Peasantry and Rural Social Movements in Twenty-First Century Turkey

This is part of our special feature on Rurality in Europe.


Old and new debates on rural Turkey

Referring to the death of peasantry in the twentieth century as the “most dramatic and far-reaching social change of the second half of this century, and the one which cuts us off for ever from the world of the past,” Eric Hobsbawm (1994, 289) declared Turkey the last “peasant stronghold” (291). Turkey, during the Ottoman Empire (1301-1922), was a society of “tax-paying peasants and a tax-collecting elite” (Faroqhi 2006, 336). Land was practically all property of the Ottoman state―a core policy relying on tax collection intended to phase out the formation of feudal lords who could threaten the empire’s centralized rule. After 1923, the newly born Republic of Turkey envisioned a land reform project with concerns for landless and poor peasants’ potential “destructive social revolutions” (Karaömerlioğlu 2000, 124), as well as for a “desire to strengthen Republican nationalist ideology in the countryside as a basis of regime support” (115). For the new single-party regime, with its Republican People’s Party (RPP), the rebuilding of the agricultural sector and its agricultural surplus were paramount to feed swift industrialization. With the Great Depression, world agricultural prices fell drastically, leading an already weak Turkish economy into a severe crisis. Securing the continuous support of the peasantry was so central that the state intervened in agricultural price stabilization and granted public subsidies. Besides economic measures, political actions further guaranteed the support of the peasantry. For example, in the late 1930s, Village Institutes, an extended education program in rural areas, were created, quickly becoming one of the most emblematic reforms of the time (Karaömerlioğlu 1998). After World War II, the world economic conjecture saw the newly established US hegemony pressuring for capitalistic development in peripheral countries, such as Turkey (Keyder 1981). And Russel Dorr, head of the Marshall Plan Turkey Mission, defined agriculture as the country’s role (Yıldırmaz 2017, 56).

The foundational research on changes taking place in Turkish villages (Stirling 1964, 1993) concerns the “decade of transition (1945-1955)” from a society of peasant holdings with no individual property rights under former sultanic law, to petty commodity producers (Keyder 1983) with recognized land ownership under the 1945 Law for Providing Land to the Farmer (Keyder 1993,178). Along with the new law, a new academic interest emerged for urban areas―focused in particular on the rapid urban population growth resulting from rural-to-urban migration and the proliferation of shantytowns (in Turkish, gecekondu literally meaning built overnight) where, by 1960, nearly half of the inhabitants of the largest cities lived (Tekeli 2011). The 1945 land reform triggered a debate that was so politically controversial that, for the first time in the single-party regime, fierce parliamentary opposition arose in the Assembly. Prominent deputy ministers, some of them important capitalist landowners, opposed the law―among them was Adnan Menderes, who would become Prime Minister during the 1950s.

The 1945 land reform was also seen as a political maneuver by President Ismet Inönü (the second president of the Republic after its founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk) to make the public aware of the support for big landownership on the part of land reform opposers in the Assembly (Karaömerlioğlu 2000). President Inönü’s concerns proved right. In 1946, the Turkish Republic transitioned to a multi-party democracy and the Democrat Party (DP)― also established in 1946―won the elections four years later based on its populist approach to the peasantry’s growing discontent. Although some well-known founders of DP were large landowners, the distribution of state-owned lands to small-holding and landless peasants was not halted since the land distribution ended up benefitting middle and large landowners. The DP policies in the agricultural sector benefitted from US government funds accelerating “commercialization, cash crop production, mechanization and credit usage” (193), which ended up increasing class polarization in villages dominated by large land ownership. Such polarization between large landowners and sharecroppers was particularly visible in the agro-industrial capitalist cotton production of Adana province, south-eastern Anatolia. Particularly, in the large cotton farms of the Çukurova Plain (pronounced Chukurova), the majority of small-scale farming peasants were engaging in wage work for the bulk of their household income, revealing a high degree of proletarianization. Illustrating that level of proletarianization, Gürel (2019) calls for attention to the literary works of Yaşar Kemal for the analysis of agrarian change in Turkey:

It is usual for village people in these parts to labor one or two months in the Chukurova cotton fields. For the inhabitants of the Long Plateau, the Chukurova is the principal source of income, much more important than their own crops or their own sheep or goats (Kemal 1996, 21).

