Capitalism Nature Socialism

Prospects for Kurdish Ecology Initiatives in Syria

and Turkey: Democratic Confederalism and Social Ecology

Stephen E. Hunt

To cite this article: Stephen E. Hunt (2017): Prospects for Kurdish Ecology Initiatives in Syria and Turkey: Democratic Confederalism and Social Ecology, Capitalism Nature Socialism, DOI:

10.1080/10455752.2017.1413120

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/10455752.2017.1413120

Library Services, University of the West of England, Bristol, UK

ABSTRACT

This paper surveys the nascent experiments in political ecology underway in

predominantly Kurdish areas of south-eastern Turkey, known as Bakûr, and

Rojava (northern Syria). The Kurdish freedom movement is attempting to

consolidate a social revolution with ecology at its heart in a most

unpromising context, given its ongoing struggle against Islamic State and

regional embargoes. This greening of its ideology can be significantly

attributed to the influence of American social ecologist Murray Bookchin, an

inspiration for Kurdish attempts to implement democratic confederalism,

which comprises principles of direct democracy, gender equality and

ecological well-being in a needs-based economy. The Mesopotamian Ecology

Movement has emerged from activist campaigns opposing dam construction,

climate change and deforestation in the region, to inform ecology councils

tasked with formulating policies that reflect this philosophical paradigm shift.

The essay considers the prospects for the ecological initiatives in Turkish and

Syrian Kurdistan. It argues that, confronted by formidable challenges,

expansion of the democratic confederal model beyond the heartlands of

Bakûr and Rojava, and international solidarity, are preconditions for their

endurance.

ARTICLE HISTORY Received 31 March 2017; Accepted 3 October 2017

KEYWORDS Kurdistan; Rojava; environmental issues; social ecology; Murray Bookchin

The ecological struggle is the touchstone for the liberation of all humanity.

(MEM 2016a)

There are nascent but already extraordinary experiments in political

ecology underway in Kurdistan. Ecological well-being is one of the core principles

of democratic confederalism emerging in the predominantly Kurdish

areas of south-eastern Turkey, known by Kurds as Bakûr, and the autonomous

cantons of Rojava, in northern Syria. This bold expression of political

ecology can be attributed to a significant degree to the influence of American

social ecologist Murray Bookchin upon Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the

© 2017 The Center for Political Ecology

CONTACT Stephen E. Hunt Stephen.Hunt@uwe.ac.uk

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proscribed Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Kurdish freedom movement.

There are several accounts of the transformation in the political orientation

and strategic approach of the Kurdish revolutionaries since Öcalan,

imprisoned by the Turkish state since 1999, and other PKK theoreticians

shifted away from nationalism and Marxist–Leninism, towards a fresh synthesis

of direct democracy, gender equality, ecological awareness and participatory

economics (Stanchev 2016; critically by Leezenberg 2016, 675–678).

The Revolution in Rojava and parallel attempts to implement progressive

change under emergency conditions in Bakûr have been a significant underreported

media story in recent years. Rojava consists of the predominantly

Kurdish but multi-ethnic cantons of Kobanî, Cizîrê and Afrîn. These are currently

estimated by Salih Muslim, Co-Chair of the dominant Democratic

Union Party (PYD), to have a combined population of “around three

million” people (via intermediary Sheila Mosley e-mail to author, 25 July

2017), allowing for fluctuations due to the ongoing conflict and mass

migration in the cantons. This autonomous area of Syria has been at the forefront

of the struggle against Islamic State (IS) and, since the withdrawal of

Bashar al-Assad’s forces in 2012, the site of one of the most extraordinary

social movements in modern times.

What follows, from a point of view of critical solidarity, aims to document

a little-known ecological dimension to a political development that has largely

been marginalised. While democratic confederalism is based on a threefold

aspiration for direct democracy, gender equality and ecological sustainability,

the latter has received the least critical attention to date. Despite being overlooked,

the Kurdish ecology initiatives are an important aspect of the ongoing

struggle for meaningful change, a testing ground for post-capitalist and ecologically

informed economics, and an underpinning for a political and cultural

alternative to statist and IS forces in the region and beyond. This bid

to reconfigure centralised power politics inevitably presents huge challenges.

Time will tell whether these challenges prove insurmountable or whether the

Kurdish freedom movement overcomes and endures in the face of overwhelming

external force and internal threats such as factionalism or authoritarianism,

along with co-optation within the capitalist system. I endorse,

nevertheless, Clark’s (2016, 109) tribute: “whatever its ultimate fate may

be,” the Rojava Revolution “already constitutes an enormous achievement.”

Engel-Di Mauro (2015, 1) feared that the Revolution, with its “unthinkable

political accomplishments” might already be extinguished before his commentary

on the situation was published in early 2015. In 2017 Rojava

endures, indeed with expanded territory, yet still the internal and geopolitical

threats against the Revolution appear overwhelming.

I will examine the Mesopotamian Ecology Movement (MEM), a coordinating

body which has developed from an environmental activist network that

dates back twenty years, into an organisation tasked with instigating

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ecology councils within the framework of democratic confederalism. In this

context, the MEM continues to conduct activist campaigns, while also

raising ecological awareness and seeking to formulate policies to implement

ecologically sensitive solutions in a solidarity economy. Their dominant concerns

include the construction of the Ilisu Dam and similar infrastructure, the

impact of the oil industry and persistent deforestation in the region. Ambitions

to reconstruct Kobanî along ecological lines in the aftermath of devastation

by IS are inspirational. In addition to such tangible examples of

ecological resilience, I note the philosophical aspects of concern for the

living world and non-human life forms in the context of revolution, war

and state repression.

