This interview was originally published on New Books Network and an excerpted version is reposted here with permission.

Hello and welcome to New Books in Middle Eastern Studies. I am your host, Alize Arıcan. Today, I am joined by Özge Yaka, Senior Researcher at the Institute of Geographical Sciences, Freie Universität Berlin. We will be talking about her book, Fighting for the River: Gender, Body, and Agency in Environmental Struggles, published recently by the University of California Press.

Thank you very much, Özge, for joining us today.

Hi Alize, thanks a lot for inviting me.

You conducted capacious multisited fieldwork on the struggles against hydroelectric power plants in Turkey, but centered the book on the East Black Sea region. What about the East Black Sea region moved you to developing a body-centered approach to environmental struggles? 

This is a very important question, a central question I’d say. Yes, I conducted fieldwork in the Mediterranean region and in the East and Southeast Anatolia as well, including the Kurdish parts of the country, besides the East Black Sea region. I think the short answer is that I saw something that I cannot easily analyse with the existing literature – the literature on environmental movements, environmental justice, political ecology, etc. 

The struggles in the Mediterranean region, for instance, fit in the conventional political ecology frame, what Martinez-Alier calls the environmentalism of the poor. This approach relates local environmental activism, especially in the rural areas and especially in the global South, closely to the immediate economic dependence of the people on the environmental entities and commons they aim to protect against private enclosure, energy and infrastructural projects, environmental degradation, etc. In the Mediterranean region of Turkey, the anti-hydropower struggle is very much related to the use of small rivers and streams in subsistence agriculture which would really be impossible without irrigation as the summers are really long, hot and dry. The situation in the Kurdish parts of the country, on the other hand, could be associated with another central frame, which is recognition, as the environmental struggles against hydroelectric power plants in Hasankeyf and Dersim, where mostly bigger dams are at stake different from the small scale, run-of-the-river hydropower plants in the East Black Sea, are very much embedded in the Kurdish struggle for political autonomy. Much like indigenous environmental struggles in Latin America, in the US or in Canada. 

So I thought, yes, all that is important and interesting but there is another case which falls in a gap so to speak. East Black Sea region is the hotbed of the struggle, a place that is most associated with anti-hydropower resistance and the villagers who struggle to protect their rivers – “fighting for their rivers” as the title of the book says, do not “use” the river waters for agriculture or in the household, not at all. There is no immediate economic relationship, no relationship of dependency. And even though East Black Sea villages are home to Laz and Hemschin peoples, these ethnicities are well-integrated into Turkish national identity and there is no struggle for political autonomy or sovereignty over resources, also, there is no relationship of secrecy and belief, in terms of secrecy of water or waterscapes, something we see in Dersim in the Kurdish region for example. So there is a huge, huge question. What is it? What is the motivation of people to protect those rivers? This is the central question of the book. I have developed my body-centred, phenomenological analysis in response to this central question. I cannot really answer this question properly here. But I can say, very briefly, that my response is that it is a bodily relationship that has a lot to do with bodily senses and affects, but also with place and memory. 

“God’s water” is a refrain that your interlocutors bring up in the book. I’d love to hear more about how seeing water through God shaped your understanding of the commons in conversation with the corporeal.

Yes, it might sound like a contradiction that I use the term “God’s water”, which was used a lot by the villagers in the East Black Sea region, and also say that there is no relationship of secrecy or belief. I should clarify that: rivers have no sacred or religious status in the region. The sensory and affective connection with river waters is not experienced within the realm of ritual or secrecy. So the corporeal relationship I describe in the book has nothing to do with religion or belief. It is different from the women’s bodily relationship with Ganges for example, even though relations that we categorize as religious are also very much material and corporeal as scholars like Luke Whitmore and Georgina Drew show.

God’s water is rather a manifestation of the rivers’ status of ownership – it is a very apt definition of what we call environmental commons in the literature. What the term God’s water captures is the idea that rivers cannot be treated as property – neither private nor public. No one can have a total claim on them, no one can own them. They belong to everyone and no one. I think the elected village head (muhtar)  of the Arılı village, whom I quote in the book, explains it perfectly:

“So if we live in this valley, this nature, this water, this air, this sun is ours. But when we say they are ours, we do not mean that we own them as our property. We don’t have ownership of them; we don’t have them as our property. But they are ours.”

