Taksim: a political ecology

Bruno Latour famously opens the introduction to his book Politics of Nature with a radical statement: “What is to be done with political ecology? Nothing. What is to be done? Political ecology!”1 Political ecology concerns the place- and space-based struggles of local communities across the world in coming to terms with the development projects and the effects of globalization. It is about people’s very human claims to their rights to local resources such as water, land, clean air, biodiversity and cultural heritage.2 I combine here the so-called natural and cultural resources, although in academic discourse these are often treated separately.3 The field of political ecology offers a platform for public debate and engagement for activists, public intellectuals and civil rights organizations to connect with communities globally in their emancipatory quest for human rights. For academics also, such platforms of political ecological thinking offer extraordinary opportunities to ground their work in engagements with activist communities around the world, and to give support to those struggles for natural resources, cultural heritage and human rights that are relentlessly challenged by national governments and multinational corporations.4 More explicitly, this suggests that in the contemporary world of postcolonial ethics that highlights deep concern for disenfranchised social groups and local communities, academics whose work depend on fieldwork on the ecologies of human settlement and cultural heritage, such as environmental scientists, archaeologists, anthropologists, biologists and the like are no longer able to do their own “scientific” work remotely or in isolation from the ongoing ecological conflicts and human rights violations in their areas of study and abandon the local communities to their fate.5 Social movements, therefore, in the politicized contexts of ecological conflicts and place-based struggles are of fundamental concern for academics around the world who may or may not be actively engaged with such movements.

The demonstrations that started in Taksim Square’s Gezi Park in Istanbul on 28 May 2013 emerged as a unique movement of resistance in Turkey’s history and continued without interruption for several weeks, spreading to many other cities in Turkey. Gezi protests will be remembered as a successful mass movement of youth activism whose main purpose has been to reclaim public space in the cities in Turkey. I argue in this chapter that this civic movement should be understood in conjunction with and in the context of the broader and more long-term forms of ecological resistance, especially those that have been carried against the Turkish government’s fury of hydro-electric dam, power plant and mass housing construction projects that continuously threaten to eradicate the Anatolian countryside and privatize its resources. It is possible to suggest that the Gezi resistance represents the sudden but perhaps expected eruption of an urban grassroots movement for the defense of urban historical heritage or the collectively used city spaces which are always deeply saturated with social memory and senses of belonging. This is an aspect of social space that governments tend to ignore or belittle. The defense was against the threat of the neoliberal utopias of development and capital intervention, which reached unprecedented scales of operation in recent years as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party (AKP) became increasingly confident in manipulating or reorganizing urban and rural landscapes without much thought to the environmental, cultural or socioeconomic impact of such interventions.6 The protestors on the streets, on the contrary, have proven that they care deeply for their environment and have put themselves at risk in reclaiming their rights to the public space in Turkey. I suggest that cumulatively the two fronts of resistance, one in urban parks and the other in the rural countryside, form a powerful arena of political ecology, similar to many parts of the world that has seen such ecological struggles carried out by local communities, environmental and human rights activists, academics, public intellectuals, students and politicians.7

Gezi movement erupted at a moment of deep frustration among the educated and young urban crowds across the country, following a series of radical interventions by Erdogan’s government to transform public space and the environment through a series of symbolically charged programs of development. These interventions include, for instance, the decision to construct a third bridge across the Bosphorus in Istanbul, the pervasive opening of the Turkish countryside, its riverine and lacustrine landscapes to the construction of power plants and hydro-electric dams (see further discussion later on in the chapter); the recent consolidation of the ministries of Public Works (Baymdirlik) and Environment (?evre), which practically removed the checks and balances between urban development and environmental protection8; and the gradual selling of Ataturk or Gazi Orman Qftligi (AOQ, the forested landscape and modernist farm established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. AO^ was set up by Ataturk in the spring of 1925 on a 20,000 hectare land (later expanded to

52,000 hectares) to secure a massive green space in Ankara, to illustrate exemplary agricultural practices and present an ecological showcase of modernization in Turkey’s newly fashioned capital city.9 Erdogan’s gesture that is geared toward dismantling this relatively successful modernist landscape exposes his sour relationship with the historical legacy of Ataturk’s modernization of the country and his desire to reconfiguring Turkey’s urban landscapes in line with his development aesthetics that often result in the abuse of the environment and its management by the state.