I will assess Kurdish attempts to alter the prevailing political paradigm in

order to protect the natural environment and develop sustainable economies

in precarious circumstances. I argue that the ecological dimension is integral

to the intention of bringing about thoroughgoing social revolution, and that

the inclusion of environmental awareness within the programme of democratic

confederalism constitutes a remarkable endeavour to implement ecological

sustainability. A survey of practical outcomes must consider some of

the formidable challenges to the ecology initiatives. I conclude that both the

expansion of the democratic confederal model beyond Syrian and Turkish

Kurdistan, and large-scale and effective international solidarity, are essential

for the survival of this inspiring and audacious experiment in political

ecology.

This research is informed by first-hand communications with prominent

commentators on the Kurdish solidarity movement, Ercan Ayboğa, Janet

Biehl and Zaher Baher, as well as analysis based on extensive monitoring of

reports and commentary in English-language activist and academic sources

relating to recent ecological developments in Kurdistan.

Ecology and Democratic Confederalism

The opportunity for a dialogue between Murray Bookchin, the originating

theorist of social ecology, and Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned founder of

a formerly Marxist–Leninist national liberation party in Kurdistan, could

have made for a rich, mutually illuminating philosophical exchange. Such a

conversation, however, never happened. Bookchin’s biographer and

partner, Biehl (2015, 316–317), records a brief correspondence between

Öcalan’s intermediaries and Bookchin in 2004 (published in Ahmed 2015),

regretting that, near the end of the latter’s life; it was too late for direct dialogue.

Nevertheless, although there was no personal exchange between them

before Bookchin’s death, their minds apparently met in the realm of ideas.

Ecology is integral to the emerging idea of democratic confederalism.

Both Bookchin, in the 1940s, and Öcalan, in the 1990s, became disaffected

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with their respective Marxist–Leninist legacies. Both subsequently drew

upon thinking derived from their Marxist roots as a wellspring for fresh

syntheses of ideas. In two seminal texts, Toward an Ecological Society

(1980) and The Ecology of Freedom (1982), Bookchin emphasised the

importance of hierarchy as a more general form of domination predating

class as the origin of social injustice in human society, and bemoaned productivist

aspects of Marxism. Hierarchy was both a corollary of the human

domination of the natural environment and an ideological formation that

would need to be deconstructed if there was to be progress in establishing

a sustainable relationship with the rest of the living world. Bookchin proposed

that patriarchy and ecological destruction were aspects of the same

problem:

Even before man embarks on his conquest of man—of class by class— patriarchal

morality obliges him to affirm his conquest of woman. The subjugation of

her nature and its absorption into the nexus of patriarchal morality form the

archetypal act of domination that ultimately gives rise to man’s imagery of a

subjugated nature (1982, 121).

Öcalan’s close reading of Bookchin’s philosophy of social ecology was to

inspire the mutually reinforcing aspects of his emerging concept of democratic

confederalism: direct democracy, gender equality and ecology. Biehl

(2012) records that Öcalan particularly recommended to his followers The

Ecology of Freedom, a book since then read by several thousand activists

within the movement (Ayboğa in Skype interview with the author, 18

August 2017). Öcalan digested a wide range of other philosophical texts in

prison, while fellow Kurdish thinkers, still directly engaged in struggle,

made additional significant contributions to the future direction of their

cause. Nevertheless, Bookchin’s ideas were uniquely germane to the particular

character of the radical transformation and repositioning of the Kurdish

freedom movement as expressed in the “Declaration of Democratic Confederalism

in Kurdistan”:

The principle of democratic confederalism promotes an ecological model of

society.…It seeks the establishment of democracy in all spheres of life of

Kurdish society which is based on ecology and equality of the sexes and

struggles against all forms of reaction and backwardness. (Öcalan 2005)

Bookchin coined the term “libertarian municipalism,” which he expounded in

such works as From Urbanization to Cities (1995). Here, he analysed various

models of direct democracy which he adapted for the purposes of his own day.

Bookchin identified the face-to-face democratic assemblies that flourished in

classical Athens as a foundational model for an authentic participatory polis,

one that resurfaced most conspicuously at rare but scintillating historical

moments, for example, the Paris Commune of 1871, as well as in the early

stages of the Russian Revolution and the Spanish Revolution. He advocated

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direct democracy, with recallable delegates and built-in checks upon concentrations

of unaccountable power, as a means to realise an anti-hierarchical

politics ultimately able to negate the nation-state and potentially to establish

the kind of egalitarian human relations that, he hoped, could challenge structural

domination and oppression.

Bookchin saluted this radical tradition as the aspiration for a “Commune of

communes” (1995, 268). He also considered the term “Unity of diversity”

(1982, 5) to encapsulate the fundamental concept of the ecosystem, with

immediate implications for social ecology. Its application to the political

realm was to support dynamic pluralism, a desirable alternative respectful

of ethnic differences and promoting inclusion as an integral aspect of social

ecology. The Zapatistas took up the theme when they proclaimed “We

want a world in which there are many worlds,” as they practiced their own

form of direct democracy, setting up 32 “autonomous municipalities,” in

Chiapas, Mexico (Chiapaslink 2000, 9, 19). The English-language translation

of The Political Thought of Abdullah Öcalan also uses the term “unity in diversity”

(2017, 42) to describe the key governance objective of councils run on

principles of democratic confederalism. In Kurdistan an inclusive, federal

approach is not only ethically and theoretically sound but also constitutes a

pragmatic means to challenge the prevailing power politics of divide and

rule, transcending some of the sectarian hostilities evident in the Middle

East’s theatres of war.