So God’s water rather indicates this popular-religious understanding of rivers as commons which functions as an effective source of legitimacy and also provides the material context in which this bodily, sensory and affective relationship is established and maintained –in the sense that the river is open to all to watch, to touch, to swim, to drink – to enjoy in many different ways.

How people frame their relationships to rivers and the struggles around them, you show us, are very much gendered, rooted in sensory memory. Can you speak to the role of sensorium and memory in how environmental struggles are gendered?

Yes, this is an important and complex question and I am not sure if I can also respond here properly. But very briefly, sensorium and memory are gendered inasmuch as they are very much embedded in a thoroughly gendered lifeworld – that is the everyday world of experience.

The conceptual advantage of the term phenomenal or lived body, especially when it is in the hands of feminists, is that it manifests the fact that the body – our bodies – are not free-floating, they are very much situated, located within specific spatial, social and cultural context and relations of power. Bodily senses and body memory refer to the capacities of our body which are not necessarily gendered, which are anonymous – but these capacities are only realized within those spatial, social and cultural contexts that mediate the way in which they are manifested.

In other words, bodily capacities are effectuated within certain habitual dispositions – and what shapes these habitual dispositions, especially in the villages we talk about? It is the gendered division of labour, it is the structures of dwelling and the social and spatial organization of everyday life, and it is the geographical and cultural configurations of patriarchy. In the case of the East Black Sea, all these factors translate into what I talk about a lot in the book – that agricultural work is seen as women’s work in the region, and hence, it is the women who spent a lot of time outside, within the dramatic landscape of the region, in the tea and hazelnut fields or sometimes with cattle and goats, always by a river, always with a river – which enables women to establish a very strong, very intimate relationship with the river through their bodily senses and affects. And those bodily senses and affects also function as the basis of body memory, as I discuss in the book.

Ontology, gender, and agency are at the heart of claim-making for your interlocutors. And led by them, you draw our attention from environmental justice to what you call socio-ecological justice. What is at stake in this shift, politically and theoretically?

I have developed the notion of socio-ecological justice not necessarily as an alternative to environmental justice, it could also be seen as an intervention, to expand the borders of environmental justice conceptually and politically. The main idea is that environmental justice, which has been very much about the unequal and unjust distribution of environmental goods and hazards, and then extended to include the notions of justice as recognition, and justice as enhancing human capabilities and representation, remains short of depicting very fundamental claims of certain environmental struggles of our time. One fundamental claim that is not captured by environmental justice is the claim of coexistence, living together with nonhuman others – beings, entities, environments, things – not necessarily because of their use value, or due to a relationship of dependency, but because people have a close relationship with those beings and entities – a relation that is fundamental for their socio-ecological existence, their identity, their way of living, their well-being, and also for their claims of justice. This is what relations ontology depicts – or what Merleau-Ponty articulates as being-in-indivision – that relations are ontologically prior and constitutive of entities – in other words, relations do not just connect us, they make us. The notion of socio-ecological justice is an attempt to frame this constitutive relationality between human and nonhuman forms of life as a matter of justice.

Theoretically, it is an intervention to expand the borders of justice in general and environmental justice in particular, to articulate the intrinsic relation and “transversal interconnection”, to quote Braidotti, between the social and the ecological, and the human and non-human. In this way, the term aims to break the nature-society duality in the field of justice which sometimes takes the form of duality between environmental and ecological justice. Politically it maintains the fact that non-human entities and environments are fundamental not only for our biological or ecological existence but also for our social life and relations. Hence we need to reconfigure what society and sociality, self and subjectivity, justice, and even democracy mean in the light of such a relational ontological understanding. It indicates a need to open up our conceptions of society and politics, our ways of thinking and acting to facilitate, what Latour says “a progressive composition of a common world” with nonhuman beings.

Throughout the book, it seemed to me that you add nuance to environmental struggles in triads: for instance, you put them in conversation with gender/body/agency, resources/livelihoods/lifeworlds, or ethics/ontology/relationality. What did thinking in triads do for you methodologically?

These triads appeared during the writing period actually as these are all concepts and relations that did not exist before the fieldwork, they appeared slowly through the conversations between the ethographical data and a diverse range of theories and concepts.

Gender/body/agency – which is in the name of the book, depicts the main frame in which I made sense of all I have seen, heard and recorded – that is the main idea of body-centred environmental activism of women and the understanding of the body not only as a vehicle through which activism is manifested but as constitutive of political agency.