The examples for Erdogan’s developmental transformation program are endless, but perhaps the most widely discussed project among them is the prime minister’s personally favored project of a massive new canal that will connect the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea, and the opening of the canal’s environs to the construction of a new urban landscape.10 The project was introduced to the public in April 2011 as an explicitly ambitious and an almost irrational one, labeled “Crazy Project” by AKP itself. It is important to note that the project is known only from news reports and Erdogan’s speeches, and to my knowledge, no scientific study of its environmental, social or political impact has so far appeared or presented to the Turkish public. According to media reports, the project will open a currently forested landscape and farmland to development that will feature hotels, shopping malls, a convention center, an airport and housing complexes. The full scope of the proposal, although not commonly grasped as such by the Turkish public, essentially entails the building of a new Istanbul beside the old one: it can be understood as an urban foundation. With this project, Erdogan explicitly connects himself with Ottoman imperial projects of opening similar canals between the Marmara and Black Seas, which had all remained as utopias until now. The historical precedents of such a massive canal project in the Marmara Sea go back to the time of Kanuni Sultan Suleyman (Suleiman I, Suleiman the Magnificent) in the 16th century. Sultan Suleiman’s grand vizier Sokullu Mehmet Pa§a developed the project to connect Black Sea to the Marmara Sea via Sakarya River, Sapanca Lake and the Gulf of Izmit, mainly to transport timber and to establish a new naval dockyard in Izmit. He had appointed the famous architects Mimar Sinan and Nikola Kerez for the task.11 The project apparently did not go forward for various reasons. Sokullu is also known for his other ambitious canal projects across the empire. This Ottoman legacy in the official discourse of Erdogan’s government marks an important reversal of the long-term nationalist discourse of the secular state in Turkey, which had distanced itself from the Ottoman past for the construction of a Turkish identity fully entangled with European modernism.

The early-2ist-century shift in the official discourse away from the secularist celebration of modernization brought about by the leaders of the early 20th century is accompanied by a historicist reclaiming of the Ottoman past by Erdogan and his followers. I refer here to an architectural historicism in order to point to the use (and abuse) of the forms of an elected episode of the past in the service of a particular political discourse, and this use is often an uncritical and anachronistic one, the socio-symbolic adoption of forms of history with a nostalgia for a long- lost past. AKP’s election of the classical and late Ottoman past and its material culture for the embellishment of their official discourse has had important implications in the government’s architectural interventions to urban space (see the discussion later).

As is well known, the foundation of Ankara on the central Anatolian plateau as the new modern capital of the Turkish Republic in 1923 carried with it the architectural and social engineering ideals of European modernism. Founders of the state in Turkey were keen on distancing themselves from Istanbul, the aged capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, and, therefore, the entrenched historical memories associated with it. They intended to open up a new urban sphere, an ideologically and socially fresh ground for enacting their modernist utopias for the generation of an urban culture fully endowed with European modernity. The architecture of this newly constructed capital was characterized as “architecture of revolution” and adopted the technologies, styles and the visual culture of the Modern Movement in Europe.12 Perhaps for the first time in the history of the modern Turkish Republic, we are witnessing a comprehensive reversal of this project of modernism, only to be replaced with an ideology shaped by a neo-Ottoman imperialism coupled with authoritarian neoliberalism. The neo-Ottoman tendencies in Erdogan’s government policy has been pointed out earlier.13 This conflict between the deeply rooted attachment to secular modernity in Turkey and the newly introduced neo-conservative, neo-Ottoman desire to dismantle that modernity, I believe, is at the very heart of the debate over Taksim’s Gezi Park.

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