System Change not Climate Change: The Kurdish Example

Rojava (North East Syria) - Free to use: Kurdistan Solidarity Network
Tree planting in Jinwar Women’s Village, Rojava (North East Syria) – Free to use: Kurdistan Solidarity Network

It would be an understatement to say that it is important to keep the momentum towards addressing the ecological crisis going in the aftermath of the autumn’s global summit on climate change. It is essential. The high-profile COP26 may have left you feeling somewhere between positive, in that some small steps to progress were made, and negative, in that we might abandon all hope for the planet’s future.

On Bristol’s march for climate justice in November 2021, it was heartening to hear calls for “system change not climate change” and see placards proclaiming that “capitalism is the crisis”. This signals that the  solutions need to go beyond just recycling cans, consuming green products and even disinvestment from fossil fuels. Yet, beyond the slogans, how do we create a society based on social justice and ecological sustainability? There are few examples of efforts to put such principles into practice. However, unreported by the mainstream media, ecological experiments are underway in North-East Syria, in hugely challenging circumstances.   

What is Democratic Confederalism?

In 2005, Abdullah Öcalan, the figurehead of the Kurdish freedom movement, released the “Declaration of Democratic Confederalism in Kurdistan”. This set out the pathway to the movement’s new paradigm or model, at once redirecting its struggle away from Marxist-Leninist notions of national liberation and towards a new emancipatory project. The idea of ‘democratic confederalism’ set out three mutually supporting pillars for far-reaching social change. The Declaration advocates:

  • Direct democracy,
  • Equality of the sexes and
  • An ecological model of society.

This approach is relevant and valuable because it attempts to set out a positive vision beyond the defensive, single-issue campaigns that have come to characterise efforts to promote social justice and environmental causes here in the UK. 

This new approach brought together ideas from Kurdish society, from the anti-globalisation movement and from Western thought. Öcalan, as co-founder of the guerrilla group the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), has been held in solitary confinement in the Turkish prison on İmralı Island since 1999, drawing parallels with Nelson Mandela’s long incarceration on Robben Island. During this time, he has undertaken an intensive programme of reading. No writer has been more inspirational than the American social ecologist Murray Bookchin. In many pioneering works since the early 1960s, Bookchin framed the ecological crisis as a symptom of deep-seated political problems. His remedies included direct democracy and moving from unsustainable consumerism to an economy based on social needs.

Direct democracy

The influence of Bookchin’s support for face-to-face democracy – what he called “libertarian municipalism” – has been clear in the networks of Kurdish people’s assemblies and cooperatives, which send accountable delegates to a federation of coordinating bodies. In particular, the withdrawal of the Assad regime’s forces, and the Kurdish militias’ defeat of Islamic State during the Syrian War, have provided an opportunity for experiments in radical democracy in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), popularly known as Rojava. In part inspired by the Kurdish example, there are also aims to put compatible structures of ‘New Municipalism’ into practice elsewhere, notably in Barcelona. Nearer to home, policies in Preston have followed aspects of the new-municipalism model, and here in the West of England a similar idea known as ‘flatpack democracy’ has enjoyed success in the Somerset town of Frome.  

Equality of the sexes

Grassroots democracy in the organisation of civil society is closely linked to the Kurdish freedom movement’s other key principles. In keeping with the priority to empower women, meetings are co-chaired between women and men, and women must constitute at least 40% of decision-making bodies. In AANES, for example, the Health and Environment Committees are co-chaired. As Azize Aslan, an activist in the Kurdish women’s movement, declares:

“The women of Rojava today assert shared voices, co-representation, co-presidency, and co-participation.”

There are also measures to ensure that different ethnic groups share power equitably, and that social sectors such as workers’ organisations and youth groups can contribute. Ideally, while difficult to accomplish in practice, such participatory structures and processes enable power to be devolved as far as possible throughout society. Such democratic arrangements are also in place in the Kurdish homelands of southeast Turkey, whenever public assemblies are possible in conditions of political repression.

