Making Rojava green again

Annotations to the booklet “Make Rojava Green Again” by the Internationalist Commune of Rojava, by Pierre Bance translated to English by Moh Hamdi and published by openDemocracy on 21 June, 2019

In Article 2 of its Social Contract, the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria declares that it is “based on a democratic and ecological system and on the freedom of women”. In Article 57, democracy is the “way of achieving the balance between economics and ecology”. Giving such importance to ecology in a direct democracy based on self-reliance and federalism is not surprising when its promoters take their reference from Murray Bookchin, founder of social ecology and libertarian municipalism, and to Abdullah Öcalan, inspiration behind the design of its democratic confederalism. What about the ecology in Syrian North-Rojava? International volunteers gathered in an assembly called the Internationalist Commune of Rojava, with the support of the Federation, lead the Make Rojava green again campaign. An inventory of the environment in Northern Syria, making proposals and explaining the actions undertaken, with a foreword by Debbie Bookchin and design by Matt Bonner was first published in English in 2018. Find out more below, and from the original French version, “Reverdir le Rojava“, published by Another Future.

The Internationalist Commune, which was founded in 2017 in order to integrate foreign militants joining Rojava, is an exemplary eco-village and a model for agricultural solidarity. In this vein, it also strives to be an “academy” destined to train internationalists and the population of Rojava to “be conscious about and concerned with the environment”. It sees itself as a laboratory for the “construction of an ecological society”. Given the contemporary lack of an “environmental consciousness shared by the whole population”, the Commune launches a campaign supported by the Democratic Federation of Northern and Eastern Syria and described in the pamphlet “Make Rojava Green Again”.

In its neat composition and illustration, the brochure is reminiscent of the booklets of the USSR which inundated the world in the 50’s and 60’s of the previous century. But the comparison stops there. Even if the Internationalist Commune collaborates with the political authorities, however, what it does not do is to hide the environmental reality in Rojava as well as the administrative shortcomings. It presents an assessment of the current situation, offers suggestions, and acts.

Reviewing the Social Contract

The internationalist Commune does not deal with the issue from an institutional point of view, but an examination of the Social Contract of the Northern Syrian Democratic Federation allows for a better appraisal of its militant work in the area of social transformation. Already in article 2, the Constitution declares that the Federation “is founded on an ecological and democratic system as well as on women’s freedom”. Article 57 adds that “[i]t shall adopt the democratic system in organizing society and enabling it to live within an economic and ecological balance”. As in many foreign constitutions and international treaties, the Social Contract also includes the idea according to which “[e]cological life and balance shall be maintained” because “[e]veryone shall have the right to live in a sound ecological society” (articles 76 and 32).

Beyond statements of principle, the Social Contract orders the Federation to guarantee a vibrant living environment for its citizens. It furthermore enables the Council of the Social Contract (the constitutional judge) to censor laws which do not conform to ecological imperatives. It provides the means to the jurisdictions to control the administrative acts pertaining to the environment. Their task would certainly have been simplified had climate change been mentioned, as well as the protection of biodiversity, the protection of the interdependence of the different parameters of a balanced environment, and the principle of progressivity which would prevent any regression on environmental norms.

A deplorable environment

This might have been sufficient, asserting that ecological security is a fundamental right which gradually merges with human rights, and concluding that the Social Contract respects international norms on this issue. But as the booklet of the Internationalist Commune shows, this would ignore the fact that the Kurdish people, or at least the most politicized ones, are disciples of Murray Bookchin and Abdallah Öcalan.

It is therefore necessary to go beyond the text in order to understand the philosophy of social ecology, libertarian municipalism and democratic confederalism. They won’t be satisfied with a regulatory ecology in the long run – even if it were the best one imaginable. Nor would they impute the responsibility of ecological disorders to technology itself – as the deep ecology movement does – instead of blaming the economic and state powers that exploit it. Even though social ecology is never as such mentioned in the Social Contract, it is nonetheless present in the project of self-sufficient and federated communes. It does not content itself with stating that freedom of action shouldn’t outweigh the protection of the environment. Rather, it summons humans as masters of their own destiny to change the devastating political and economic system. There is no alternative. The Democratic Federation of Northern and Eastern Syria won’t replace the ecological vigilance and the efforts of political transformation that exist on its different levels – its regions, cantons, districts and, first and foremost, its communes. The role of the Federation will have to limit itself to the establishment of coordinated action and coordinated human, material and financial capacities.

Article 9 of the Social Contract reads as follows: “Democratic, environmental, and societal life are the basis for building an ecological democratic society in order not to harm, abuse, and destroy nature”. This means in other words, that capitalism will be overcome through a participative ecological revolution. However, this revolution will take time. Considering the way things are at this stage, we are obliged to deal with the power of modern global capitalism. By way of example, the Social Contract allows for investments in private projects, if they “take into account ecological balance” (article 42). Likewise, the right to private ownership is guaranteed “unless it contradicts the common interest” (article 43). At this first stage, ecology is not seen in opposition to capitalism but rather as a limit to a capitalism destroying nature and human health.

While stressing the responsibility of capitalism, the Internationalist Commune also points out that capitalism is not the sole system accountable. The booklet explains in detail how the policies of the Syrian state have contributed though colonial over-exploitation of its local resources. It shows that the destruction and the sabotage of a receding Islamic State are not extraneous either. Finally, even the Kurds themselves bear their share of responsibility – present and past. They have been more concerned with issues relating to immediate survival than by those relating to the future of the planet. Who could blame them?

