Workshop on Contentious Politics in Kurdish Studies: Land, Nature, and Infrastructure

Workshop hosted by the Rural Sociology Group, Wageningen University and Research, September 1, 2023

In Turkey occupations and demonstrations by landless workers and peasants demanding for land reform have taken place on a large scale since the middle of the 20th century. Peasant and landless workers’ politicization and mobilization led to a re-configuration of municipal politics as it transformed into a space where landed elites’ political and economic dominance was contested. The massive rural-to-urban migration which witnessed millions of rural dwellers relocating to urban centres, triggered another issue of contention: the occupation of urban-peripheral land for housing and the staking by former villagers of their right to the city. In more recent years, this contestation over land has overlapped with the rise of environmental activism. In the Aegean, Marmara, and Black Sea regions, protests have been staged against gold mining and its associated ecological degradation and pollution. While in east and southeast Anatolia, Kurdistan (Bakur) protests took place against the construction of dams that resulted in forced displacement and the destruction of heritage and nature. In Istanbul, the destruction of nature (Gezi Park) and plans for the Istanbul Canal Project stirred protests. And in the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, the construction of villas along the banks of the Tigris and the Hevsel Gardens has provoked fierce opposition. These different protests are staged by various actors, from rural communities to transnational activists, with various ideological commitments, having different concerns. Yet, they are all met with repression by an increasingly authoritarian rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

These patterns of contention over and about land across Turkey are further complicated by the ongoing political and armed conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdish political movements in the country’s southeast. Although, the conflict is not simply reducible to a struggle over land, the war of recent decades has upended patterns of land ownership, access and use, the mass depopulation of millions of Kurdish rural dwellers since the 1990s, the targeted destruction of the Kurdish lived environment since the 1990s through forest burnings, the use of chemical weapons, and  interference with water supplies, culminating in the construction of dams in the region. The PKK’s ideology of Democratic Confederalism foregrounds environmental struggle: Unusually for a national liberation movement it emphasizes ecological concerns and holds that they need to be immediately addressed during the campaign against the state rather than relegated to some future date. In the country’s recent elections, the pro-Kurdish HDP/Green-Left remained a rallying point for those aspiring to a pluriform democracy. Therefore, practices of insurgency, contentious politics, resistance, and environmental politics are fundamentally intertwined.

The workshop Contentious Politics: Land, Nature, and Infrastructure addresses a number of theoretical debates and questions related to land in Kurdish studies. It invites submissions (papers/presentations) related to three specific themes:

Continuity and change in Kurdish Contentious Politics related to Land; In the wake of the Armenian and Syriac genocides, the establishment of colonial boundaries, the institutional strengthening of the Turkish state and the weakening of feudal land domination, land and its uses in Kurdistan has undergone massive transformation in the last century. This section of the workshop looks at the particularities of contestation over land in the Kurdish case; its symbolic importance, its ownership, the wealth it produces and how these struggles overlap (or indeed do not overlap) with other regional and international cases.

Land as a point of intersection with issues of Class, Gender, and Ethnicity; Kurdistan is populated by multiple peoples and communities with contending claims of historical legitimacy and often in competition with one another.  It has been horizontally and vertically fractured between the former beneficiaries of feudalism and state favoritism, and those who actually work the land. And of course, the gendered division of labour and exploitation of women prevails in the land related issues, particularly in relation to the millions of displaced families since the 1990s.

Practices of Contestation over Land: contestation has taken many different shapes in Kurdistan, ranging from feudal uprisings, national liberation insurgency, campaigns of radical municipalism, electoral contestation at local and national levels, religious and communal mobilization, and mass civil society mobilization. They have differed in ideological content, their relationship (co-operative, dependent or independent) with Turkish political actors, as well as their commitment or lack thereof to pan-Kurdish political objectives. They have also varied in relation in how they have tried to leverage international pressure by framing their protests as part of broader transnational climate activism.

Please contact Workshop organizers, Joost Jongerden ( and Francis O’Connor ( with expressions of interest.

Why are women absent in dominant agricultural debates?

Els Hegger is a farmer and researcher working with RSO on the SWIFT project. In this post, she reflects on the role of women in dominant agricultural debates and her own experiences at the SWIFT project kick-off meeting.

Els writes:

Because of the Brazilians (representing the MST movement), I realised what is going on and how -maybe- there is an alternative. When reading this project proposal I was both very interested and at the same time, I thought: “Didn’t we have this whole feminine thing, is this really necessary? Aren’t women in the Netherlands already empowered? Is this discussion about inclusion, LHBTIQ+ etc., really necessary?” I didn’t raise these questions out of resistance but because I didn’t see it. For me, women have the same opportunities as men. At least… I thought so.

