They’re All Dammed

The British government appears ready to fund another ethnic cleansing scheme in Turkey

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 26th February 2002

Events in isolation do not establish that a government is corrupt. Tony Blair’s support for Lakshmi Mittal, the Labour donor hoping to buy Romania’s steel industry, looks suspicious, but could, perhaps, be the result of a misjudgement. To suggest that a government is corrupt, you must first detect a pattern of behaviour.

Three months ago, human rights and environmental campaigners won a famous victory. The Turkish government, with the help of the British company Balfour Beatty, had been planning to drown the ancient city of Hasankeyf, in Anatolia. The Ilisu dam was presented to the public as an electricity scheme, but for Turkey there were certain collateral benefits. Hasankeyf is the cultural capital of the Kurds, whom the authorities have been seeking to crush and assimilate. By submerging it, the government would displace some 78,000 Kurds from their homes. And by damming the Tigris it could hold its troublesome neighbours Syria and Iraq — whose survival depends on the river’s water — to ransom.

Scandalously, the British government planned to underwrite this project. The export credits guarantee department (ECGD), which is a division of the department of trade and industry, would provide £140 million of insurance for Balfour Beatty. If Turkey had failed to pay Balfour Beatty on time, the department would have given the company the money it was owed, then added the deficit to Turkey’s national debt. As companies will not proceed with projects like this without guarantees from their governments, the ECGD’s backing was critical to the construction of the Ilisu dam.

So the Labour government, which has made so much of its commitment to international human rights, peace-keeping and environmental protection, was preparing to support a project which would assist Turkey’s ethnic cleansing programme, destroy one of the most archaeologically important cities on earth, and threaten armed conflict between Turkey and its southern neighbours. The department of trade and industry, run at the time by Stephen Byers, hid key documents from the public, offered evasive answers to parliament and announced that it intended to approve the scheme on the day that Neil Hamilton lost his libel case; which was correctly judged by officials to be a good time to bury bad news.

Activists from the Ilisu Dam campaign, the Kurdish Human Rights Project and Friends of the Earth spent three years fighting both the ECGD and Balfour Beatty. The comedian Mark Thomas toured Britain with a stand-up show devoted to the campaign against the dam. At Balfour Beatty’s annual general meeting, Friends of the Earth persuaded investors holding 41% of the companies’ shares not to vote against its demand that the firm adopt ethical guidelines for dam building. In November last year, Balfour Beatty buckled. But the government learnt nothing from this fiasco. It is now preparing to start again, with another dam, another company and another ethnic cleansing operation.

The Coruh River runs from the Mescit Mountains, through north-eastern Turkey, into Georgia and down to the Black Sea at Batumi. The ethnic Georgians who inhabit its valley live among thousands of mediaevel buildings and archaeological remains. The river’s catchment is a key transit point for migrating birds of prey, and the habitat of bears, wolves, lynx, ibex and some 160 endemic plants.

The Turkish government intends to flood most of the valley with a series of dams, the biggest of which is the 540 megawatt barrage downstream of the town of Yusufeli. Local officials estimate that it will drown the homes of some 15,000 people, and displace a further 15,000, as their roads and fields are submerged.

At Hasankeyf, the Turkish government made the mistake of leaving the city standing, and therefore worth defending. It will not repeat this error. It intends to bulldoze Yusufeli in July, whether or not the dam is ready to be built, in the hope that its people and their supporters will give up once there is nothing to be saved but rubble. The people of Yusufeli and the surrounding villages will simply be dumped elsewhere. Were they to be provided with adequate homes and new roads, one Turkish newspaper estimates, the costs of resettlement would be greater than the value of the electricity the dam will produce. In Yusufeli, just as in Hasankeyf, no one dares to speak out, as the secret police are everywhere. The barrage will affect the supply of water to Georgia, and (as it prevents the river’s sediments from reaching the sea) cause serious erosion on the Black Sea coast.

The consortium hoping to build the Yusufeli dam is led by the French company Spie Batignolle, 41% of which is owned by the British firm Amec. Amec, like Balfour Beatty, is one of the companies pioneering the British government’s private finance iniative. The ECGD is considering whether or not to underwrite its contribution to the Yusufeli project, with £68 million of guarantees. The people who fought the Ilisu scheme are now contesting Amec’s dam. They have been met with precisely the same obstruction and obfuscation as they confronted before.

When its complicity in ethnic cleansing was exposed, the ECGD was forced to publish a set of “business principles”. These are now supposed to govern the decisions it makes. Unfortunately they remain “discretionary”, which means, in practice, that they are never applied. Of the first 200 applications the ECGD has screened, not one has been rejected.

For the past two months, campaigners have been writing to Amec and to ministers at the department of trade and industry, in the hope of obtaining the key documents — the environmental impact report and the resettlement plan — which the ECGD claims will be used to decide whether or not it will back this scheme. Under the environmental information rules, citizens of the United Kingdom have a legal right to see these papers. The government has refused, on the grounds that they belong to Amec. Amec has responded that the studies cannot be seen as “none of them are complete”. But 15 months ago, it told the trade and industry select committee that it had provided the ECGD “with extensive information on the project including a full environmental study.” The campaigners are hardly reassured by the fact that the new chair of the ECGD’s advisory council is Liz Airey, who also happens to be a director of Amec.

Now the British government appears to be ready, once again, to support the original ethnic cleansing scheme. Last month David Allgood, a senior official at the ECGD, told the press that the department would “consider any new application for the Ilisu project on its merits”.

There is a pattern here, which suggests that the government is not making mistakes, but conspiring against the principles by which it claims to work. This is not the work of rogue officials, but reflective of systemic corruption. In December, the foreign office minister Peter Hain boasted to the Confederation of British Industry that “governments and businesses working together can be unstoppable.” It is up to us to prove him wrong.