Occupy Gezi (and elsewhere) is a spontaneous local action, which is consciously and demonstrably part of an international movement; yet it’s also part of a national history of resistance to ‘urban renewal’ that dates back to 1912 and a national history of environmental activism that dates back to 1977.
Here, I try to trace that genealogy of resistance, using a case that has made common cause with Occupy Gezi: the hydroelectric dam projects in Dersim/Tünceli, which were made possible through archaeologists’ illegal unemployment (and a host of other such practices).
(I have used a mass of English- and Turkish-language sources, but some of the source material is confusing. When I pleaded for pity and showed one of my Turkish-language sources to friends, a native speaker asked, ‘what is this!?’ So if I have got anything wrong, please tell me and I’ll fix it right away!)
Flooding out the Kurds
It is impossible to adequately summarise, here, the deep and dark history of dam projects in Turkey. The army first proposed ‘plans to flood the valley with water “in order to liquidate and wipe out Dersim“‘ (which was a centre of Kurdish resistance) in 1935; the state established a (hydroelectric dam-based) electricity generation administration in 1936; and the state established the South-Eastern Project Regional Development Administration Organisation (Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi Bölge Kalkınma İdaresi Teşkilatı), which encompasses the notorious Ilisu Dam Project, in 1989.
Still, it has been repeatedly documented that the dams impoverish, isolate and displace local communities; they violate labour rights and limit or deny access to healthcare; they endanger linguistic heritage; and they destroy cultural heritage, natural heritage and even forensic archaeological evidence. After all of the other concession-gloved sucker punches to Occupy Gezi, the state has managed to deliver yet another (which it launched long before the occupation).
Citizens against the state in the Munzur Valley
The Munzur Valley has been a national park (milli park) since 1971, and is Turkey’s largest and most biologically-diverse park; but it was first considered for damming in 1965, the dam was planned in 1984, the construction contracts were awarded in 1998, and construction was completed between 2009 and 2011.
In 2005, the Council of State ruled that the project was illegal, because it had had no Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA, which would have encompassed a cultural impact assessment); but the government successfully appealed on the grounds that the project had been planned since before EIAs were legal prerequisites for development (from the 7th of February 1993 onwards). (On the 21st of May 2013, the government passed retroactive legislation to protect projects that were initiated before the 23rd of June 1997 from demands for an EIA, which includes the Munzur Valley Dam.)
Cultural heritage law
Thus, apparently, there has been no scientific assessment of the project’s threat to the maintenance of the Zazaki (Kurdish dialect) speaking community; its destruction of Armenian, Christian, Kurdish and Alevi historical sites; or, indeed, its destruction of historical ‘sites of resistance and repression’.
Even if the lack of assessment is (or, rather, has been made) legal, apparently, there has been no archaeological survey, rescue excavation or development monitoring (and concomitantly, no archaeologists have been employed to perform those tasks). And they have been requirements under the Cultural and Natural Heritage Protection Law (Kültür ve Tabiat Varlıklarını Koruma Kanunu) since 1983 (before the dam was planned).
Places can only be categorically protected as heritage sites (where ‘a dam or hydroelectric power station absolutely cannot be built under any circumstances [“kesinlikle, hiçbir şekilde” baraj, hidroelektrik santrali yapılamıyor]’), but the Munzur Valley was still (theoretically) legally protected under more general national and international law. Thus, its partial destruction through the creation of the reservoir for the Uzunçayır Dam was illegal.
Moreover, the only reason that the Munzur Valley didn’t have that additional, categorical protection was because the courts ignored Elazığ Museum Directorate’s report (Elazığ Müze Müdürlüğü raporu) in favour of heritage status and rejected a legal case against the project. So the project’s legality was fabricated in the courts through their disregard for legally-required (and nominally-respected) expert opinion.
Rebellion against tyranny
In 2009, environmental lawyer Barış Yıldırım insisted that ‘the people of Dersim must use the lawful “right to rebellion against tyranny and oppression“, mentioned in the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, against the dams [İnsan Hakları Evrensel Bildirgesi’nin başlangıç bölümünde belirtilen meşru “başkaldırı haklarını” barajlara karşı kullanmalıdırlar]’.
