Land grabbing as a political act

That text, which is nothing but an ordinary replicate of thousands of similar ones, caught our eye, because it is stated that 1200 olive trees will be replanted within the boundaries of the compound in accordance with its “Aegean Village” concept plan. Moreover, it is lyrically noted that a 400 years old olive tree to be replanted in the “village” square will say “hello” to us as a representative of thirty nine thousand years old cultural heritage. The following is an extract from the text:      

“As soon as you come in the door, you will feel as if you are in an Aegean village where people grow olives. As you walk the fifty-meter-wide boulevard that leads to the village square, you will be surrounded by eighty years old olive trees. These olive trees stretching over the road to your front door bear fruits to be enjoyed by the residents of the compound. Every year during the festival days, olives will be harvested collectively. Residents would enjoy olive oil and olives to be produced from these orchards. Each dwelling unit within the compound was named after the historical names of sites where best-quality olives are cultivated in the Aegean region: Thera, Lagina, Claros, Larisa, Alinda and Trilye.”

The text concludes with an invitation to those who “aspire to accommodate in this residential compound that accepts this cultural value inherited from the Anatolian land as its symbol, and that has integrated such values into its life cycle”.   

These lines that we read just after the murder of more than 6000 olive trees in Yırca portray the transformation that is taking place in both rural and urban areas in Turkey. Thousands of families in the Aegean, Thracian and Mediterranean regions of Turkey, who have managed to make their living, earn their bread and educate their children for centuries by olive cultivation, could no longer enjoy the happy, joyful and guaranteed life in an “Aegean village” depicted above. Rather, they struggle to survive, deprived of olives to be harvested at festivals, as wageworkers in mines, industrial plants and tourism facilities built on orchards, forests, water basins and agricultural lands. In their villages stuck between the highways that brutally split fertile land and forest and they tell fairy tales to their grandchildren about this “cultural value inherited from the Anatolian land”.

So, first of all we must ask the question of “what is land”. What does it mean for those living on it? And, what does it mean for those who have the power of making decision regarding how land would be used? Would it be used in accordance what individuals and communities living on it desire and decide? Or, would it be considered as a site where the power exercises its sovereignty based on overarching factors such as industry, energy and settlement, omitting those desires and lives?

Since “making decisions” about land means exercising sovereignty, and then we might ask to what extent do land owners aspiring to reconfigure their lives on their land enjoy this sovereignty. In the following, we seek to explain what “being a decision maker” signifies, exploring “legal” tools on which decisions to land grabs are based.            

At this point, basic definitions should be clarified to strengthen our further arguments.

What is “agricultural land”?

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), agricultural land is the sum of the following categories:

a) “arable land - land under temporary agricultural crops, temporary meadows for mowing or pasture, land under market and kitchen gardens and land temporarily fallow (less than five years).”

b) “permanent crops - land cultivated with long-term crops which do not have to be replanted for several years; land under trees and shrubs producing flowers, such as roses and jasmine; and nurseries (except those for forest trees, which should be classified under 'forest').”

c) “permanent meadows and pastures - land used permanently (five years or more) to grow herbaceous forage crops, either cultivated or growing wild (wild prairie or grazing land).”

As the FAO’s definition suggests, the category of “agricultural land” does not only consist of land under agricultural crops to be consumed by humans but also land that lie fallow for years, land that seem empty, land temporarily uncultivated, meadows, grazing land and pastures.

The above mentioned definition is the product of humanity’s knowledge of land. Thanks to that experience and knowledge of land that stem from enormous amount of past labor, we have a definition for and classification of agricultural land.       

Land grabbing

On a global scale, attacks on agricultural land are not unknown to people. However, such attacks which have continued for centuries are recently accelerating. Farmers and villagers from all over the world that strive to defend their land under attack are being subjected to states’ and corporations’ violence, they are being forced to migrate, their lands are being acquired forcibly or under compulsory conditions, and consequently dispossessed are becoming wageworkers.

Although the current phase of land grabbing is different than the one that was undertaken by colonial powers in Africa in the second half of the 19th century, it is arguable that both processes have had interrelated repercussions: dispossession of villagers and farmers, displacement, eradication of subsistence farming, insufficient nutrition, ecological degradation that produces irreversible impacts, loss of biodiversity, soil degradation, steady decrease in rural population, forced migration, dependency on imports for food and food insecurity.        

An uncontested and internationally acknowledged definition of land grabbing does not exist. Yet, it might be described as large-scale land acquisition without approval of local peoples/communities who cultivate land, resulting in severe decrease in number of farmers and villagers and, thus, threats to food security and inaccessibility to food for general population.

In what ways grabbing takes place?

