abilities to be self-reliant, financially, socially and environmentally. Currently, we have a great example before us: the armed and political movement of Kurdish women. We have the Rojava Revolution as a great source of inspiration, and there are new life practices that are being promoted by women. In this context, there is the establishment of women’s co-operatives such as Eko-Jin and KED (Woman-Labor-Nature) in North Kurdistan. Or as an example from Rojava: Jinwar, a village built by women for women, including reforestation, planting, irrigation systems and collective principles.

How can the paradigm of the Kurdish Freedom Movement be a solution to this global problem?

Let me try to answer such a seemingly simple but difficult question by standing somewhere between hope and desire, but also with my sympathy for a liberation movement that has high aspirations and its founder as an ideological leader. Against all the creative-destructive policies that capitalist modernity has pursued in its 300-year colonial history, a 45-year-old freedom movement that emerged in a geography like Kurdistan, which is extremely fragmented and oppressed, is challenging this modernity and building Democratic Modernity against it. And it is trying to do so in all areas. This is not a simple task. It is a movement that is fighting and building at the same time. I think that is the difference from classical revolutions. The movement does not say that we will first make a revolution and later build a new life. The paradigm of a self-renewing movement that aims at revolution and sees this goal as a path on which to move forward is attracting attention all over the world today. While a paradigm and an alternative model of life that seek to destroy the entire accumulation of Capitalist Modernity to date is being implemented and further developed in Rojava today, this is fundamentally disapproved of by the capitalist states. While the paradigm of Democratic Modernity is growing stronger and is spreading all over the world, attempts are being made to criminalize it, war is being imported into the geography of Kurdistan, political and ethnic genocides and occupations in Kurdistan are being supported directly or indirectly, and hypocrisy is taking place. To complete my words, maybe we don’t have much time left in such an era of global catastrophe, now we should abandon the critical revolutionary approach and see our shortcomings and accelerate the constructive revolutionary approach by taking care not to repeat old mistakes while building the alternative. In the effort to increase the proportion of freedom in society, we must constantly realize our own alternative and ensure the victory of freedom by having a strong aspiration. The despotic and destructive policies of the fascist and bourgeois governments, which have increased all over the world in recent years, require a hard struggle of all other social movements, especially of the Kurdish Freedom Movement. The only alternative against this colonial order is the adoption and promotion of the methods and means of a continuous struggle for the construction of a new life, as well as the struggle against the destruction by capitalism.

This article was first published in the May/June 2021 edition of the Kurdistan Report.