The imprint of social ecology is evident, though less forcefully present than

in the 2005 “Declaration of Democratic Confederalism,” in the 2014 “Charter

of the Social Contract in Rojava.” There is a firm commitment to “ecological

balance,” pluralism and a multi-ethnic approach from the outset. Explicit

mention of “democratic confederalism,” however, is absent. The “Charter”

outlines a provisional mini-state, in part an expediency demanded by the

requirement to create a form of representation acceptable to international political

bodies and NGOs. Paradoxically, articles confirming the institution of

private property (Art. 41) sit alongside those designating natural resources

as public wealth and setting out commitments to democratic land management,

participatory economy, sustainability and environmental protection

(Art. 39, 40, 42 and 90). It remains to be seen whether the “Charter” constitutes

a version of conventional social democracy and a rapprochement with

capitalist society, or whether it is conceived as a structure for a transitionary

phase of dual power, with the energised popular assemblies retaining the

impetus to transform the conditions of daily life and promote ecological

well-being.

I shall now turn to the MEM, since its declarations express the most

direct exposition of social ecology within the framework of democratic

confederalism, as practiced by the ecological councils set up under its

auspices.

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The Mesopotamian Ecology Movement

The MEM’s origins lie in the impetus to complement direct campaigns

against environmental destruction with strategic bodies that would

promote policies within democratic confederalism for a more sustainable,

ecologically aware society. This represents an ambitious task for a

network with a lower level of participation than other initiatives of the

Kurdish freedom movement. In this regard, the MEM currently lacks the

capacity to act as effective check on the vast scale of environmental destruction

that is occurring throughout Kurdistan. Nevertheless, the emergence of

the MEM is an impressive and encouraging development, which has a vital

role to play in raising awareness of the struggle’s ecological dimension. If

the points in its declarations and policy documents are actualised and followed,

the MEM has the potential to significantly inform and improve sustainability

in the region.

The MEM has developed from a loose network of environmental activists

to a point where, in keeping with Bookchin’s model of participatory democracy,

its ecological bodies have become integrated into the broader structure of

popular assemblies. It first emerged from the Ecology Forum and the Mesopotamian

Social Forum, both held in Diyarbakir/Amed in 2011 (TATORT

Kurdistan 2013, 147). The MEM’s initial function was to coordinate singleissue

campaigns, for example against dam construction or fossil fuels, thus

enabling protesters to share ideas and network more effectively.

I interviewed founding and prominent MEM activist Ercan Ayboğa (18

August 2017) to assess the strength and structure of the MEM and the

ecology councils. Since early 2015 MEM delegates have been instrumental

in creating an impressive 12 ecological councils out of the 18 provinces

with predominantly Kurdish populations in Bakûr, participating in decisionmaking

and policy formulation. Council meetings, with male and female

co-chairs, are open assemblies at which all attendees have a single vote.

They are constituted to reflect the processes, gender-equal composition and

power structures of the wider project to implement democratic confederalism.

At their height in 2015, Ayboğa estimates that several hundred people were

involved in the MEM, that around 200 of them were participating in Amed

and that “400, maybe 500 were connected” to the ecology councils which

met at least every six months. Members of wider civil society, including the

women’s and youth movements, unions, municipalities, neighbourhood

councils and NGOs, would also participate in the ecology councils.

Ayboğa reports (Skype interview with the author, 18 August 2017) that the

MEM has achieved some significant positive outcomes. Opposition within the

municipalities, for example, thwarted an investment project deemed to threaten

the ancient Hevsel Gardens at Sur. The Gardens were subsequently designated

with UNESCO World Heritage status. The replacement of a potentially

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destructive proposal for development at Lake Wan/Van with a more ecologically

benign project represented a further notable success.

All major municipal projects must now undergo an ecological and social

impact assessment. Currently, there are also attempts to create additional

administrative bodies to promote ecological approaches at the district level.

MEM delegates participate in the ecology commissions, working parties

which produce policy documents focusing on issues such as agriculture,

eco-cities and the communal economy. The state of emergency has,

however, curtailed the ecology councils’ progress, especially since the

attempted coup in Turkey (July 2016). Many MEM members, particularly

those employed in education and the municipalities, have been fired, with

some key activists even imprisoned. Nevertheless, new projects have

emerged since 2016, including coordinated opposition to hydraulic fracturing

(“fracking”).

The MEM has made further progress through its integration into the overarching

structure of the Democratic Society Congress (DTK), the Kurdish

freedom movement’s main coordinating body (Ayboğa 2015). The MEM

also held its first major conference in Wan/Van in April 2016, with 170

Kurdish and international participants (“Final Declaration,” see 2016a). It

has, therefore, consolidated its role in promoting ecological ideas within the

wider project of advancing democratic confederalism in the region. No councils

dedicated exclusively to ecological matters have been established in Rojava

to date, although 2015 saw the foundation of the first Ecology Academy in

Cizîrê (Knapp, Flach, and Ayboĝa 2016, 220).

