Strengthening the change in ecological awareness!

An essay on restructuring the Mesopotamia Ecology Movement, by Ercan Ayboğa, August 2015

Since the beginning of 2015, “Mesopotamia Ecology Movement”, which was formed in 2011, has entered an important process of restructuring itself. Under a new structure and with profounder political claims, more and more people are getting involved for a more ecological society, producing a new dynamic which will have short- and long-term positive effects on Northern Kurdistan.

Origins of the movement and first structure

In the beginning of 2011, a discussion started at the ecology forum (organised by the Mesopotamian Social Forum, MSF) in Amed (Diyarbakır) on how the various initiatives, organisations and other social movements from Northern Kurdistan working against ecological-social destructions caused by neoliberal investment projects, could form a common structure or movement. The years prior to this had seen the emergence of several initiatives and associations in some provinces of Northern Kurdistan which had started campaigning against destructive water dams, diversion (hydro) plants, coal mining projects, coal burning power plants, cement mining etc. Of these were best known at that point of time mainly the campaigns and protests against the Ilısu dam, which had been going on since 1999, and water dams in Dersim (Tunceli); but also new protests gained regional publicity, such as against large-scale cement mining in Bazarcix/Gurgum (Pazarcık/Maraş), the operation of a coal burning power plant hazardous to health in Silopi/Şirnex (Silopi/Şırnak), or antisocial developments in urbanisation. Beside these social movements consisting of initiatives there were several classical environmental associations in cities such as Êlih (Batman), Qoser (Kızıltepe), Wan (Van) and Amed, which raised awareness of several problematic situations and developments and conducted activities, albeit on a low level.

However, it took as long as until the 2. Mesopotamian Social Forum in Amed in September 2011, to at last tackle the establishment of working structures. This delay was caused, amongst others, by most initiatives and associations in Northern Kurdistan mostly possessing weak structures and little capacities; ecological awareness in society being hardly existent; and by the fact that until then, no experience in bringing together social movements and associations/NGOs existed.

In the following one to two years a structure was established which initially could be termed a network rather than a movement. This coordination, working on a basic level, was carried by a handful of activists from Amed. Altogether eleven initiatives and associations met regularly, albeit not frequently, to agree on positions and prepare common activities, campaigns and statements. The structure, based solely on voluntary efforts, managed to bring several topics to the regional public from time to time. Statewide mainstream media foreseeably did not take notice of the Mesopotamia Ecology Movement (Mezopotamya Ekoloji Hareket MEH); only some leftist media reported on activities in a few cases. All in all, common activities seldom took place, but common statements were spread to a greater extent. The few activities were concerned with the Ilısu dam, test drillings for planned fracking processes, and refusal of construction projects in Amed. MEH did react to new destructions, the announcement or begin of investment projects in almost all cases. From 2013 onwards MEH was able to slightly intensify their activities, a development which benefitted from the suspension of the war in Northern Kurdistan through a bilateral defacto ceasefire. Thus, information on several destructive or exploitative investment projects was collected and exchanged, articles written, actions conducted against new forms of investment projects (such as fracking, forestry, dams solely for military purposes) and the agenda expanded to e.g. include agricultural seeds, forests, gentrification).

The years between 2011 and 2014 in the provinces saw either several groups (initiatives and associations) and activists working parallelly while seldom together, or one group/activists working alone. The first case meant that the already weak forces were dispersed, and it was common for two or three groups to work on the same topic, but independently (best examples are Dersîm and Êlih). In the second case, these few activists rarely managed to mobilise larger parts of society for a topic, so they remained on the margin. About ten or fifteen years ago, the political structures in the provinces, also organised under the Congress for a Democratic Society (DTK), on a local level hardly possessed any awareness for the preservation of nature. Despite praising it, it was also seen as an element to be exploited, thus creating jobs. The theoretical approach of the Kurdish freedom movement in this question did not help much. But, the larger a city was, the more people existed who eyed every investment and lifestyle critically.

Besides these examples for the limitation of activities, there were a few provinces or districts where despite ecological devastation no protests evolved. These regions were as a rule particularly conservative, rural and/or economically weak.

