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Soma, Ermenek, Yirca: Can Anti-Coal Activists Defend Coal Miners and Olive Farmers?

[ ["Food system change, not climate change" banner at COP15 Climate Justice March, Copenhagen, 2009. Photo by the author.]

The coal-mining town of Soma in the western Aegean region of Turkey hardly made headlines until last May. A mining disaster that took the lives of 301 mine workers in Soma on 14 May 2014 brought forward the country’s fragile mix of social injustice, lack of occupational safety, and a fossil-fuel-dependent energy policy. This was by no means the first time that miners had died in a coal pit several hundreds of meters beneath our feet. Indeed, as İş Güvenliği Meclisi reports, 1,235 workers were killed while working in 2013, ninety-three of whom were from the mining sector. Many more followed in the months preceding the Soma disaster. Yet what further made Soma a tragedy was the scale of devastation in a formerly well-established tobacco farming community, where many households had turned to coal mining for a living following the neoliberal reforms introduced after 2001. The cold-blooded response of state authorities, with high-ranking officials unapologetically engaging in physical and judicial violence, added insult to injury. Despite former Prime Minister (now President) Erdoğan’s futile attempts to compare the gravity of the situation with that of mining accidents elsewhere a century ago, Soma will likely remain as one of the cornerstones in contemporary Turkey’s capitalistic hall of shame.

Yet it hardly stopped there. In October, the bodies of eighteen workers were recovered after a grueling thirty-eight days in in a privatized mine in Ermenek. Kolin Holding, one of the recent shining stars on the clientelist Turkish construction/energy scene, downed six thousand olive trees overnight in order to build a coal-fired thermal power plant in the village of Yırca, just a stone’s throw away from Soma. These three events brought forth the fact that there is something very rotten in the Republic of Turkey in an age of unchecked authoritarian neoliberal developmentalism. Against such a backdrop, one wonders, can anti-coal activists across the country, in spots as diverse as Bartın, Aliağa, Karabiga, Şırnak, and Samsun, among others, defend coal miners and olive farmers alike? Would it be possible for these communities to mobilize both for public health and climate justice beyond NIMBY’ism (not-in-my-backyard)?

With oil prices plummeting, placing fiscal burden on oil exporting countries, the transition to a low/zero-carbon economy remains wishful thinking unless we stop relying on the markets to do the job for us. Although Minister of Finance Mehmet Şimşek seems to rejoice over falling oil prices, Turkey’s growth-at-any-cost policy is not immune to changes in the global markets. Imported natural gas makes up more than forty percent of Turkey’s electricity production. Although the share of fossil fuels in the country’s energy mix could be dramatically decreased with proper policy preferences, thanks to the country’s favorable geographic and climatic position, Turkey’s obsession with a fossil-fuel-driven developmentalism leads it to increasingly turn to coal in order to allegedly reduce its dependency on energy imports. All this happens against a background where energy demand is not even expected to grow at the pace estimated by the government.

In order to provide a bit of context on the current state of affairs, one has to revisit the political economy of energy and environment in Turkey. This is most visible in official statements. On 6 November 2014, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu announced the government’s new economic program, which included provisions for an imminent socio-ecological crisis. Davutoğlu announced that his cabinet will finalize legislative arrangements to facilitate mining activities by Turkish companies on foreign soil by December 2015, promote local production of hydro-power turbines above 50MW, boost coal-fired thermal power plant projects in all lignite zones until the end of 2015 via public-private partnerships, and also work to reduce the scrap dependency of the iron-steel sector for raw materials (which translates to no less than an extractivist boom). Despite the government’s push to boost domestic coal-fuelled energy production capacity, a good portion of coal-fired thermal power plants in the country are already running on imported coal, which does not decrease dependency in any way. Moreover, according to the findings of a new report, the cost of Turkey’s transition to renewables can go head-to-head with the anticipated investments in coal to produce the same amount of electricity by 2030. Yet the energy policy preferences reflect Turkey’s ambitions to be a “global energy hub” as well as to be a key geopolitical player, a caring brother for neighboring countries (a dream that failed miserably with the rise of Arab Spring). Hence, it is not only about dependency, but also about the development model.