The MEM has adopted several strategies to promote its vision of social

ecology. It has cultivated links with the wider regional and international

environmental movement. Other groups, ranging from mainstream conservation

organisations such as Doĝa Derneĝi to radical groups like the Istanbulbased

Patika ecological collective (Corporate Watch 2015), have joined the

struggle to resist dam building and campaigned against environmental

destruction. The MEM also cooperates with ecology campaigners within the

borders of Iran and Iraq, including in areas controlled by the Kurdish

Regional Government in Northern Iraq (Ayboğa via Skype, 18 August

2017). With the development of structures for addressing ecological

matters, MEM activists endeavour to adjust from the mindset of social movements,

geared primarily towards protest campaigns, to that of participatory

ecology councils of a kind that have few precursors. To this end—to ensure

that the organisation does not consist of ecological activists talking to themselves—

it is envisaged that stronger links will be made with professional

engineers and architects to have their expertise inform decision-making processes

(TATORT Kurdistan 2013, 152). The MEM also recognises that, for

broader and longer-term progress to be achieved, it is essential that practical

and theoretical ecology be present in educational curricula so that ecological

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awareness and philosophy are integrated within Kurdistan’s schools and academies

of learning. In this respect, the schools set up by the MST (the Brazilian

landless workers’ movement), with their support for agroecology, have

been an inspiration (MEM 2016c). Above all, according to unnamed MEM

activists interviewed by TATORT Kurdistan (2013, 150) in Amed, the

MEM aims at “the transformation of people’s consciousness.”

The MEM’s shortcomings should be recognised. Ayboğa (2015), a prominent

spokesperson and critical advocate, is realistic about some of the difficulties

and dilemmas the movement faces. He acknowledges that the MEM has a

lower level of participation and representation than initiatives concerned with

women, youth and language. Furthermore, while integration into the DTK

represents a significant advance, ecological issues are infrequently discussed

at this level. In this context, there is a risk that the ecological agenda

remains a third priority within democratic confederalism, receiving less

emphasis than participatory democracy and gender equality, with progress

consequently deferred during the ongoing emergency situation. Additionally,

the ecological councils share logistical challenges common to other councils. If

the assemblies are held only in provincial centres, they may unintentionally

exclude participants living in outlying rural settlements. Above all, perhaps,

the task of more sufficiently theorising what might constitute an ecological

society in the specific context of Kurdistan is formidable. As Öcalan writes

in Democratic Nation:

I defined eco-industrial communities as communities in which the eco-industrial

society, the agricultural society of villages, and the industrial society of the

cities nurture each other and are strictly aligned with ecology. (2016, 64)

It is challenging for sympathetic municipal councils to translate this overarching

definition into the policies and practical measures required to create a solidarity

economy compatible with ecological well-being. In practice, Ayboğa

(2015) suggests, the HDP (People’s Democratic Party) have on occasion supported

the Turkish government’s “destructive-exploitative investment projects”

because they were “simply uncritically assuming that investments

would create jobs.” Consequently, it is seen as imperative that the ecological

councils formulate alternatives to the wage system and economic growth

based on increased resource consumption if they are to successfully transcend

such shortcomings.

Notwithstanding the foregoing concerns, the Kurdish freedom movement

has some advantages in its approach to ecological matters. Although awareness

of ecological campaigns may be low, this should be weighed against

the lived experience of rural Kurds in this predominantly agricultural

region. Despite Ba’athist policies of deliberate under-development and exploitation

of Kurdish areas through the gradual imposition of monocultural production

from the late 1960s and 1970s, some traditional animal husbandry

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and crop diversity in mountainous areas survived, while older workers retain

traditional horticultural knowledge (Zana 2017). Kurds have for the most part

lived low-impact lifestyles of necessity, with minimal consumer culture. In

recognising some of the environmental problems inherent in capitalist industrialism

at a relatively early stage, possibilities are opened for alternative

models of development as the movement experiments with a needs-based,

low-impact solidarity economy (TATORT Kurdistan 2013, 147–148).

The MEM Declaration of 2016, with its accompanying resolutions, sets

out a radical ecology agenda for the 21st century that reflects and

demands continuing resourcefulness and resilience. This agenda is asserted

in the face of extraordinary obstacles in the form of rapid industrialisation

and ongoing conflict. There is a sense of confidence, direction and purpose

in the proclamation that is often lacking in current American and western

European movements for political ecology, demoralised by elements of antienvironmental

backlash in “populist” ultraconservatism and divided by

statist/non-statist, radical/eco-pragmatist approaches. Part of the MEM’s

struggle will be to represent and articulate the ecological dimension so

that it is meaningful, comprehensible and achievable within Kurdistan.

Since there are no comparable historical or existing counterparts for the

kind of regional ecological councils recently created in the region, Ahmed

(2015) finds there is a lack of similar experience to draw upon. This exacerbates

the current difficulties. Finally, the state of emergency has impacted

on the prospects of ecology initiatives. Zaher Baher (e-mail to author, 18

January 2017) found that when he visited Bakûr in May 2015 “people

were seriously talking about ecology, especially in Wan and Jolamerg,”

and that Wan/Van would be a pilot for driving forward ecological structures

and policies. Unfortunately, he now reports that the resumption of

hostilities between the PKK and the Turkish state (in July 2015) means

that progress in furthering the ecological initiatives has since been

impeded. Ayboĝa (via Skype, 18 August 2017) corroborates this, reporting

that “now the organisational structure [of the ecology councils] is quite

weak” due to the intensified repression. Nevertheless, if the tenacious

MEM is successful in advancing its objectives, there will be wider implications,

beyond Kurdistan, for the international ecology movement.