Resources/livelihoods/lifeword was the triangle I established to shift the focus from the first two to the third to understand environmental entities people fight for not as, or only as, resources that sustain livelihoods but as nonhuman beings people live with which are, or who are, central to their lifeworld, to their everyday world of experience.

Ethics/ontology/relationality was a triad I really enjoyed working with mainly to expand the borders of environmental justice and to reveal the ethical and ontological implications of human-nonhuman relationality which motivates many environmental struggles of our age.

At times, Fighting for the River reads like a work of literary scholarship or cultural criticism, since you pay close attention to documentaries, discourses in the media, or published interviews, to name a few resources you’ve worked with. Can you tell us about what it meant for you to work across resources and disciplines, attending to what is said about HEPPs and how they are said?

Very interesting question. Maybe I can say that I could never make sense of disciplinary divisions and even methodological ones throughout my academic life. I studied political science, did a PhD in Sociology, I work in a Geography department now. I read and use a lot of philosophy, anthropology, feminist theory, indigenous studies and environmental humanities. Some people say what I do is environmental philosophy, now you say cultural criticism or literary scholarship. I have no idea. I just follow questions and try to understand certain phenomena like why people fight tooth and nail to protect rivers they do not use, worship, or see as a political or cultural symbol. Why women are at the forefront? Why do they talk and act differently? You know, questions like that. I try to understand motivations. And I use anything and everything to do it. My own work, observations, interviews but also the ones made before and published, journalistic work and media accounts, social media material, anything that I could lay my hands on. And I enjoy establishing relations between different sources of knowledge, between different fields and disciplines, between theories. That’s how I could work. I cannot do it any other way, which puts me in a difficult position sometimes because I cannot locate myself within the structures of academia, especially in the very conservative academic environment in Germany which is the country I currently live in.

Almost each chapter starts with an excerpt from an interview, which I really enjoyed. What did it mean for you to frontload the chapters with your interlocutors’ words, without mediating them?

I used their words because I thought those words depicted the phenomena I wanted to discuss much better than I could ever do. I am not an anthropologist and I did my first fieldwork with this very project. And I was absolutely amazed. Fieldwork changed my whole perspective, concepts and theories I work with, even my discipline. I was not a feminist, in the intellectual-methodological sense at least, I became one. I wasn’t a geographer, I became one. I wasn’t a phenomenologist, I became one. What changed me was what I saw, but mostly what I heard and I wanted to let these words lead the book, as they led me.

How rivers feel is an important part of the book, and I have two related questions about how you conveyed the feeling of rivers: what was your approach to taking in how rivers are felt in the fieldwork? And how did you use writing and visuals to convey how rivers feel?

I think what I prioritized was to listen and understand how rivers feel to the people who were fighting to protect them – which was not my intention initially, as I told you before I went to the field with totally different intentions than focusing on bodily feelings and sensations, but that was what I heard and thankfully I was open enough to hear it. So I mainly listened to people more than I could listen to the rivers. And, of course, I saw, heard and touched river waters – waters of different rivers but I could not stay anywhere long enough to really feel them deeply, to really establish a type of relationship that I describe in detail in the book.

It was a methodological choice to go to many different villages in three different regions, mainly because my focus and intention were totally different in the beginning. I do not regret this decision per se. Because I visited different regions I could actually point at the difference – and focus on what was different in the East Black Sea region. And because I visited many different villages in the East Black Sea region I know that the type of relationship I describe is not peculiar to one specific place or to one specific river, it was clearly observable in different places across the region. So these are the advantages but thinking back, maybe I would prefer to stay longer in one or two villages and adopt a more anthropological approach to dive in deeper not only into the stories of people but into the sensations, feelings and experiences how rivers feel personally on a deeper level.

I could not use a lot of visuals in the book unfortunately as I did not really prioritize taking pictures mainly due to my lack of experience with the fieldwork, but also because I was afraid of intimidating people with a camera. I could take some though and I used three of them in the book which was important to give the reader some feeling of the rivers, I believe. Also, when I realized the pervasiveness of descriptions of river encounters, how the river feels, looks, tastes and sounds, within my material, I dug in deeper to reveal them and I read a lot of anthropology and phenomenology of water to broaden my understanding of how the rivers feel, and to be able to understand people’s, especially women’s, accounts better.

Thank you very much, Özge, for joining us and for your insights.