The question of democracy in environmental politics: The Green Road Project in Turkey by Melek Mutioglu Ozkesen

Road construction is usually presented as a major condition for development, but the question is: development for who and whose land is being intruded for the construction of the road? In Turkey, these questions were prominently raised by social movements and civil society organizations when the government launched its Green Road Project in 2013. It is promoted by the state authorities for making the Black Sea region accessible to the incoming tourists that would arguably improve the economic conditions of the people living in the region. Six years later, the road has almost been completed, and this post can only pay homage to the brave and gradual field attempts of social movements to stop this project.


The Green Road Project is a road project with a length of 2645 kilometers that will connect the highlands of the Artvin, Bayburt, Giresun, Gümüshane, Ordu, Rize, Samsun and Trabzon provinces in the northern part of Turkey. The target of the Green Road Project is declared as ‘the completion of not only the Green Road Project to provide a significant brand value to the region in the tourism sector and link the highlands to each other, but also the acceleration of social progress that will be ensured through the resulting economic development.’[1] However, it also means the loss of livelihoods, increase in construction, rent, and environmental damage for the locals living in the region.

The Green Road, introduced by state officials as a regional development project, is justified by a discourse of serving ‘the people’ and providing local and national development through infrastructural modernization, which could result in a tourism boom and attract foreign investment.  It led however to the adverse reactions of highland residents. Non-governmental organizations involved in the protest argue that the process has been carried out without consulting the local people at any moment during the policy making stages. Various organizations such as TEMA, the Fırtına Initiative, ‘Brotherhood of the Rivers/Highlands’, and ‘Black Sea in Revolt’ monitored the project very closely and struggled against it. They tried to stop the construction for a long time until eleven locals were detained by the gendarme and 24 locals were prosecuted on the charges of violating the freedom of work.

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Mother Havva, depicted in the title image, who has become the symbol of the social opposition in the region, says:

‘Let them see if there is anything green in this road. Those highlands are ruined for whom? Highlands should be for our children, for our animals. We have no place to go. We kept our hometown alive by protecting our highlands and forests. The state exists because we exist, because this folk exists. Neither would [exist] these police, this gendarme, this judge, this government, this district governor for that matter. They exist as long as we exist. We are people with our land, our green, our highland!’[2]

Apparently, Mother Havva and the government officials do not refer to the same group as ‘the people’. This contested use of ‘the people’ makes us question which people this project serves?  Which people will gain and lose by it? Mother Havva, while justifying her resistance against the project, protests that the state acts against – their peoples’ rule and their will. Perceiving ‘the people’ as the founding component of the state, she also questions who the state is? The Turkish government identifies its uncontested executive actions as democracy for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) since its rise to power in 2002, and has been trying to legitimate itself as the representative of the ‘will of the people’.  On the other side, ‘the people’ identify themselves with their environment and lands, and consider this project as a threat for their livelihoods. This contested use of the term ‘the people’ by the locals and the officials sheds light on different projects of democracy endorsed by the two sides. While the locals have been struggling for their representation in the ongoing projects happening on their living space and refuse to leave absolute control to the mercy of the political authority, the government officials have been legitimizing their actions through conducting their representational legitimacy in the country.

In the Green Road Project, participatory action seems out of the agenda in an ever suspending process which excludes the opposing locals from any stage of policy making itself. Even when the locals mobilized to struggle/protest against the project, they were threatened, detained and were usually marginalized through various discourses such as that of ‘pasture occupiers’, settled in the region without legal permission and against local development. In this context one can say that the Green Road Project is one clear example that asks for the necessity of participatory democracy in environmental politics in Turkey in order to avoid the threats and disappearance of the livelihoods of the rural people in the region.

[1] DOKAP (2014). Doğu Karadeniz Projesi (DOKAP) Eylem Planı 2014-2018. T.C. Kalkınma Bakanlığı.

[2] BirGün. (2015) Havva ananın isyanı: Kimdir devlet? Devlet bizim sayemizde devlettir.


Image Credits: Demiroren News Agency


MelekAbout the author:

Melek Mutioglu Ozkesen is a visiting PhD researcher in the Political Ecology Research Group at the ISS. She comes from the Ankara University in Turkey.

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