Ecological Destruction and Resilience

Climate change, biodiversity loss and other forms of environmental degradation

are significant considerations throughout Kurdistan, impacting upon

the outlook for Rojava in particular. Factors such as water security, dependence

upon oil and uncertain agricultural production constitute major logistical

challenges to the prospects of the cantons and must be urgently

addressed if the alternative political experiment is to be viable.

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The most bitterly contested environmental controversy in Turkey’s

majority Kurdish areas is the colossal dam development scheme in Bakûr.

Major infrastructure projects, such as the high-profile Ilisu Dam, are not

only having a detrimental impact upon the natural environment, but are purposively

reconfiguring the homeland of local people. Consequently, large

hydroelectric schemes are embroiled in the conflicts concerning cultural identity

that have become an inextricable part of debates about energy and water

policy. Substantial loss of biodiversity has also been a consequence of this

activity. Rare and endangered species have suffered from ongoing habitat

destruction and disruption of ecosystems, due not only to the impact of

dam construction but to the accompanying infrastructure of roads, powerlines

and military installations (Şekercioğlu et al. 2011, 2758; Hommes,

Boelens, and Maat 2016, 15). Concerns that benefits from improved agricultural

irrigation within Turkey’s borders may be coming at the expense of

diminished water supplies downstream in Syria and Iraq are further exacerbating

wider riparian tensions.

Such schemes are also eroding the region’s archaeological heritage, including,

most notoriously, the ancient town of Hasankeyf, which is scheduled to

be submerged. Prominent among campaigns against the Ilisu Dam is the

Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive. Renowned Hasankeyf is cherished for

its ancient cave houses and for having been settled for at least 12,000 years

(Yalcin and Tigrek 2016, 247). At the time of writing the town is threatened

with inundation to make way for the dam. Such deliberate destruction is a significant

loss since Hasankeyf constitutes a unique part of Kurdish, Arab and

Armenian, and indeed global cultural heritage.

Both sympathetic observers and more critical commentators believe water

security challenges threaten Rojava’s social and economic well-being (Balanche

2016; Knapp, Flach, and Ayboĝa 2016, 214–217). Knapp, Flach, and

Ayboĝa (2016, 216) identify several reasons why water is in short supply in

Rojava. For one, climate change is thought to have limited the amount of precipitation

in the region (see also Slow Food International 2016a). Over time,

aquifers are becoming depleted due to demand for domestic and agricultural

production. There are additional fears that contamination from inadequate

sewage and waste management threatens groundwater (Knapp, Flach, and

Ayboĝa 2016, 218). Turkish hydro-electric and irrigation projects affecting

the headwaters of the Euphrates and Tigris also determine the quantity and

quality of water supply in downstream areas, including in Rojava (Janet

Biehl in e-mail to author, 3 February 2017). Finally, the conflict has disrupted

water supplies, with damage to infrastructure a consequence, for example, of

battles between Kurdish militias and IS forces in war-torn Kobanî, and

Turkish security forces’ allegedly deliberate destruction of a water treatment

site in the predominately Kurdish border city of Nisêbîn/Nusaybin (Knapp,

Flach, and Ayboĝa 2016, 214).

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The complexities of fossil fuel usage also challenge Rojavans. Currently, the

cantons rely heavily upon poorly refined diesel for transport, electricity generation

and fighting IS. This, in turn, leads to a substantial problem of air pollution,

with further implications for public health and environmental damage.

Janet Biehl (e-mail to author, 3 February 2017) also observes that lack of

public transport causes increasing reliance upon private cars. In a war

economy, oil revenue is urgently needed. This presents several difficulties,

however. Rojava has plentiful supplies of crude oil within its boundaries,

centred in Cizîrê canton, but it has limited capacity to refine the commodity

(Lebsky 2017). Janet (2014) attributes the lack of refineries to Ba’ath Regime

policy, noting that the Rojavans have “improvised two new oil refineries.”

Embargoes are an obstacle to export and to realising full value for producers.

Leading political spokesperson for Cizîrê, Akram Hesso, also states that currently,

the policy of Rojava is to refuse to export oil until the revenue can be

democratically controlled by all of the Syrian people (cited in Lebsky 2017).

Even if substantial amounts were to be sold in future, this could potentially

undermine the cantons’ egalitarian foundations, while intensive exploitation

of oil would also conflict with commitments to ecological sustainability and

combatting climate change.

Oil production creates different but equally serious considerations in

several cities where it is the dominant industry in Bakûr. Interviewed by

TATORT Kurdistan (2013, 156–157), ecology activists claimed that

“Turkey is the state that, since the 1992 Rio Summit, has had the highest

increase in greenhouse gas emissions.” Kurdish populations believe that

they gain little benefit from the massive industrial production and consumption

that blights their environment. As interviewees from the Ecology Assembly

in Êlih/Batman (the regional centre for the oil industry) explain, the

refining process takes place in western Turkey, thus depriving their municipality

of substantial tax revenues (interviewed in Egret and Anderson 2016,

178). The Kurdish ecology movement has also extended its activity to campaigns

against fracking, which threatens to damage the land and atmosphere

further by initiating a new era of fossil-fuel extraction (Ayboğa 2015; interview

with activists from Êlih/Batman Ecology Assembly; Egret and Anderson

2016, 178).

