Rojava: Frontline of Capital’s War on the Environment

August 22, 2018

Many Kurdish people have had their connection to their land battered out of them. Now, they are taking it back.

During Turkey’s illegitimate invasion and annexation of Afrin, Turkish bombs pulverized ancient archaeological sites including the 3000-year-old Ain Dara temple. It’s an example of what imprisoned representative of the Kurdish movement Abdullah Öcalan calls capitalist modernity’s special warfare, severing people from their land and their history with one stroke.

Special warfare can mean outright demagoguery – the burning of Kurdish books, the torching of Afrin’s symbolic olive groves by Turkish-backed jihadist militias – but it can also appear in subtler guise.

In the Kurdish city Amed (Diyarbikir), Turkey is razing the storied old city, with its gardens dating back seven millennia and clutch of 1500 protected sites. Unlike Daesh, the Turkish state uses the language of regeneration when obliterating ancient heritage sites – in Western-facing interviews, at least. But the effect is just the same.

Internationalists at the Internationalist Commune of Rojava planting a tree nursery.

Here at the Internationalist Commune of Rojava, we are first-hand witnesses to these attempts to tear the Kurdish people from their past and present. And we are also a part of the struggle to restore people’s connection to their immediate and historical environment.

Turkey buys its bombs from the UK and other NATO nations, but the West’s complicity runs deeper than a few grubby, bloody-palmed arms deals. Consumer-capitalist practices are imported to the Middle East and idealized as alternatives to long-standing cultures.

For example, chemical fertilizers were introduced by the Assad regime to keep the region’s brutalized soil on life support, enabling them to operate a wheat monoculture and keep the Kurdish people dependent on Damascus.

This myopic approach to agriculture was created and promoted by industrial capital, and subsumed by local farmers. Even in Rojava’s autonomous women’s village Jinwar, there was recently a debate over using Turkish fertilizer in the vegetable patches.

More profoundly, many Kurdish people have had their connection to their land battered out of them, and abandon Kurdistan in their droves to seek a better life in Europe.

In the West, people’s separation from the land is far more severe. Would-be environmentalists compensate for their deep alienation by consuming ethically-produced products, made by ecological companies who hustle false promises of halting climate change to line their pockets with the green dollar.

As Turkey’s strategies toward Kurdish people and Kurdish land show, the exploitation of nature is concomitant with the exploitation of people. ‘In modern times humans have become a wolf not only to humans, but to all nature,’ Öcalan writes.

He follows Murray Bookchin, who understood that ‘the hierarchical mentality and class relationships that so thoroughly permeate society are what has given rise to the very idea of dominating the natural world,’ an approach he termed ‘social ecology’.

Bookchin was stridently against deep-ecological approaches which belittled humans as mere ‘fleas’ or ‘aliens’, unnecessary oddities crawling on the face of Gaia. He understood that people are not only part of the kinetic natural system, but absolutely vital within that system – and to any chance the earth has of avoiding ecological holocaust.

Capitalist modernity has surged over the earth, seeped into its bowels and tarnished its skies. It will not leave of its own accord.

Öcalan draws on Bookchin’s ideas to develop a Braudelian analysis of the Middle East’s longue durée. Through the earth of the Fertile Crescent, he connects the Kurdish people to a Neolithic ‘natural society’.

Prior to the emergence of exploitative hierarchies, Öcalan argues, men and women existed in mutual co-dependence without viewing nature as a ‘demonized’ enemy to be brutalized and exploited.

Öcalan’s analysis is neither a primitivist call for a return to the wild, nor an assertion of ethnic purity. Rather, it exposes capitalist modernity as the artificial and man-made entity it is, allowing an oppressed people in general and women in particular to feel themselves connected to a meaningful reality exceeding their present situation.

Since the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2012, the Kurdish movement has been struggling to make Bookchin and Öcalan’s ideals a tangible reality in the liberated region known as Rojava.

For example, members of the Internationalist Commune recently attended a week-long education in radical archaeology, along with Kurdish and Arabic youth. Prior to its bombardment, the Hittite holy place at Ain Dara was finely carved with artwork dedicated to the fertility mother-goddess Ishtar. This knowledge was used to show the many young women in attendance that male dominance is not a natural inevitability.

A leaf collection of different trees at the office of the Committee for Ecology at the Internationalist Commune of Rojava. 

It is little wonder that Turkey, with its strongman figurehead and concomitant culture of patriarchy and sexual abuse, sought to destroy such a site. Wilful historical amnesia begets present-day oppression.

Grassroots education is just part of a broader strategy. By understanding humans not as ‘located outside of nature’ but as a living, breathing part of it, the people of Rojava are beginning to restore their rightful relation with the natural world.

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Vital work has already begun to reduce overreliance on wheat, pesticides and water-intensive crops. New wells have been banned and new ecological communes opened, while a more diverse harvest is planted yearly.

To this end the Internationalist Commune are establishing a tree nursery, planting tens of thousands of trees along with Kurdish comrades and thus helping restore fertility and stability to the land. The planting of trees symbolizes our will to go beyond the life of the individual and contribute to future generations.

A social-ecological approach also helps us understand apparent contradictions in the ecological struggle here. The streets are dirtier than in Europe, but they are not cleaned each day by an army of exploited migrant workers. People do fish in the lake of the new nature reserve, but this has been their land for generations and they rely on its waters to feed their families. They use rods and lines, not trawl nets.

Most importantly, we can see that Turkey’s war against democracy here in Rojava is also a war against an ecological alternative to capitalist modernity.

The region is already ravaged with heavy metals from munitions, carcinogens from Daesh oil fires and other toxic waste. New recycling projects are stuck in limbo, as all available funds are necessarily pumped into the self-defence structures.

The bread we eat every day comes from a woman-led local co-operative, but the petrol which fuels the delivery van is crudely extracted from the soil. These are the realities of life under war, embargo and capitalist hegemony. Marx writes: ‘men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.’

Kurdish YPG Fighter. Photo by Kurdishstruggle (CC 2.0)

Capitalist modernity seeks to compartmentalize and atomize, to make the environmental struggle a matter of short-term individual choices. But this viewpoint is in crisis, and enemies of democracy are developing responses to the fiery downfall of our longue durée as well.

In a recent article for Jacobite Magazine, Montana native Michael Siebert discusses fears that a rising far-right movement will coalesce among the wild pine stands of her home state – popularly known as America’s ‘last best place’. This coming eco-fascism will argue the only way we can escape the ravages of climate change is through the eugenical obliteration of human populations.

Conversely, Rojava embodies what Bookchin calls the ‘last great chance’ to halt environmental catastrophe. Not by running from these problems into the wilderness, nor by shielding our gaze with fair-trade blindfolds, but by building a co-operative, locally-minded and women-led society in actual relation with the natural world.

The Internationalist Commune of Rojava is a place for internationalists from across the globe to learn from the revolution and contribute to the struggle for a feminist and ecological society through the civil structures of the Rojava revolution. You can learn more about how to support them here.

Header photo: Tell Ain Dara, south of Afrin, Syria. Temple from southeast. Photo by Bertramz (CC3.0).

Matt Broomfield

Matt Broomfield is an Internationalist working with the Internationalist Commune of Rojava.

Tags: building resilient societies, capitalism, social ecology