Land grabbing occurs due to the facts such as increase in the level of urbanization, conversion of forest into agricultural land, increased need for highways and airports because of faulty transportation policies, and investments in extractive industries such as mining, oil and gas and in dirty energy resources such as fossil fuels around drainage basins, rivers, sea costs, pastures, natural conservation zones, forests and arable lands.

Moreover, huge shopping malls, promenades and golf courses built on fertile agricultural lands and river/water basins accelerate land grabs. Thousands of acres of fertile land, via mergers, are cultivated to produce large-scale agricultural food or agrofuels to be consumed in industry, hindering food security and the right to adequate and healthy food for large populations. It would not be wrong to suggest that this is an obvious violation of the 11th article of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations, which recognizes the right of everyone to adequate and secure food.            

Need for what? Whose need is it?

The notion of “need” deserves to be discussed in length at this point. Whose needs are we talking about here? Is it the needs of a person who would feel him/herself in an Aegean village as he/she comes in the door to his/her villa in Istanbul decorated with olive trees that were transported from the Aegean region? Or, are we talking of the needs of a company that would multiply its rate of profit every year thanks to its steady production? Or, are we talking of the needs of a government that would enjoy its power, authority and sovereignty extracted from full-blown growth policies fuelled with legal and financial incentives. “Needs” are so delicately defined and promoted by the sovereigns that you could believe the coal power plant to be built your next door is indispensable to charge your phone battery or to light your bedroom.  

In this regard, we can grasp the reasons lying behind “grabs” via the term “increase” that we used several times in the previous paragraphs: destruction caused by the activities related to growth-oriented economy.    

Destruction has occurred as a result of the decision in support of growth-oriented economy and the implementation of the associated strategies. Making decisions and formulating strategies are a matter of sovereignty. To put it briefly, breaching the privileges of “untouchable” areas such as agricultural land, forest and conservation zone can only occur as a result of a decision, and making such decisions is a crucial component of sovereignty. States’ attempts to curb the power of peoples that are sovereign to use, possess and decide about such untouchable areas are nothing but efforts to eliminate barriers.    

Neoliberal law

At this point, we must consider the concepts of “public power” and “public interest” which have increasingly become the indispensable components of the state’s law-making process. In the case of Yırca, the state exercised its power to make law as a necessary condition for neoliberal policies, and has taken over the sovereignty of villagers and farmers over their agricultural land in the name of public power and public interest. Thus, in practice, the notion of property has become a tool in the struggle of villagers against the state’s grabs that favor companies. 

Imagine for a moment that you are a villager in Yırca. By neglecting your labor, knowledge and experience of your olive orchards, your right to decide how you are going to use your land is being terminated, without any notification. It is the state that fulfills the deed of termination, and that which benefits from this deed is a company. What is the legal basis for the deed of termination? Obviously, the answer is once again “increasing need”. If we have managed to manifest the actors and beneficiaries of this deed of termination which has direct implications on how a villager in Yırca would pursue his/her life, then we can consider the legal tools that make such a deed possible.        

The notions such as law and justice do not denote anymore an ultimate goal to be reached but a battlefield where laws, that is tools of sovereignty over land, are constituted. Nowadays law is a tool for destruction and grabbing.

At this point, let us focus on these tools to concretize what we argue. In the following we list some of the recent amendments in key laws. Could you find the differences between them? 

The Forestry Law     

In cases where the presence or construction of defense, transportation, energy, communication, water, oil, gas, infrastructure, solid waste disposal and regular storage facilities, dam, pond, and health, education and sport facilities belonging to the State, and all sorts of related buildings, on the State forest lands is in the public interest and mandatory (…) the Ministry of Environment and Urbanism grants permission.

The Law on Soil Preservation and Land Utilization

Absolute agricultural lands, special produce lands, planted agricultural lands and wet agricultural lands can only be used for the purpose of agricultural production. However, in cases where there is no alternative site and provided that approval of the authority is obtained, permission may be granted for investments in defense-related strategic needs, oil and gas exploration and drilling, and, in accordance with the decisions of Energy Market Regulation Authority, for investments related to the utilization of energy resource areas.   

The Law on Renewable Energy

Permission may be granted for the establishment of electrical energy production facilities based on renewable energy resources in national parks, nature parks, nature monumental and nature preservation sites, preservation forests, wildlife promotion sites, and special environmental preservation site provided that an affirmative opinion of the Ministry, or of the regional conservatory board in the case of natural conservation areas, is obtained.

The Draft Law on Preservation of Nature and Biodiversity

Re-evaluation process may be commenced upon the recommendations of physical and juridical persons; and previously determined and announced boundaries of the preservation sites may be altered. 

The draft law would facilitate the transfer of management of the preservation sites to public-private juridical persons, opening up space for arbitrary endorsements.

On the one hand, legal regulations facilitating land grabs privilege companies by the help of various exemption clauses some of which we noted above and with the purpose of “displacement”, on the other hand such legal regulations may be performed through quite sneaky techniques.