As from 2012, after MEH was set up, it was represented with delegates in the Democratic Society Congress (DTK-KCD), this being the superstructure of all political structures of the freedom movement in Northern Kurdistan. Due to it’s recent initiation and general weakness it was represented to a much smaller extent when compared to other movements such as the women’s, youth or language movement. Leaving numbers apart, topics explicitly related to ecology were seldom discussed in the DTK General Assembly in these years, even though the Kurdish freedom movement’s paradigm drafts a “democratic, woman liberated and ecological society”. Establishing an ecology commission within the DTK in 2013 did not help much to change this either. The biggest reason is mainly to be found within MEH itself; they were not really good at making it comprehensible to other activists and large parts of the population how destructive-exploitative investment projects are related to the social structure, politics, culture and economy of Kurdistan. They did not fight vigorously enough for their own purposes within the Kurdish freedom movement and failed to find appropriate means. Nevertheless, MEH or rather, the struggles and discussions which were led, have in these years contributed to a not unsubstantial change in ecological awareness.

Restructuring the ecology movement

Despite a broader base and deeper discussions in 2013 and 2014 both within the Mesopotamian ecology movement and the public in Northern Kurdistan, and a heightened ecological awareness, the political practice of initiatives, associations and MEH was not able to do justice to this. In order to escape this always perceivable dilemma, a new and comprehensive discussion was started in autumn 2014. The aim was to establish a larger societal base for MEH and heighten it’s political effectiveness.

This discussion included the aims of MEH, which were to be newly discussed, updated and substantiated. The aims formulated before demanded in general “a more ecological society” which respects the rights of nature and rejects capitalist utilisation logic. A more detailed description was out of place. This was in part caught up on in the last discussion. Hence, material and service production should be aligned with fundamental requirements and consumption regularised accordingly; the growth paradigm should be questioned more openly, more value should be attached to ecological non-industrial agriculture, and it should be recognised that use of energy and material goods basically has to be be reduced on a large scale. The stress on anticapitalism was reinforced.

In order to pursue these goals, undoubtedly demands to the Turkish government will continue to be made, but also municipal governments will be held responsible more than ever. This is actually more important in order for alternatives on a local level to be put into effect. That is why MEH on the one hand wants those municipal governments close to them – especially those governed by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – to join a concerted struggle against destructive-exploitative investment projects. For in the past, HDP municipal governements had not only in a few cases acted uncritically and supported several projects of the central government, simply uncritically assuming that investments would create jobs. On the other hand, the municipal governments were needed in some cases for the implementation of alternative projects in certain locations.

The discussions were led over several months and resulted in a distinct restructuring of the ecology movement. In January 2015, a defined measure was at last finalised, embracing all initiatives and associations of MEH as well as newcomers, which was to be put into effect immediately. It’s core are the ecology councils (Meclîsa Ekolojî), which in every province are to be put on a very broad base. All previous and new initiatives and associations, individual activists, but also professional organisations, municipal governments and the people’s councils of the DTK in the urban quarters and rural regions should participate in them. This form of representation intends to include every social dynamic and to establish something which in short and medium term should devise a society more ecological, and thus, more socially just and democratic.

The ecology councils of the provinces, once they are established in the provinces of Northern Kurdistan, are to convene in altogether five regions – Botan, Serhat, Amed, Dersim and Euphrat. Then, MEH is to be organised through delegates on the level of Northern Kurdistan. This structure is adjusted to that of the DTK. Most commissions or constituent parts are organised on these three levels. This new structure aims at a much stronger representation of MEH in the DTK than before. Besides, every provincial ecology council will send one to two delegates into the ecology commission of the People’s Democratic Congress (HDK). HDK is the turkey-wide suprastructure of all structures of direct democracy, thus also including the HDP.

Restructuring MEH started practically on February 28, 2015, by founding the ecology council of Amed province. To this plenary meeting all interested individuals and groups in Amed province had been invited, and participants discussed the objectives and afterwards formed a coordination which is open to every interested person to be active in. There are no elections to it, only if the majority objects to somebody’s participation, will it be denied. Thus, all in all 29 people formed the coordination of the ecology council of Amed, which elected in their first meeting two co-speakers for the duration of three months. For then the next plenary meeting took place, where the coordination was expanded to 40 people. The coordination is the element which keeps the ecology council of a province alive. It meets and forms commissions as and when required. The ecology council of Amed acted and still acts as a model for the establishment of ecology councils in the other provinces.

