“Thirty years ago this area was full of trees,” Adin says, pointing at a dusty swathe of harvested wheat fields spreading to the horizon and the Turkish border beyond. “Then the regime sent men to cut them all down.”
We are in the autonomous region of northern Syria known as Rojava, standing atop a hill planted with young saplings. To untrained eyes the landscape seems impossibly arid. But Adin, a Kurdish friend who works at a fledgling tree nursery in nearby Derik, remembers when it was still green and living.
Our goal, as members of the Internationalist Commune of Rojava, is to make this land green once again.
Widespread deforestation is only one tool used by successive generations of the Assad dynasty to repress the Kurdish people who make up the majority of Rojava’s population.
The Kurdish language was banned, Kurds were stripped of identity cards to become literal second-class citizens and Kurdish activists were tortured and murdered. In 2004, for example, scores of Kurds were slaughtered following demonstrations in the majority-Kurdish city of Qamishlo.
Ethnic repression helped the regime retain Rojava as an internal colony, extracting wealth while keeping the people dependent by monopolising wheat and oil monocultures. Oil derricks dip and rise all along the Rojava skyline, but there is no refinery here.
Likewise, the central government enforced overproduction of wheat, using Rojava’s fields to keep Damascene grain stores overflowing. This unnatural state of affairs was enforced through a ban on growing trees and crops other than wheat. Overuse of destructive fertilisers kept the land surviving on life support, forever on the brink of famine.
In 2011, a power vacuum opened as the regime became embroiled in civil war. The Kurdish people, who attracted worldwide support following their defeat of Isis in Kobane, were able to establish autonomous self-rule.
Following the ideas of the imprisoned representative of the Kurdish people Abdullah Ocalan, they established a “democratic-confederalist” political system based on neighbourhood councils called “communes” and the principles of gender liberation, grassroots democracy and ecology.
Ordinary people decide on most political matters through this commune system. Women take the leading role, organising autonomously in all parts of the self-administration and occupying a guaranteed 50 per cent of leadership roles.
The commune is just one among thousands, encompassing the majority of Rojavan villages and neighbourhoods. But our commune is also unique, providing a place for internationalists from across the globe to learn from the revolution and contribute to the struggle for a feminist and ecological society.
Across the past five years, much vital work has already begun to reduce overreliance on wheat, pesticides and water-intensive crops. New wells have been banned and new ecological communes and nature reserves opened, while a more diverse harvest is planted each year.
But changing the region’s ecology is a huge task, especially under conditions of war. We only need look at the barren fields surrounding us to see how close we still are to drought.
Last year, members of the commune began to research about how we could contribute to this ongoing struggle. Studying the theories of Murray Bookchin, Silvia Federici and Abdullah Ocalan, we came to understand ecological crises as a consequence of oppressive power structures.
Speaking with local people and ecological committees, we learned how Turkey restricts the flow of rivers to keep Rojava at permanent risk of drought, how Isis destroyed water sources and set destructive oil fires to mask their movements as they fled before the Kurdish resistance, how years of war have left the region ravaged with heavy metals from munitions and other toxic waste.
That’s why we’re establishing a tree nursery, helping to restore fertility and stability to the land. The planting of trees symbolises our will to contribute to the construction of an ecological society, going beyond the life of the individual to contribute to future generations.
But the tens of thousands of trees we’re planting together with the local population are just the first project of our Make Rojava Green Again campaign.
Here at the commune, we’re developing sustainable projects including a stand-alone wind turbine and a system to recycle soiled water for agricultural use. These pilot projects will be replicated across the region.
We also welcome support from international ecological and energy experts – either visiting us at the commune or sharing their knowledge from afar.
Of course, not everyone can travel to Syria. So we’re crowdfunding to publish a book about our research, experiences and struggles here.
This book is a seed, a first step helping us to connect with ecological struggles across the globe and work together through the shared ideals of the Rojava revolution.
At the same time, many forces are struggling to obliterate these ideals. Earlier this year, our friend Anna Campbell laid down her life in Afrin resisting a violent Turkish assault on Rojava’s feminist, ecological and democratic principles.
Anna shared in the first meal we ate together at the commune and our academy bears her Kurdish name – Helin Qerecox. While the Turkish airstrikes which took Anna’s life rained down in Afrin, armed jihadi forces were torching the region’s iconic olive groves.
Thanks to the sacrifices of heroes like Anna, this ground has been liberated after generations of oppression and war. We see it as our responsibility to keep it alive for generations yet to come.
Matt Broomfield is a member of the Internationalist Commune of Rojava
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