There are longstanding allegations that the Turkish military deliberately

start forest fires as a strategy to eradicate what it regards as refuges for

PKK guerrilla forces. Members of the Cilo-Der Nature Association claim

that “forty percent of the forested lands in Şemzinan and Şirnex have been

denuded by arson” (TATORT Kurdistan 2013, 161). Consequently, in July

2016 the MEM (2016b) called for an international delegation to document

deforestation.

While the Kurdish ecological activists face daunting obstacles, populations

in the affected areas are resilient and there are many practical initiatives to

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bring about the ecological society they desire. The successful battle to liberate

Kobanî from IS has not merely motivated the returning population to start the

reconstruction process but also to symbolically reimagine the city as a citadel

of freedom, art and sustainability. The destruction of physical infrastructure

has opened a space to implement a uniquely progressive détournement of

the neoliberal notion of “shock doctrine” from the fallow ground of devastation.

Despite the residents’ fortitude, however, this appears a Sisyphean

task, since embargos prevent the import of even the most basic humanitarian

aid into Rojava (Anderson and Egret 2016). The liberated Kobanî, forged in

military struggle, now faces a mighty logistical battle. Nevertheless, the

Kurdish freedom movement aspires to build the city anew using environmentally

friendly methods, with Heval Dostar of the Kobanî Reconstruction Board

appealing for “architects that can help design the city to make it more ecological”

(Anderson and Egret 2016, par. 23). Again, according to Batman Ecology

Assembly delegates (interviewed in Egret and Anderson 2016, 178), the MEM

too is trying to support such aspirations to ensure that Kobanî is rebuilt in “an

ecological way,” prioritising an “ecological hospital” but also planning for

“ecological houses and power and water supplies.”

Across the border in Kurdish regions of Turkey, Rafael Taylor reports the

creation of several “peace villages,” including one in Wan/Van where an “‘ecological

women’s village’ is being built to shelter victims of domestic violence,

supplying itself ‘with all or almost all the necessary energy’” (Taylor 2014). In

2017, these are now being joined by “JINWAR,” the “village of free women” in

Cizîrê canton, Rojava. Such initiatives reflect an impassioned determination

to turn the aftermath of trauma and ruination to good account, venturing

to forge a new and positive cultural superstructure in the process of replacing

lost infrastructure.

The nature of the exercise of power and control in the reconstruction

process is a central consideration. Activists are wary of aid from Western governments

and corporations, since such support will inevitably be tied to

investment projects which will impose neoliberal forms of development.

The MEM seeks to harness “clean energy technology” to avoid negative

effects of industry on the ecosystem. They are insistent, however, that even

renewable energies such as wind and solar need to be controlled by the communities

they supply, not by corporations (TATORT Kurdistan 2013, 148–

149). This is in keeping with a call that Bookchin made as far back as 1965

for a distinctive “liberatory technology” facilitating profound social change.

Bookchin was building upon ideas put forward by Lewis Mumford in Technics

and Civilization (1934) and on the work of the radical German decentralist,

E.A. Gutkind, who coined the term “social ecology.” Bookchin’s ideal technology

would diminish the drudgery and toil of hard labour yet also reduce alienation

by making possible a more harmonious relationship with the natural

world. “Liberatory technology” would be human-scale and in control of the

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local communities it served while forging closer links between peoples because

it would “function as the sinews of confederation” (Bookchin 1974, 135).

Whatever forms the technology might take—Bookchin considered developments

in cybernetics and solar energy—democratic control and ecological

balance were key criteria to evaluate when considering whether a particular

technological development might be “liberatory”:

We would be free to ask how the machine, the factory and the mine could be

used to foster human solidarity and create a balanced relationship with nature

and a truly organic ecocommunity. (1974, 105–106)

There are several initiatives contributing towards food security in Rojava.

While Lebsky (2017) does not provide data to support his estimate that agriculture

accounts for 70 percent of Rojava’s economy, its food production

nonetheless is significant. The present situation challenging the cantons

bears comparison to the Cuban experience at the end of the Cold War,

when, during the early 1990s, imports from the Soviet Bloc ended while the

US economic blockade continued (prompting a community-gardening

response celebrated in Faith Morgan’s 2006 film The Power of Community).

It is in the area of agricultural policy in particular that aspirations for a solidarity

economy, integral to the political project of the MEM and wider

Kurdish freedom movement, are most evident. Under coordination by Movement

for a Democratic Society’s (TEV-DEM), there has been momentum to

secure the cooperative control of agricultural commons with democratic

economic planning and decision-making processes that demand a central

role for women. Collectivised “land and production units” (Stanchev 2016)

have already taken over much agricultural production, and a boom in community

gardening has been a necessary and heartening response to the lack

of chemical fertilisers. Agricultural cooperatives are expanding the production

of organic fertilisers, aiming to widen crop diversity and boost self-sufficiency.

To these ends the MEM’s unpublished document “Policies on Ecological

Economy”1 sets out principles that prioritise the needs of the community at

large above individual profit by establishing an economy that meets “basic

societal needs.” This is in keeping with the Rojavan “Charter” (2014) that

aims to meet “humanitarian needs and ensure a decent standard of living

for all citizens” (art. 42). The MEM’s “Policies” advocates the replacement

of private monopolies and encourages respect for the commons through community-

owned property and control of the means of production, supported

by an expansion of non-market modes of exchange such as gifting and

sharing (see also Öcalan 2017, 85). The MEM’s Agriculture Policy (2016c)

sets out a positive determination to embrace a vision that is avowedly “ecological,”

expressing a motivation to achieve a “dialectical connection” with

1Unpublished policy document shared with the author by Ercan Ayboĝa.