For instance, “the law on electricity market and the draft law on the inoculation of olive orchards and the reclamation of wild olives” does not consist of an exemption clause; rather it facilitates the de facto destruction of olive orchards by altering the definition of orchard sites that have been legally protected until this day.  

It should be underlined that site-specific legal regulations are progressively becoming more generalized through such generally-implemented laws. Indeed, the urgent expropriation law, to which we are pretty familiar because of its implementation in Yırca, has become an indispensable component of energy projects, even though it is a legal rule which must be used under specific conditions such as war and natural disaster.      

Law and state policies

At this point we should call attention to an important issue: the difference between “law” and “state policy”. And then, we should scrutinize how the latter has prevailed over the former. Despite the court rulings preventing the urgent expropriation in energy projects, the government systematically proceeds to take urgent expropriation decisions in energy projects. When such decisions are subject of the legal action, we are commonly faced with decisions of cancellation. Otherwise, such deeds of the government turn out to be “acquired” right, even though they are against the law. Obviously, the government engenders a de facto situation via its own decisions.      

In addition to laws, secondary legislation such as regulations of public juridical persons –e.g. ministries– should also be taken into account. States under the rule of law must have a certain hierarchy of norms framing the law-making processes. However, under the present circumstances, the will of the legislative body is being overcome since the issues that should be regulated under laws are being regulated under by-laws. For investors cannot fiddle with law-making processes. Time is money, time is profit! Therefore, the related ministry must enact the related by-law as soon as possible, and serve all sorts of piquant conveniences to the law “market”.

The national parks by-law and the wet lands by-law, and some other regulations stated under the related laws, have been recently substituted with the clauses that restrict the boundaries of preservation zones so as to grant permission for particular investments.

The by-law on the amendments in the Law No. 5403 on Soil Preservation and Land Utilization grants permission for mining activities on agricultural land, in cases where the Ministry considers such activities in the public interest.     

As it would be seen, laws and secondary regulations have certain commonalities in the sense that they serve to a common purpose and in favor of certain individuals. Such communalities reflect a systematized technique in legal regulations that pave the way for land grabbing. If we consider these communalities more closely, we see that all these regulations are justified by interests of a subject named “public”. Yet, the concrete beneficiary of the regulation is companies whose investments are permitted. Still, we must diligently ask:

Public interest. In whose interests?

The law-making state that paves the way for land grabbing by formulating clauses of these laws seeks to create legitimacy perception through such clauses. Examining the purpose, scope and basic principles of the legal regulations, we may think that sublime incentives such as soil preservation are maintained. At the very moment that you think “it is the law that rules”, the legitimacy perception occurs. However, the exemption clauses noted above signify grabbing. Even though land is legally protected, nonetheless the state may abolish the protection, violate any right of persons over land, and reestablishes this right in favor of a company, whenever it wishes and sees fit. The exemption clauses of laws are nothing but a somehow legalistic reformulation of “one morning you wake up and you may find wire fences around your land”.       

Land grabbing is a matter of politics not law

The laws which are the apparent manifestations of the land grabbing policy and the administrative orders that are based on such laws could take many different shapes in different localities. The cutting down of the 6000 olive trees in Yırca, the prospective plans for port and waste storage zone in the bays of Karabiga, the construction of wind power turbines on residential areas and agricultural lands in Karaburun, the completed transformation of the Çukurova basin into energy base, and the construction of thermal/coal fired power plants on the premium agricultural lands in Amasya are examples of land grabbing. The plans to construct an organized industrial zone on premium agricultural lands in Kandıra or the almost total destruction of Ağaçlı village in Istanbul, where people make their living breeding water buffalos on dunes and meadows legally protected, due to the construction of the third Bosphorus bridge, are justified by the expression of “grants permission for investments in the public interest”.   

Villagers in Yırca asked us the same question: how come the government can expropriate our lands without any notification? When one of the authorized representatives of the company told the villagers “this is my land, for the government expropriated it, and I can evict you in just ten minutes”, it became all clear that the sole beneficiary of this administrative operation which has been justified by the “public interest” is the company and the ultimate result is the displacement of the Yırca villagers. Villagers were rushing from one place to another having title deeds in their pockets, saying every person they came across that “it belongs to me not you, and this is my title deed”. However, the Ministry of Energy expropriated their lands on the basis of only one sentence, without any further notification:    

“It was decided that the immovable, of which the locations and plot numbers are shown in the attached list, would be urgently expropriated by the Ministry of Finance to be registered in the name of the Treasury, for the purpose of the construction of Soma Kolin Coal Fired Power Plant.”        

What about Sardes, Thera, Lagina, Claros, Larisa, Alinda and Trilye after all this destruction? Would the good old harvesting festivities come back, if we call them by their real names?

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