Whose people? Whose democracy? Insights from the Green Road Project in Turkey

Themed article

Rabiye Bekar, known as Mother Havva in the Yukarı Kavrun- Samistal Highlands, asked this question to the policemen who tried to take her away from the construction area of the Green Road Project in the Eastern Black Sea Region of Turkey.

Rural resistance movements against the project to stop the construction had been taking place for a long time before 11 locals were detained by the gendarme and 24 locals were prosecuted on charges of violating the freedom of work. The project is now about to be finalized, despite social demonstrations and legal struggles by civil society organizations.

The Green Road Project, launched in 2013, is a 2,645 km road project that will connect the highlands of Artvin, Bayburt, Giresun, Gümüşhane, Ordu, Rize, Samsun and Trabzon provinces in the Northern part of Turkey. The Eastern Black Sea Region Development Administration (DOKAP) supervises the project. The DOKAP Presidency is responsible for transferring the appropriations allocated to the project to the Special Provincial Administrations and Governorships.

Green Line Project, Turkey - map

Map of the Green Line Project. Credit: Barlas İmar Planlama Müsavirlik.

In DOKAP’s Action Plan, the aim of the project is declared to be ‘the completion of not only the Green Road Project to provide a significant brand value to the region in the tourism sector and link the highlands to each other. The acceleration of social progress will be ensured through the resulting economic development.’[1] The Green Road Project includes tourism centres, restaurants, and ski facilities via the creation of nine tourism development zones, seven thematic touristic corridors, 10 tourism cities, and five ecotourism regions. The President of DOKAP explains the motivation for the project by saying: ‘The Black Sea is a new touristic attraction beyond just sun, sand and sea. What does it have? Green nature! But if you do not have access to it, it becomes idle.’[2]

A notable position by state authorities is to make the region accessible to incoming tourists, who would arguably improve the economic conditions of the people living in the area. The Mayor of Çamlıhemsin, one of the districts in Rize province, justified the project by saying ‘the place where the road will pass is already state property. The state allocated it to the villagers in the past in order to meet livestock demands. Now, if the tourists from the Middle East want to come and visit our highlands and the country will earn an income from that, this project should be run. We will use our cars now to go where we used to go with mules, so no one should be sorry!’[3]

....lack of participation by locals in decision-making and planning....

However, the Green Road, introduced by state officials as a regional development project, led to protests by highland residents. The project means the loss of livelihoods, an increase in construction and rent, and environmental damage for local people. Residents claim that the project did not target their development, rather it will result in a rent increase in the region. Various organizations such as TEMA Foundation, Fırtına Initiative, Brotherhood of the Rivers, Brotherhood of the Highlands, Black Sea in Revolt have monitored the project very closely and have protested against it.

'Let them see if there is anything green in this road. Those highlands are ruined for whom? Highlands should be for our children, for our animals. We have no place to go. We kept our hometown alive by protecting our highlands and forests. The state exists because we exist, because this folk exists. This habitation wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for us. Neither would these police, these gendarmes, this judge, this government, this district governor or anything, for that matter. They exist as long as we exist. We are people with our land, our green, our highland!'  [4] (Mother Havva)

'There is concern that the highlands will be opened to rent. This is a shock to people living in the highlands. Large tourism companies now bring tourists to the highlands. Accent mimicry, photo shoots, weird questions... mass tourism has overwhelmed the people. Around ten thousand vehicles may pass along the road. Who will that benefit? Are there hostels in the highlands? Are there craft products like carpets, clothes etc. to enable locals to earn money? How do locals earn money?' [5] (Bülent)

Another common criticism is about the lack of participation by locals in decision-making and planning. Involved non-governmental organizations state that at no point was there consultation with local people during the policy-making process.

