The dinner conversation turned -- as statistically it must do at least once in a person’s life -- to the subject of Shigeru Kayano. He was, I discovered, a champion of the Ainu people -- now few in number -- who inhabit parts of the northern islands of Japan. He appears to have been one of those rare biopic heroes whose sense of justice propelled him from a modest life into center stage. He was a self-taught ethnographer of his own people who was elected to the Japanese Diet. There he confounded his fellow members of Parliament by insisting on asking parliamentary questions in his mother tongue. His efforts resulted in the repeal of an 1899 law that declared the Ainu to be “a former aboriginal people” in need of civilization (read: assimilation) and even banned them from a customary life of hunting and fishing. It was not until 2008, two years after Kayano’s death, that the Ainu were declared an indigenous people.
One of Kayano’s pyrrhic victories was his campaign against the forced appropriation of sacred land for the Nibutani Dam. Though the dam was built, the court ruled for the first time in 1997 that the Ainu had cultural rights that needed to be respected. The dam’s history is a depressing tale. It was originally commissioned to provide water for a new industrial park some 100 kilometers away, but even when that project was cancelled, the dam went ahead. A seijika damu -- “a politician’s dam” -- was how one engineer described it in an account by the Japan scholar, Millie Creighton. It was part of the “iron triangle” which worked to the benefit of politicians, bureaucrats and businesses but which did relatively little to help the local economy, she writes. On top of it all, the dam actually failed in 2003 when a typhoon caused it to silt up entirely.
It won’t come as a great shock that my sudden interest in an island people many miles from my İstanbul desk comes from concerns closer to home. There are some 8-12 million Kurds in Turkey, (depending on one’s definition) but only (at the very most) 200,000 Ainu remain. So the issue of whether Turkey should plough ahead and build the Ilisu Dam on the Tigris River is a problem of a different order. The project was first investigated in 1954, had a ground-breaking ceremony in 2006 but is a long way from completion. It faces a determined coalition opposition. This has come from an environmental lobby concerned that the flooding will submerge most of the medieval settlement of Hasankeyf and affect valuable ecosystems along the Tigris. There is also a political lobby which believes the project is less about developing the Southeast but transferring hydroelectricity resources westwards to the rest of Turkey, leaving in its wake damage to a landscape and an uprooted population. Then there is a now less powerful geo-political lobby which believes that Turkish control over the course of the Tigris will eventually bring it into conflict with its southern neighbors.
The counter argument is that Turkey needs energy, that hydropower is cleaner than the alternatives, that Ilisu is the largest of many projects on the Tigris that will create opportunity and jobs. The Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP) administration that oversees the dam, says it has taken on board the need to mitigate the impact of the project. This has not been the view, however, of the export credit guarantee agencies from Germany, Switzerland and Austria. who came up with a list of 150 deficiencies and after a moratorium last year finally pulled out altogether.
The Turkish government is still determined to build and is appealing to domestic Turkish banks to step into the breach. The sensible thing would be to pause to take stock. It does not need to look as far as Nibutani in Japan to realize that it needs to do the cost-benefit analysis once again. And it should do so in the context of its much trumpeted democratic initiative to win the hearts and minds of the Kurdish Southeast. It may well be that local people are all in favor of Ilisu and the dam after that and the dam after that and after that. But their voice needs to be heard. The debate needs to be out in the open. Otherwise Ilisu will be, as they say in Japanese, just another politician’s dam.