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the natural environment, beyond conventional anthropocentrism. It also

rejects the drive to impose genetically modified organisms as an attempt to

gain hegemonic control of the food-supply chain. Following their visit to

Rojava in 2014, Knapp, Flach, and Ayboĝa (2016, 217) suggest that the

water crisis could be ameliorated by growing crops that require less water

to flourish and raising awareness of water usage among the population as a

whole. A report about a project, supported by Slow Food, to involve local

schools in re-cultivating land around Kobanî, indicates that both strategies

are already being implemented, since low-irrigation crops are being grown

as a part of children’s ecological education (Slow Food International 2016b).

Rojava has also seen a widespread desire to create recreational and therapeutic

green spaces (Baher 2014, 12; Knapp, Flach, and Ayboĝa 2016, 213).

Freedom parks and memorial parks have started to spring up and flourish

as a response to the trauma of war. These are in keeping with the tradition

of those gardens planted as conscious sites of memory and liberation celebrated

in Kenneth Helphand’s Defiant Gardens (2006) and George McKay’s

Radical Gardening (2011). Parks and gardens are intended not only to

green the urban environment, produce food and instill agricultural skills in

children, but to have a significant cultural role as sites of remembrance and

resurgence. To make reclaimed terrain productive and colourful is both a

practical necessity and a powerful act of defiance against IS. The great symbolic,

aesthetic and physical value placed upon parks became clear in

Turkey in 2013, when a struggle to save Istanbul’s Gezi Park became the

site of the most prominent confrontation between Erdoğan’s government

and civil society. Environmentalists were first to confront Turkish state

forces during the protests when, Akça et al. reported (2014, 49–50), “activists

from the ecology and urban movements bravely stood in front of the bulldozers,

remaining in the park for days in spite of attacks and other harassment

by the police.”

The projects underway in Kurdistan, therefore, comprise the building

blocks and green shoots of a daring political experiment that, not content

with reconstruction, food security and conservation measures, seeks a new

paradigm in its social organisation and relationship with the living world.

As Federico Venturini (2015, [2]) observes, if a coherent and robust alternative

grounded in social ecology is to be achieved, Bookchin’s “reconstructive

vision” needs to be critically evaluated and expanded beyond its Eurocentric

roots, so that it can make a philosophical contribution in non-Western contexts.

There is also an immediate need for political and practical aid from sympathisers

beyond the region. Successful agroecology, for example, would

benefit from supplies of good quality seed and the development of seed

banks, requiring not only the provision of varieties able to propagate well

and produce good yields but also botanical expertise (Sabio 2015, 91; Slow

Food International 2016a). In the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina disaster

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the grassroots organisation Common Ground Collective insisted that the

occasion demanded “Solidarity not Charity,” a principle of reciprocity that,

one would hope, would illuminate relations between Kurdistan and its international

sympathisers.

Conclusion

My hope is that the Kurdish people will one day be able to establish a free,

rational society that will allow their brilliance once again to flourish. (letter

from Bookchin, 9 May 2004; in Ahmed 2015)

While the ecological dimension of democratic confederalism has hitherto

received the least critical attention, it is inextricably connected to the accompanying

principles of direct democracy and gender equality. It is, as Zaher

Baher suggests, “the foundation for everything else” (e-mail to author, 29

January 2017). The positioning of ecology within the context of democratic

confederalism proposes an exceptional response to ecological challenges.

Also unparalleled is the extent to which Kurdish activists are striving to ecologise

the polis in the Middle East. If the ecology forums emerging in Kurdish

strongholds in Bakûr and Rojava endure, with their distinctive structure and

ethos, they have the potential to be significant exemplars for the region and

beyond. It is important to keep a watch on such practical expressions of the

social-ecological approach and to monitor their shifting prospects in light

of the immense challenges and setbacks that doubtless lie ahead.

The MEM seeks to address the insight from Bookchin that the destruction

of the natural environment is a consequence of deep-seated conflicts within

human relations. It understands that capitalism exacerbates this destruction

and that this is further intensified under neoliberalism, but it also holds

that the domination of the natural world indicates an even more profound

problem of social hierarchy. In keeping with the principles of social

ecology, the realisation of an ecological society would require a far-reaching

social revolution, transforming public and private power relations, as well

as the economy, to address human alienation from the greater living world.

From the perspective of social ecology, ecological well-being and sustainability

are fundamental markers of human progress, transcending narrow anthropocentric

approaches that regard the living world as a mere storehouse of commodities

to exploit for profit. In this way concepts of respect for plurality are

extended beyond the human realm with the understanding that humanity is

dependent on the multiplicity of living things embedded within ecosystems

and cannot flourish if these are damaged. The MEM views the provision

for primary need from a social-ecological perspective. To this end consumerism

is rejected and efforts are underway to create an ecologically informed

solidarity economy based on cooperatively run public enterprises and the

determination to establish a needs-based system providing an “irreducible

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minimum” (Biehl 2012)—an idea derived from cultural anthropologist Paul

Radin—for all citizens.

