This was the banner that I held last week during a blockade of the Ilisu Dam construction site on the upper Tigris River in eastern Turkey – the first action of its kind in this long-running campaign. Standing beside local dam-threatened people, as well as representatives from indigenous groups such as the Kayapó of the Amazon, the Mapuche of Patagonia, and the Turkana of Kenya, it felt like this sister river in Mesopotamia had truly united the widespread, global movement to defend the flowing lifelines of our planet.
The campaign to stop the Ilisu Dam – to save the irreplaceable cultural and ecological sites that would be flooded upstream and to preserve the life-giving Tigris River – has been waged for over a decade. The dam is a divisive, wedge issue in the geopolitics between Turkey, Kurdish autonomous movements, and Iraq. It is emblematic of mega-dams in the modern era: they are too often used as weapons to consolidate the political and economic power of elites, not as neutral infrastructure designed to distribute electrical power to the people.
While my trip to the region was brief, the time spent was densely packed and impeccably organized by Birdlife-Turkey (Doga Dernegi). Our blockade at the Ilisu Dam site served as an opportunity for the Turkish and European media to report on the global solidarity and the unity of our movement with the people from the upper Tigris. From there, our delegation traveled to the ancient city of Hasankeyf, an awe-inspiring town that was reminiscent of the canyon lands and ancient architecture in the southwest of the U.S. (think of the Anasazi cities built into mesas or the cliff dwellings along the Gila River). This town was where the Silk Road crossed the Tigris, and the remnants of that bridge still remain. In the setting sun and the rising moon, the place was aglow with a magnificent energy, as the Tigris River gently swept past. It is heartbreaking to imagine the ancient caves flooded and the minaret peaking out above a stagnant reservoir.
The greatest gift of Hasankeyf is the spirit of its people – defenders of their world heritage homeland who welcomed us with energetic, traditional songs as we paraded through the old marketplace to a vantage point overlooking the river. The songs turned to a chorus that we all sang: nadan nadan Hasankeyf, nadan nadan Tigris, nadan nadan Amazon, nadan nadan Omo, nadan nadan Patagonia. Hasankeyf, we won’t give it up; The Tigris, we won’t give it up; the Amazon, we won’t give it up…
The trip included other activities and opportunities to build and strengthen our movement for rivers and rights. I was one of a dozen presenters at a conference in Istanbul organized by Doga Dernegi. I shared stories of community resistance to destructive dams across historical and geographic boundaries and offered suggestions on ways forward in this time of extreme pressure from energy companies on the remaining natural rivers of the world.
Kayapó Chief Megaron Txucarramae his daughter Mayalu presented powerful stories from a lifetime of resistance to dams in their Amazonia homeland and inseparable relationship between the Kayapó people and the Xingu River.
Joshua Angelei demonstrated how community organizing and use of local knowledge and science is being used to influence governance. He works with Friends of Lake Turkana to protect the world’s largest desert lake, which is threatened by dams on the Omo River.
Moira Millan presented on the spiritual foundations of indigenous Mapuche resistance to dams and other extractive industries in her homeland of Patagonia.
2013 Goldman Prize Winner Azzam Alwash, President of Nature Iraq, discussed his work to restore the Iraq marshes at the Tigris/Euphrates delta and shared a roadmap for trans-boundary rivers to serve as instruments of cooperation instead of tension.
There were also excellent presentations from Turkish activists, from our ally Christian Poirier with Amazon Watch, and from long-standing European river activist and filmmaker, Ulrich Eichelmann (founder of Riverwatch in Austria).
Whether learning in a conference hall, enjoying a nighttime screening of the film Damocracy in a town plaza, dancing with dam-threatened people along the Black Sea, or standing with people of Hasankeyf in the Ilisu Dam blockade – my comrades and I were ever mindful of our goals: to learn from each other, to deepen our resolve to continue uniting people around rivers, and to resist the destructive and divisive power of big dams.