'There is no public involvement in this project! Going further, through dispossession, people have been cut off from the lands that they have inhabited for thousands of years and from the culture they have created. We know that international companies, together with the governments with which they cooperate, try to neutralize the movements that struggle for the right to life of the people by misguiding NGOs.'[6]

Clearly, Mother Havva and the government do not refer to the same group as the ‘people’. This contested use of ‘people’ makes us question which people this project serves and which people will lose by it. Mother Havva, in justifying her resistance to the project, protests that the state acts against their - people’s - rule and will. Seeing ‘the people’ as the founding component of the state, she also asks who the state is. Locals like Mother Havva identify themselves with and for their environment and lands, and identify the project as a threat to their livelihoods. Conversely, officials like the Mayor of Çamlıhemşin refer to some other beneficiaries who gain from tourism, defining them also as ‘the people’. How can this problem be resolved? Or is there a technical or economic solution to it? Definitely not. Because Mother Havva and those who will benefit from tourism represent different forms of engagement with the land and nature in the region; they also look for different conditions of survival within contemporary market societies.

…Mother Havva and the government do not refer to the same group as the ‘people’.

This contested use of ‘people’ by locals and officials enables us also to recognize the different democracy projects endorsed by the two sides. The locals promote and indeed practice participatory democracy in their struggle against the Green Road Project. They struggle to express their representation and commitment in the ongoing projections on their living space and reject leaving control of the project to political authorities. Conversely, the Turkish government identifies its uncontested executive actions as democracy. Since its rise to power in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been trying to legitimize itself as the representative of the ‘will of the people’.

A project like the Green Road is justified using a discourse of serving the people, and providing local and national development through infrastructural modernization, which could result in a tourism boom and attract foreign investment. Following Scoones et al, who state that populism ‘justifies interventions in the name of taking back control in favour of people’[7], this can be clearly defined as a populist strategy. As this controversy over the Green Road Project shows, however, populism is not compatible with participatory democracy. The ‘people’ populism demands is a non-challenging and consenting one, taking an active stand only during elections.

The populist definition of the ‘people’ also refers to a collectivity, homogenous in their will and expectations of support from the government. Such a construction of the people is obviously in sharp contrast with the mobilized, resisting, demanding, and criticizing local masses represented by Mother Havva. As Margaret Canovan reminds us, the relationship between representative democracy and populism becomes problematic during such moments of inclusive politics in policy making,[8] as it is not clear which people should be included in the process. Participatory action is off the agenda and excludes opposing locals from the policy-making process. As we see in the Green Road Project, when the locals mobilized against it, they were usually marginalized by being identifying as ‘pasture occupiers’ who settled in the area without legal permission and were ‘against local development’, and criminalized via threat of detention and prosecution.

The Green Road Project clearly illustrates the necessity of participatory democracy in environmental politics in Turkey in order to avoid the threatening of rural people’s livelihoods. 

Melek Mutioglu Ozkesen

Melek Mutioglu Ozkesen - visiting PhD researcher at ISS, from Ankara University, Turkey


Cover photo: 'Who is the state? State becomes the state thanks to us! I am the people.' Mother Havva. Taken from a video by Demiroren News Agency




  1. DOKAP (2014). Doğu Karadeniz Projesi (DOKAP) Eylem Planı 2014-2018. T.C. Kalkınma Bakanlığı.
  2. Hürriyet. (2018). Yeşil Yol’un yüzde 60’ı tamamlandı.
  3. Helsinki Citizens Assembly (2014). Bölgesel İdare ve Yerel Demokrasi Projesi Rize İstişare Toplantısı Notları: Turizm Odaklı Kalkınma ve Yeşil Yol Projesi. Rize.
  4. BirGün. (2015) Havva ananın isyanı: Kimdir devlet? Devlet bizim sayemizde devlettir.
  5. Ocak, S. (2013) Yeşil Yol yeni bir imar dalgası mı?, Radikal Newspaper
  6. DEKAP. (2015) Doğanın ve Yaşam Alanlarının Yağmalanmasına Dur Diyoruz! World Environment Day News Release
  7. Scoones, I. et al. (2018) Emancipatory rural politics: confronting authoritarian populism, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 45:1, 1-20
  8. Canovan, M. (2002). Taking Politics to the People: Populism as the Ideology of Democracy. Y. Meny, & Y. Surel (ed.), Democracies and the Populist Challenge. New York: Palgrave.


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