To be sure, these are ambitious hopes. Substantial environmental destruction

is already taking place throughout Kurdistan, including dam construction,

climate change, deforestation and the invasive extraction of oil and

minerals. The challenges of delivering an ecologically benign economy

while on a war footing, facing embargo and while many experts have fled

the region, appear overwhelming. Furthermore, the uneasy tactical collaboration

with the ideologically incompatible Trump administration may leave

an incompliant Rojava vulnerable to the USA’s longer-term, strategic interests

within NATO, following the territorial defeat of the common enemy, IS. Such

external threats, however, doubtless also have a role in forging internal cohesion.

In this regard, the cessation of hostilities or the removal of embargoes

would constitute a contrasting threat, as opportunities would emerge for

entrepreneurs to profit from environmentally destructive behaviours and to

engage in commerce that would enable them to gain control of the means

of production and exchange. Efforts to retain democratic control through

community ownership or measures such as the equitable allocation of essential

goods and services to achieve an “irreducible minimum,” would inevitably

incur retaliation from multinational corporations, bolstered by colossal state

power and keen to protect investments.

Within the tragic and tumultuous history of Kurdish struggle, the years

since the Revolution in Rojava have been marked by continuing and

intense upheaval. That said, the survival of the experiment in democratic confederalism

despite an existential and bloody conflict with IS, while also facing

military threats from Turkey (NATO’s second-largest army) and hostility

from the Ba’athist regime, has defied predictions. Since 2016 Syrian Democratic

Forces have achieved significant military victories over IS, leading to

the declaration of democratic confederalism in liberated areas such as

Manbij and Shengal.

The MEM considers its ecological objectives to be aspirations for the here

and now and integral to their revolutionary experiment. Referring to the

“Declaration of Democratic Confederalism in Kurdistan,” Knapp, Flach,

and Ayboĝa (2016, 211) point out that the “paradigm announced in 2005

emphasized ecology as much as democracy and gender equality.” This

demonstrates an understanding that ecology does not simply represent a

number of unrelated and peripheral problems that need to be addressed as

they arise, but is core to the philosophy underpinning democratic confederalism.

Yet concerns remain that, while there are impressive efforts to instill

principles of direct democracy and gender equality in the present, for compelling

pragmatic and logistical reasons the ecological revolution is deferred to

the future. The movement’s grassroots, furthermore, may be less aware of

ecology as a central principle and priority. There are forthright professions

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of political ecology in the MEM’s “Final Declaration” and “Principles and

Objectives,” issued in 2016, advocating “ecological struggle” to “communalize

our land, waters, and energy.” The “Charter of the Social Contract in Rojava”

states that “Wealth and natural resources are public wealth of the society and

its investment and management and treating conditions are regulated by a

law.” The difference in emphasis and tone here reflects the fact that the

former express the sentiments of a predominantly activist constituency,

whereas the latter is an official proclamation intended to communicate to

regional and world public opinion. While the policy may or may not indicate

something similar, the article in the latter document would not be out of place

in a conventional social democratic or liberal policy framework professing a

mixed economy of nationalisation and capitalist enterprise.

If the MEM is able to pursue its intentions further, and carry the overarching

DTK with it, there will indeed be a fascinating experiment in political

ecology to consider, learn from and hopefully to inspire change. This

should not be an isolated experiment, and cannot be if it is to prosper. To

endure, the democratic confederal model must expand beyond its present

heartlands in Kurdistan. The progress of Kurdish ecology initiatives is not

determined solely by the precarious political circumstances within Bakûr

and Rojava. The critical task of mobilising for awareness-raising and

mutual aid, of transform and redefining current prospects, awaits external

sympathisers, particularly the international Kurdish solidarity movement. If

a space to explore a post-capitalist, ecological imaginary endures with its territorial

base and provisional form of libertarian governance, there will be an

opportunity to follow a trajectory currently unavailable to the West’s left-wing

environmentalists and Greens. These are constrained within the context of

expansive capitalism (exacerbated by the Trump administration’s antienvironmental

policies), which Western environmentalists lack the capacity,

and, in some cases, the mindset to confront.

The Kurdish ecology initiatives in Bakûr and Rojava are a progressive

beacon offering an alternative way forward for political ecology. Attempts

to integrate ecologically informed structures and policies into the centre of

the Kurdish freedom movement’s political project in such circumstances

are therefore an unexpected achievement. It is well, therefore, to conclude

this survey of the prospects for the Kurdish ecology initiatives by observing

some positives. Zana (2017) notes that criticisms of the Revolution to the

effect that “the economy has made almost no progress in becoming more ecological

and sustainable,” mostly due to the ongoing dependence of the cantons

on industrial agriculture, are now being addressed by the creation of composting

plants for ecological fertiliser, signifying an important boost for self-sufficiency.

In addition to the MEM’s successful interventions against

environmentally destructive investment projects in Bakûr, Ayboğa reports

greater optimism about the character and future of Rojava, following his

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extended visit to the cantons in 2017. He finds that ecological discussions are

increasingly prevalent due to “theoretical developments” and, as a response to

the “increasing impact of neoliberalism in Bakûr,” have “brought the discussions

to a new point” (interview, 18 August 2017). At the time of writing the

greening of the Kurdish freedom movement, as improbable as it is profoundly

hopeful, deserves our notice and critical solidarity more than ever.

Disclosure Statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

ORCID

Stephen E. Hunt http://orcid.org/0000-0002-7291-1319

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