To date, ecology councils have been established in four provinces after several months’ efforts: In Amed, Dersim, Êlih and Wan. In more than ten provinces, voluntary commissions are preparing the establishment of an ecology council. In Amed, after several months of political work, the need for additional ecology councils in the single districts of the province was formulated. They are fitter to articulate problems and alternatives in their districts. For the ecology council of Amed is very much focused on the province capital and single major projects in the province, and it has proven to be difficult for people from the district towns to be able to regularly attend the meetings of the coordination.

The four ecology councils already established and the preparation commissions in the other provinces of Northern Kurdistan have already formed a coordination and are meeting regularly. They collectively discuss problems of the various provinces and also work out proposals for perspectives.

Challenges to the new ecological movement

A number of challenges to be met result from MEH’s new structure, some foreseeably so and some which the activists were barely aware of. But also the path has been opened to unfold a new dynamic through this structure, which is unique in the world, and build a strong ecological movement in Northern Kurdistan.

The first major challenge is to integrate, as planned, municipal governments in the ecology councils of the provinces, for until 2015, MEH consisted only of individuals, initiatives, associations – that is, social movements – and now actors from the municipal government level are to be involved. Although they are tightly limited by laws and practical constraints through the central government, they carry a certain responsibility for their actions and possess a certain scope of action on the municipal level. Let us remember that in recent years, MEH activists have in some cases directed their criticism against municipal governments as well. While municipal government representatives’ standards are rarely very high, this in contrast is much more often the case with the other actors of MEH.

In an international perspective, there are many social movements and civil networks worldwide fighting destructive-exploitative investment projects. But the activists in Kurdistan would not know of structures which resemble their own. Worldwide, either single and probably big social movements or statewide networks/alliances lead campaigns against one or several investment projects, or against one or more certain laws. Some social movements would sometimes form alliances with single municipal governements concerned with the projects criticised. But it is not normally the case to systematically include municipal governments into social movements. Likewise, structures such as the ecology councils in Northern Kurdistan, where all eco activists of a region work together, seldom exist. Since Northern Kurdistan goes different ways, there are no experiences MEH could resort to.

Should it get organised in all provinces and a large number of people become active, questions of organisation and decision making would become acute. It remains to be seen then whether the middle level of the MEH structure represents a solution. There may be other ways. It would be more important to create councils in all respective districts in order to let people in rural areas and small towns partake in activities.

The question arises for a number of groups who work in the ecological field and are part of MEH, as to how they themselves will be recognised, i.e. whether and how they as groups will continue to act. Amed ecology council respectively MEH of course do not request any group to conduct their specific activities only in the name of MEH. But the establishment of the ecology councils has led to many protests and campaigns being organised in the name of the respective MEH ecology council. Especially those who started their activism as individuals when the ecology councils were founded, do not think of their own group simply because they hadn’t been part of one before.

With the organised groups the result has partly been that less activities of their own took place. But there are groups conducting their own activities, partly adding MEH to their own name. This is especially the case in Amed and Êlih. Most groups are still discussing this aspect and only more months of practice can lead to further results.

MEH’s strengths are manifold. The coordinations set up in the ecology councils of the provinces are diversified and open for all ecologically committed people, which is why they were able to include many of them. The second strength is decisions being taken in consensus. Many long discussions taking place sometimes does not change the fact that it works well so far. Consensus decision making is relatively new to the Kurdish freedom movement and it has not existed in MEH until then; presently the political self-organisation of ecological activists is collecting unique and essential experiences in this. In part, the fast rotation of co-speakers in every ecology council results in the political work not weighing on few shoulders alone, but rather many activists taking responsibility.

Another important claim of MEH is to link up with the existing people’s councils of the DTK system in the different urban quarters and small towns. They are invited to join, and so far most of the coordinations’ meetings have taken place in the centres of the people’s councils on the level of urban quarters. Thus, an increased sensitivity of activists for the urban quarters’ problems from an ecological point of view is created; and equally, the urban quarter council activists can acquaint themselves with he concept of ecology and subsequent claims.

To conclude, it is of high importance that the society in Northern Kurdistan takes MEH more seriously now that the ecology councils have been created, and that MEH can introduce, via the DTK, their issues and demands better to the existing political structures. The activities conducted by various groups in the past fifteen years (mainly against dams) were of course a precondition so that in that part of society which is highly politicised, ecological claims could be filled with practical content. The restructuring of MEH which is taking place right now is an expression of deepening discussions about destructive-exploitative investment projects and about a more ecological society.