However… women are absent in their fullness. We participate under certain set conditions, set by a white male capitalist-dominated history. It is so entrenched that I guess we don’t fully realize this.

Look at the main agricultural stage in the Netherlands. Yes, we now have Caroline v/d Plas, but is that a female representation? As a farmer, as a woman, as an Agroecological entrepreneur, I don’t feel represented. It’s not my arena. The method, the sound, the non-verbal language. We withdraw because we don’t feel at ease, we don’t feel home. Lethargy kicks in.

So, we need to create our home where we feel at home. Which language fits this? Which stories resonate? Is it singing, dancing, mystica, poems, histories…? Only if we re-create and co-create these, we can connect and only then we can enter the political arena. It’s rather obvious, but at the same time it is so interwoven with everything that we stop realising, it settles in the subconscious.

Within Toekomstboeren we’ve had quite some discussions about exactly this (although not specified through women) as I nearly withdrew from Toekomstboeren. I said I didn’t feel comfortable with the way we enter politics. For me, agroecology (AE) is so different from the dominant narrative that I cannot lobby in a traditional way, being drawn to the tables and tell what we need.

It is not my language and then we are tempted to withdraw. That’s why women are invisible. AE is a way of life, not a job you hold. It is running through my veins, it’s in every cell and bone. AE is not about ecologic farming, the word logic is not fitting. It’s beyond any rationale in a traditional sense; it is like the rhizomes of Deleuze and Guattari. Mapping these could be an interesting insight.

Then there are the Brazilians (and there are more examples), who have developed their own language in a broad sense. They are able to mobilise an energy that truly connects: it is not only hierarchical, vertical talkative way of getting what you want. It is more horizontally moving, feeling as part of something not being united because you’re against something. This Brazilian way of mobilizing creates a togetherness that gives power to act. On a physical level, I feel backed, not such a naked back.

Obviously, this is a language beyond words. It is an all-encompassing language. A body language as much as a nature-language. It knows no race, ethnic origin, colour, male-female, it just is. You could say it is a feminine energy that complements the very overly present male energy. But.. is that correct? Or do we need to redefine? Is it a scale that is round, the edges are stretched so much that the ends are the beginning again? One of the Brazilians said: “Dare to acknowledge the woman inside you.” That goes for everyone, not only women. Vertical and horizontal.

Could you say that we need to tilt this structure of power?

The extremes are voiced, but the big middle group is searching. Is it a Western thing, a capitalistic view on male/female? Power? I think of Indonesia where I saw much more softness with men and at the same time a pride and dignity with both men and women. Equal in a very different sense. How does this result in voicing?

To come back to the beginning: changing the narrative. Which stories do we want to tell, to share, to connect to and built upon? We need to reframe, reconstruct and reclaim the words farmer, farming and food production. Stop talking about nature, start being it. Stop trying to fit in. Empower ourselves through language (including non-verbal language). Which future do we want to live now?

Els Hegger runs a small CSA market garden in the east of the Netherlands. Besides running this small-scale farm, she is an active member of Toekomstboeren and has a seat in the Federation of Agroecological Farmers in the Netherlands. One day a week she is a researcher at the Rural Sociology Group for the SWIFT-project. Els is passionate about flipping around dominant stories of food production and consumption, in order to reclaim truths and recognise the rich diversity of which human beings are an inherent entwined part. 

Supporting Women-Led Innovations in Farming and Rural Territories (SWIFT)

In March 2023, three Rural Sociology Group researchers (and one RSO intern) attended the kick-off meeting for the EU-funded SWIFT project. RSO leads the part of the project on Gender-Responsive Rural Policies across the EU, with Oxfam Belgium.

Jessica Duncan, Georgia Diamanti, Greta Capaite, Els Hegger from RSO participate in the SWIFT meeting in Agres, Spain

In what follows, SWIFT researcher Georgia Diamanti shares some of her experiences and reflections.

What is the SWIFT project?

SWIFT, which stands for Supporting Women-Led Innovations in Farming and Rural Territories, is a Horizon Europe project set up with the purpose to advance the position of women and LGBTQI+ persons in farming, and to moreover investigate how agroecological processes can promote gender equality. Agriculture is masculine: only 30% of all agriculture in Europe is practiced by women and, when you go higher up, at the relevant policy decision-making boards, women are almost absent. It is against this context that SWIFT is operating.