An ecological model of society

Logo of the Mesopotamia Ecology Society – Source: Author

The Mesopotamia Ecology Movement, which was originally a network of ecological campaigners, began to hold social forums which transitioned into the organisational structure of the ecological assemblies in eastern Turkey. In recent years, the Erdoğan government’s increasing dismantlement of democratic structures in the municipalities has impacted on local ecological projects. The project to create community gardens in the city of Amed, for example, became difficult to maintain after the supportive elected mayors of the HDP (People’s Democratic Party) were removed from office and replaced with centrally imposed trustees.

Many sympathisers and critics alike were surprised that ecology was a core pillar of the new Kurdish paradigm. Yet dam construction, deforestation, and climate change have local and international consequences for livelihoods. It would, therefore, be impossible to address the wellbeing of the region’s multi-ethnic populations without prioritising concern for the living world. The Taurus and Zagros Mountain ranges largely define Kurdistan, fed by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. For example, in local Alevi wisdom traditions, this land is regarded as sacred. Environmental factors directly affect the prospects for the economy, healthcare, social defence, food security, and indeed, every aspect of society. The appearance of ecological concerns in the Kurdish movement since the 1990s, furthermore, has been an important demonstration of international solidarity. The struggle has connected with anti-globalisation and social justice campaigns, linking to such diverse developments as the Zapatista uprising in Mexico and the rise of the climate justice movement.  

Challenges to democratic confederalism

There are substantial obstacles to progress, especially in the context of ongoing conflict. The impacts of ecological destruction are common throughout the Kurdish region, which is quartered between Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. AANES has been trying to survive and implement its revolutionary programme since 2012, in defiance of attacks by Islamic State and other Islamist militias as well as Turkish armed forces. The continued reliance upon oil for energy and revenue in a war economy is a major obstacle to progress towards a greener society. There are few proper refineries and air pollution significantly affects the population’s health. Furthermore, water shortages, due to cuts to water supplies and low rainfall present further challenges to health and agriculture. The Rojava Information Center also concedes that despite its “admirable goals” in its promotion of ecology, AANES “often lacks the necessary institutional capacity, funding and expertise” in this area.

Practical Ecology

Nevertheless, practical ecological initiatives have been budding in AANES. These are to be set up in a ‘solidarity economy’, meaning one in which production is aligned to social priorities. There is a drive, for example, to move away from the previous agricultural system based on monoculture, where staple crops were grown to feed other areas of Syria or for export, in favour of varieties grown in a more environmentally friendly way to feed local people. Women’s cooperatives have been set up to diversify food production.

The construction of a women’s eco-village known as Jinwar, has attracted much attention and interest. The Green Tress association, based in Qamishli, aims to plant four million trees, which if achieved would transform the physical environment, produce more food, and hopefully even improve the microclimate in the area. Also, in Qamishli, the Kurdish youth movement set up Fridays for a Future Rojava as a gesture of international solidarity with planet-wide demands for climate justice. Similarly, ‘Make Rojava Green Again’ was launched as an ecological initiative to raise awareness in North-East Syria and internationally, and to support practical projects such as tree planting and irrigation schemes.

Social movements that can move society

Of course, given the distinct cultural circumstances within Kurdistan, the ideas and structures emerging there cannot, and should not, be simply seized upon to solve the West’s problems. The best form of tribute, and show of solidarity with the Kurdish ecological experiments, is not therefore, just to mimic or treat them as a template. It is rather to make connections and to build alliances. Above all, it is to continue a seed-swapping of ideas to share practical support and expertise. International volunteer Viyan Qereçox has reported on recent experiences in North-East Syria:

“So, global democratic confederalism, how are we going to get there?” They are really thinking in these huge terms, while still coping with the day-to-day stuff, but having the courage, and the ambition and the political clarity to really know what is necessary and to take it seriously and to take themselves seriously… So that was incredibly inspiring and strengthening, and I think we need to do with a little bit more of big picture thinking in the UK.

As the political and economic elites fail to act decisively to address the ecological crisis, we need more than lobbying against the evils of the world. We need to advance our own collective structures and pathways towards positive future change.
We need social movements that are able to move society.

Ed: This article is based on a recent publication edited by the author, ‘Ecological Solidarity and the Kurdish Freedom Movement: Thought, Practice, Challenges, and Opportunities, ed. Stephen E. Hunt (Lanham, Md.: Lexington, 2021)’.

Cover of Ecological Solidarity and the Kurdish Freedom Movement – Source: Author

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