Sedimented Encounters: Dams, Conservation, and Politics in Turkey

Thesis Type:

PhD dissertation


This dissertation is an ethnography of socio-natural encounters that shape, and are shaped by, the building of dam infrastructures within the Çoruh River Watershed of Turkey. Known as one of the fastest-running rivers in the world, the Çoruh River has been converted into a hydropower “resource” over the last two decades, through the construction of fifteen large hydroelectric dams. In contrast to the imagery of dam reservoirs as giant infrastructures that simply conquer and erase the natural landscape, this dissertation traces the formulization of soil sedimentation in the reservoirs as a problem to be solved by watershed forestry, which has refashioned forests as protective infrastructures of “water resources” and hydraulic infrastructures. This refashioning, I show, occurs through sedimented histories of nation-state building, developmentalism, and authoritarian populism taking shape in material infrastructures and environments. My ethnographic research among the implementers of the Çoruh River Watershed Rehabilitation Project to prevent sedimentation in dams reveals the encounters between the foresters’ and upland villagers’ conceptualizations of abandoned mountainous farmlands as landscapes of natural recovery versus desolation. I then shift my focus to the valley floor and examine the making of the Yusufeli Dam reservoir as a process narrated and experienced by town inhabitants through the trope of (self-)sacrifice for the greater national interest. In response, local state officials intend to compensate for these sacrificed zones by relocating agricultural soil and local fruit trees. These practices of what I call salvage agriculture render the sedimented and laborious histories of working the land a resource to be tapped into for the reconstruction of a new town. Drawing on eighteen months of ethnographic research along the Çoruh Valley and its mountains, as well as five months of archival research in ministries and other institutions, Sedimented Encounters explores dam construction as a generative process that enacts and intertwines the making of “natural resources,” the nation-state and its developmental and conservationist endeavors, and the politics of negotiation and sacrifice. Along this process, I argue, socio-natural landscapes are produced simultaneously as places of natural recovery, (self)-sacrifice, and salvage.

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