At the time of the project meeting, I had just been working at Wageningen University and on this project for a little over a month but was quite excited at the prospect of getting to join the rest of the project members in Spain for our kickoff meeting. The organizations and institutions that were part of SWIFT were spread across Europe and as such we mostly only knew each other over Zoom meetings.  

We arrived on Sunday evening, following a scenic drive through the Spanish mountainside – just as the sunset’s final colors filtered through the trees. The house we were to spend the coming week, “Riera d’Agres”, was a beautifully restored property that used to function, as we later found out, as a children’s farm camp. Here, children were taught agroecological principles and a consciousness of the work that goes into getting food on a plate. It felt like a very fitting venue for the occasion. Slowly, we gathered in the dining hall.

SWIFT participants rest and connecyt outside Riera d'Agres

SWIFT participants rest and connecyt outside Riera d’Agres

As we sat for our first dinner, persons who we had thus far known only as faces on our screens began one by one to materialize. After handshakes and warm hugs were exchanged, people seemed to enter into lively conversations. It was clear how we were all connected by common interests and values. It made coexistence feel comfortable and natural, almost from the very start. Amidst the excitement to have made it and to find ourselves in such a beautiful place after a long journey (that had preceded for the majority of us) there was also a detectable feeling of uncertainty, about what was to come in these 5 days we were set to spend in Agres. Not much later, satiated by the flavourful food that was served to us by our hosts, we retired to our rooms for the night, excited for the week to begin.

To give some context to the week, it was to be split into two parts overall; Monday and Tuesday were for the SWIFT group to get introduced, and to brainstorm about project expectations, concerns, etc., while Wednesday to Friday was to be focused on bringing in the experiences of the WLIs. For this part, women (and one non-binary) farmers were invited to join in our activities, while also being given the space to share their experiences and desires for the project.

The very logic behind SWIFT was for it to grow in a more organic, bottom-up approach – one that incorporated the experiences of those affected by the policies within the process itself. To make the producers from research object to research subject. Here, we were even joined by three women who had come all the way from Brazil who worked with various feminist and agroecological organizations, and Maggie who operated an LGBTQI+ farm in New York. While not directly under the scope of SWIFT (which focuses on the EU) their purpose was to share and inspire – something which they most definitely did.

The latter part of the week was the more emotional one. Seeing the women speak about their experiences and the emotion with which they articulated their troubles, concerns, and hopes resonated visibly with the rest of the group. I recall briefly scanning the room while one of the producers was speaking, only to find tears gleaming in many of the attentive faces as we listened together. It was nice to see that not only had the space we’d created allowed so many of us to be open and vulnerable but also that this process was growing as intended, in collaboration with those whose lives the research concerns.

During the final days, we spoke also of concrete ways in which to help achieve the goals of SWIFT – here I refer not only to our strict deliverables to the EU but also further ways through which the project could truly be of assistance to the Women Led initiatives (WLIs) and their daily struggles. We talked a lot about the possibility (and responsibility) of research as a form of activism. And so, although it’s true that SWIFT had a lot of policy-related deliverables, we also spoke of how we could, in parallel work to change the general narrative; speaking even of facilitating a feminist school or a documentary (ideas that seemed to receive high support from the majority).

If anything, even the academic literature itself continuously points out cultural norms and normative expectations as barriers to women being able to realize their full potential, particularly in the developed world where strict legal barriers to land ownership are not present as they are in developing countries but where barriers nevertheless persist. As such, while collaborating with EU institutions is important, other soft-power strategies may be worth investing in.

Georgia Diamanti is a Researcher with the SWIFT project. She has been working on this since February 2023. She holds an MSc in Political Science from the University of Amsterdam and will soon start a PhD in the Rural Sociology Group on gender and rural policies, with a focus on social and environmental sustainability.

Analysing the PKK’s Rebel Governance: Data Limitations and some Potential Solutions

Francis O’Connor, Postdoc at the Rural Sociology Group and Kamuran Akin, Independent Researcher

The content of insurgent movements’ publications can be telling, yet the issues which they exclude or deny can be of even greater illustrative value. Downplaying violence against civilians or sources of illicit funding can be expected, but what of movements who ignore practises of rebel governance, which are not only popular with their supportive constituencies but also bestow legitimacy with the international public? This paper looks at the puzzling case of the PKK whose publications systematically neglected forms of governance – in particular its alternative justice systems –  it implemented at the height of its insurgency in Turkey through the 1980s and 1990s.

Continue reading