Kurds have been more concerned with issues relating to immediate survival than by those relating to the future of the planet. Who could blame them?

From criticism to action

Agriculture in Northern Syria is ecologically damaged by the monoculture of wheat in the region of Cizre and of olives in the region of Efrîn. The latter is accompanied by a systemic deforestation and impoverishment of the soil. Add to this Syrian heritage the annual droughts, linked to climatic disorder, which cannot be counterbalanced by inept dikes for rivers, wells and irrigation systems that have been damaged by the war or by lack of maintenance. The aridity is made worse by the fact that water is held back by Turkish dams and by the fact that underground water in Syria is siphoned off by Turkey.

Reactions have not been long in coming. From the very start of the revolution, the distribution of land which was expropriated from the Syrian state and given to co-operatives – mainly wheat fields – was accompanied by a commitment to diversified cultivation as well as to the development of farming and the planting of trees in order to reestablish a biological diversity and contribute to alimentary self-sufficiency. The aim is to create an ecosystem regulated by a diversified production and by reasoned methods of exploitation which sometimes resume the use of ancestral agricultural techniques. These ancestral techniques, moreover, lead to a communitarian use of the land. Other examples could be mentioned which elucidate the point, in particular with reference to agricultural co-operatives or to the municipal garden and parkland services. Agricultural nurseries for instance are aiming to provide agriculturists, city agronomists and simple gardeners with a large number of plants, different types of fruit trees (olive trees, pomegranates, peach trees and grapevines), forest plants or decorative plants, in particular rose bushes, as well as ornamental plants.

The Internationalist Commune has created its own plant nursery. 2,000 trees have been planted in 2018 and 50,000 blueprints have been produced to contribute to the reforestation of areas belonging to the commune as well as other zones in the Cizre region. In particular, the Commune supports a project of the Committee for Natural Conservation in the Reforestation of the Hayaka Natural Reserve, in the vicinity of Dêrik, which plans to grow 50,000 trees on the banks of lake Sefan within 5 years.

Growing trees.
Growing trees. | “Make Rojava green again.” All rights reserved.

2,000 trees have been planted in 2018 and 50,000 blueprints have been produced to contribute to the reforestation of areas belonging to the commune.

Of course, this process of transformation towards an ecological agricultural production faces economic, political and climate-related obstacles and even resistance against a change of habitus. Due to the lack of clean material adapted to the local soil and the drought, co-operatives and farmers are forced to use chemical fertilizers against their will. These fertilizers are polluting the soil, the air and the water. Therefore, the internationalist Commune offers different natural procedures to enrich the soil.

Worksite without limits

An ecological agriculture also implies an ecological industry. The idea to preserve nature instead of destroying it goes hand in hand with the idea not to pillage natural resources (articles 9 and 11 of the Social Contract). This is no trivial matter considering the fact that it affects several millions of inhabitants and that oil is the main resource of the country. Today, the lack of modern refineries leads to heavily polluting and unhealthy artisanal refining. Currently Rojava does not have the technical and financial means to avoid these kinds of disorders. But the time will come where justice will have its role to play in the construction of a “society which adopts a democratic and ecological approach” (article 67). Law will provide the instruments to do so, and now already “[a]ctions which harm social life and environment are considered a crime” (article 68).

The condition of towns and villages is disappointing, on an aesthetic level as well as with regard to their restoration. However, municipalities and regions all over Northern Syria have decided to redress these issues with embellishment projects and by re-establishing crucial infrastructures. This includes water recovery and water treatment as well as the assemblage of problematic waste material in cities and in the countryside – both issues being a priority for the Internationalist Commune.

Simple gardens.
Simple gardens. | “Make Rojava green again.” All rights reserved.

Everyone who is concerned agrees that educating the public remains a central part of the solution. This solution finds its beginning at school where children become acquainted with ecological issues through an active pedagogical approach – for instance by letting them cultivate a garden which will not simply be a parcel of land but rather a symbol of liberty and the desire to re-build after the brutality of war.

Concluding remarks

Salvador Zana, an old member of the economic committee of the Cizre canton, notes that “one of the most frequent criticisms voiced in the councils of the democratic autonomy and in those of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria is the lack of ecological development”. Yet, despite the revolutionary principles and resolutions “the economy has barely progressed to become more eco-friendly and sustainable. The main reason for this is the difficult separation from industrial agriculture given the current conditions of war and embargo”. Nonetheless, the ecological concern is progressing in society. The efforts made by the environmental offices of the municipalities or departments to remedy a situation which in some places verges on the catastrophic can clearly be noticed. The fact remains that a lot of work remains to be done and the internationalist Commune of Rojava is aware that it will have to explore many more fields of activity.

In a few pages, the booklet “Make Rojava Green Again” sheds light on the lead role that social economy and co-operatives play in contributing to the construction of a direct democracy in Syria. The proto-state institutions of the “Autonomous Democratic Administration” are so worried about the geopolitical situation and the threat of a sudden invasion by the Turkish army or by Assad that they are tempted to overlook direct democracy. As a consequence, the International Commune calls for international solidarity because “the world can learn a lot from Rojava in many respects, but Rojava too, has to learn a lot from the world”.