Local residents did resist; environmentalists from across the region moved to the locale and established a tent camp near the site on the Munzur River; together, they blocked the drilling machines with their bodies, and they tried to wreck the machines. Yıldırım explained that people ‘advocate[d] as citizens against the state‘.
Dersim/Tünceli’s Peace and Democracy Party (Barış ve Demokrasi Partisi (BDP)) Mayor Edibe Şahin notified the government that her citizens were ‘organized’ and could react to any state activity ‘in 5 minutes’. She implored: ‘Our patience should not be tested any more. Today, the situation here is a reflection of accumulated public anger.’
Nonetheless, private security and state gendarmerie blocked the protesters and, in 2011, the State Waterworks completed the construction of the Uzunçayır Dam.
And the state-controlled assessment boards’ power and independence have been quietly undermined:
Habitat-defenders and experts, who drew attention to the cutting of positions at the heads of newly-created boards [Cultural Heritage Protection Boards] for academics who, with the scientific reports that they prepared on their [projects’] decisive impacts/influences, exposed the destruction of natural habitats, stated that collective resistance against hydroelectric power station projects’ “fatwa for destruction” is necessary.
[HES [hidroelektrik santrali] projelerinin, doğal yaşam alanlarını tahrip etmeye dönük etkilerini hazırladıkları bilimsel raporlarla ortaya koyan akademisyenlerin yeni oluşturulacak bu kurullarda [Kültür Varlıklarını Koruma Kurulları’nda (KVKK)] yer almalarının önünün kesilmiş olmasına dikkat çeken yaşam savunucuları ve uzmanlar, “talan fetvasına” karşı ortak direnişin gerekli olduğunu belirtti.]
(I cannot sufficiently express my gratitude to the friend who told me where the breaks between the subordinate clauses were in that sentence, and I cannot bear to say how long I spent staring at it both before and after.)
This is why the collectively-proposed Gezi Park Manifesto demands both protection of the historic environment and independent assessment of that protection.
Occupation and resistance against Pembelik Dam
After the failure to prevent the construction of the Uzunçayır Dam, between 2011 and 2012, the struggle relocated to the Pembelik Dam Project on the Peri River (which forms the border between Dersim/Tünceli and Elazığ). There, resisters from twelve local villages occupied a building near the construction site for a year; then, they got past the armed guards, soldiers and security fences; and, in an act of ‘people’s rightful resistance [halkın meşru direniş[i]]’, burned ‘several construction machines and some buildings’.
However, the dam is (still) under construction.
Jara Gola Çetu Park and Uzunçayır Dam Reservoir
In 2013, resistance returned to Uzunçayır. Rightly fearing the expansion of the reservoir for the Uzunçayır Dam and Hydroelectric Power Station (Uzunçayır Baraj ve Hidroelektrik Santrali), local Kurdish Alevi women had petitioned Dersim/Tünceli municipality to protect the Gola Çetu (the Confluence of Waters – of the Munzur and Pülümür rivers – which is sacred to Alevis). Accordingly (in 2011), the municipality had established the Jara Gola Çetu and Park (Jara Gola Çetu ve Parkı).
The state against its citizens
Despite the fact that the builders of the dam supported the local authorities (and ‘were very helpful to [them] [bize çok yardımcı oldu]’) in the establishment of the park, the State Water Works sued the BDP municipality. The civil court ordered the municipality to destroy the park (on the 25th of February), and ‘fined [it] 2.2 million liras for having undertaken work to save the park‘ (in its detailed judgement last week).
Munzur (Cultural and Natural Heritage) Protection Board Representative Hasan Şen stated,
The decision for destruction is part of a systematic attack directed against Alevis…, the decision to destroy cannot be considered unconnected to the AKP government’s intolerance for the different beliefs and [religious] orders that are in these lands.