On top of all this is the recent climate change summit (COP20) in Lima, Peru. Turkey, a latecomer to the game, has so far hid itself by delaying its reporting commitments and by abstaining from committing to anything beyond mere rhetoric of “special circumstances” as a developing country. While the negotiating partners struggle to produce a binding climate agreement next year in Paris, Turkey’s hesitant stance on climate change can also be read as a manifestation, not of its ignorance, but its clear apprehension of what real action on climate change entails. This resonates with the case that Naomi Klein eloquently presents in her new book This Changes Everything. Politicians and bureaucrats in Turkey are not at all dismissive, but aware of the fact that the moment they admit the scale of urgency, “they will lose the central ideological battle of our time,” as Klein writes, since this will call for a bold decision on “whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market.”

In trying to prevent man-made disasters like those in Soma and Ermenek, which demonstrate sharp class divisions, uneven political power relations, environmental injustice, and developmentalist rhetoric at the expense of rural livelihoods, many rapidly turn to the possibility of a re-nationalization of what had been previously privatized. Nonetheless, as Deniz Yıldırım, Stefo Benlisoy, Begüm Özden Fırat and Fırat Genç are quick to remind us, nationalization or expropriation by the state does not automatically guarantee that these energy facilities would be working for the common good of the society. In this sense, rather than nationalization, we should strive for “commoning and decentralizing energy systems for a better, equal, and fair life for all. This will inevitably entail scrutinizing the core political and economic tenets of our contemporary world system. The global climate justice movement probably provides the best place for this scrutinization by bringing together “environmentalism of the poor” from the global South side-by-side with “degrowth” movements from the global North, to deal with this task, as described by Klein:

Not surprisingly, the people who understand this best are those whom our economic model has always been willing to sacrifice. The environmental justice movement, the loose network of groups working with communities on the toxic front lines of extractive industries—next to refineries, for instance, or downstream from mines—has always argued that a robust response to emission reduction could form the basis of a transformative economic project. In fact the slogan long embraced by this movement has been “System Change, Not Climate Change”—a recognition that these are the two choices we face.

Reflecting on the notion of “system change, not climate change,” the intertwined stories of Soma, Ermenek, and Yırca raise some key questions: What kind of a society do we want to live in? How will we produce, share, and use energy? What are we aiming to achieve with the use of energy? Are we still sticking firmly to the worn-out idea that more energy consumption equals more development, or can we rise to the challenge of imagining something new, bold, and different? Are we ready to challenge the notion of “development as economic growth” once and for all? And isn’t it time that we acknowledge that energy and climate justice in practice means “energy access for those who do not have it; justice for those who work within and are affected by the fossil fuel economy?” Isn’t it time to dismantle a fossil fuel economy that continuously produces social and environmental injustice?

In sum, let me get back to the initial question, which is whether or not anti-coal activists can defend coal miners and olive farmers alike. The answer is an emphatic yes. Neither coal miners nor olive farmers have better support than from those social and ecologist movements that understand social justice and environmental justice to be two sides of the same coin. It is only through these movements, which have the leverage and capacity to link local rural struggles against the dispossession of agricultural communities, urban struggles against the wholesale destruction of urban commons, and global struggles that strive to protect the biggest planetary commons like our climate system, that a true change will arrive. It is only through transforming visions from NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) to NIABY (not-in-anybody’s-backyard) that this change will arrive. This transformation is happening, here and today: coal miners from Soma and olive farmers from Yırca visited thermal power plant workers on strike in Yatağan, a key ecological sacrifice zone in southwestern Turkey. Just look at how those hands that dig for coal in Soma and those hands that pick olives in Yırca came together with the hands of those who brought coal-fired power to a halt in their struggle against privatization in Yatağan. You will then understand.   

[The author wishes to thank Leyla Amur for her rigorous editing of a previous version of this text.]

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