[Yıkım kararının Alevilere yönelik sistematik saldırının bir parçası olduğ[u]…, AKP iktidarının bu topraklardaki farklı inançlara ve mezheplere tahammülsüzlüğünün yıkım kararından bağımsız düşünülemeyeceğ[i].]
Again, destruction of the environment is bound up with persecution of religious and ethnic minorities; the state’s own practice produced an inter-communal resistance.
Update: a backstep or a sidestep?
In the words of government-friendly CNN Turkish (CNN Türk), the government has taken ‘a step back from the decision that angered Alevis [Alevileri kızdıran karardan geri adım]’. Forestry and Waterworks Minister Veysel Eroğlu has said that ‘we bear the responsibility to protect those sites they see as holy and sacred [Onların kutsal ve mukaddes gördükleri alanları korumak boynumuzun borcudur]’.
We follow the subject… We pay attention to our citizens’ sensibilities. In some places, they say the water is holy; we protect those, we establish them as parks, we take care of them. We take the places that are sensitive under protection.
[Konunun takipçisiyiz… vatandaşların hassasiyetlerini dikkate alıyoruz. Bazı yerlerde kutsal su diyorlar, orayı koruyoruz, park haline getiriyoruz, bakımını yapıyoruz. Bununla ilgili dsi’ye gerekli talimatı verdim. Hassasiyet olan yerleri koruma altına alıyoruz.]
However, this appears to be another example of the information policy that is applied to Occupy Gezi. Dersim/Tünceli Mayor Edibe Şahin has said,
Since the State Waterworks looks on this matter favourably, why did it open a case for this place’s destruction? They must provide an explanation of this matter. We want to see and know this. Now that the State Waterworks and the ministry are announcing that Alevis’ sacred places will not be touched, they must clarify that they have abandoned the case that they opened and withdraw the case by making an application to the court. But as yet there have been no such initiatives.
If they’re sincere, they must clarify that they’ve abandoned the case that they opened. In fact, the legal process continues and the case has not been retracted; we do not think that this problem will be solved with vague words.
[Madem DSİ bu konuya olumlu bakıyor neden buranın yıkılması için dava açtı? Bu konuda bir açıklama yapmalıdırlar. Biz şunu görmek ve bilmek istiyoruz. Madem DSİ ve bakanlık, Aleviler’in kutsal yerlerine dokunulmayacağını açıklıyorsa, açtıkları davadan vazgeçtiklerini açıklamalıdırlar ve mahkemeye başvuru yaparak davayı geri çekmelidirler. Ama şu ana kadar böyle bir girişimleri henüz olmadı.
Eğer samimilerse, açtıkları davadan vazgeçtiklerini açıklamalıdırlar. Oysa hala hukuki süreç devam ediyor ve davadan vazgeçilmiş değil, biz üstü kapalı söylemleri ile bu sorunun çözüleceğini düşünmüyoruz.]
It appears that this is a sidestep to avoid (or rather a feigned step to misdirect) resistance, rather than a backstep away from a bad policy.
Displacing communities, distributing disproportionate intelligence
The majority of Dersim/Tünceli’s villages were displaced during the conflict between the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); the 60,000-70,000 internally displaced persons mostly went to western Turkey, primarily to Istanbul, where they joined an even larger community of previous generations of internal refugees from Dersim/Tünceli.
It is interesting to note, then, the resemblances between Kurdish/Alevi/South-East-originated citizens’ resistance and the Turkish/Sunni/north-west-originated Occupy movement, from their common demands for protection of the (historic) environment, freedom from brutal policing, and real democracy (rather than sectarian rule); to their common identification of their activity as direniş; to their utopian occupation of places; to their use of their bodies as human shields for endangered cultural heritage sites.
Moreover, one of the first occupiers, who repeatedly blocked the mechanical diggers with his own body, was (Turkmen) BDP MP Sırrı Süreyya Önder. And one of the rallying cries of Occupy Gezi has been for protesters to use ‘disproportionate intelligence‘ to confound standard state strategies of violent repression of dissent. It appears that, when the state repressed and displaced communities in the South-East, it trained the resistance and distributed its disproportionate intelligence throughout the country.