The class polarization of the mid-1950s and 1960s saw massive rural-to-urban migrations. The end of the 1960s was marked by an evident declining trend in the peasantry, resulting in both depopulation in rural areas and increasing population concentration in urban areas. According to calculations at the time, at the natural rate of growth, Istanbul’s population would have been roughly 2.5 million in 1990, but it actually reached 7.5 million due to rural migration (Tekeli 2011).

In the 1980s, agriculture was further integrated into the global economy when “export-oriented industrialization and export orientation of agriculture” (Aydın 2005, 25) were adopted as the main principles in state policies. It meant the start of a new agrarian debate, particularly on the effects of the Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs) initiated under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the World Bank (Aydın 2009). The SAPs meant, in general, a decline in subsidies and rising prices of agricultural inputs, leading to a transformation of modes of production, commodification of agriculture, and uncertainty, reflected in the changes that occurred in production levels and types of crops cultivated. As small farmers attempted to adapt to those rapid changing conditions, they were led into a pitfall: “ the first strategy for agricultural producers is to reduce level of production or quit agricultural production all together, because the more they produce the more they fall into a debt trap” (Döner 2012, 74). That time was also marked by continuous cycles of political and economic unrest in Turkey. Coups d’états in 1971 and 1980, followed by different periods of economic crisis in 1994 and 1999-2001, ultimately led to an intervention by the IMF. The resulting public contestation against traditional parties paved the way for the victorious emergence of Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice and Development Party), or AKP, in the 2002 elections, establishing its firm grip on power until today.

The political economy of the AKP can be summarized through two main concepts of different natures. Economically speaking, neoliberal developmentalism unfolded. This brought a growth at all costs strategy (emphasis on at all costs), where public resources were mobilized for clientelist relations, namely for the government’s mega-projects in urban and rural areas. Politically speaking, authoritarian populism praised macro-economic growth figures (especially during the first decade of AKP) and used nationalistic rhetoric to polarize civil society through civil liberties violation and repression of social dissent, particularly after the 2013 Gezi Park Protests (Adaman, Arsel, and Akbulut 2019; Esen and Gumuscu 2020). Neoliberal developmentalism has unfolded systematic state-sponsored energy projects (e.g. tenders for hydroelectric plants) in rural areas, privatizations of state-owned companies in the agricultural sector, and bureaucratic control over cooperatives, which has allowed for the extractivist rent-seeking system that feeds patronage and clientelist networks (Yilmaz and Bashirov 2018). Prospective job creation from the construction of these energy projects, as well as social benefits for the rural poor, has created bargaining chips for electoral support in rural areas (Gürel, Küçük, and Taş 2019). Such populist bargaining capacity is allied to authoritarianism, which prevents or denies farmers’ organized mobilization. In Turkey, the term of “gambling” is frequently used to describe small farmers’ uncertainty when facing rapidly changing market conditions (Keyder and Yenal 2011). For example, by February 2019, Turkey had faced drastic increases in the price of basic agricultural products due to rising input prices (also caused by a drop in local currency exchange rate), rising inflation, and evident decrease in agricultural land cultivation and resulting output. The Turkish President quickly labeled intermediaries as opportunists, and, on the verge of municipal elections, the government had large tents built in main cities―called halk sebze ve meyve (public vegetables and fruits)―promising to sell agro-food products at lower prices there. The main processes that shape Turkish villages today “are strongly related to changing agricultural conditions and new movements of people” (Öztürk, Hilton and Jongerden 2014, 370). Those two processes could be some of the few only historical certainties in rural Turkey. Under the neoliberal agrarian political economy of the last two decades, agricultural changes in rural Turkey are (still) a question of rural poverty, more than anything else. Therefore, studying the Turkish peasantry as the rural poor is still a valid approach in the present.

After almost two decades of AKP rule, the country faces continuous declines in village populations, cultivated areas, and agricultural employment. From 2000 to 2011 the villager population lost close to 6.5 million people (Döner 2012, 71). After April 2014, the Law No. 6360 changed the administrative status of 30 provinces (out of 81) that have metropolitan cities as capitals. Limits that were formerly provincial limits became metropolitan limits, which had the effect of changing the status of former villages (köy), making them into city “neighborhoods” instead (mahalle) (Demirkaya and Koç 2017). This has generated a debate on the rural-urban continuum and on the typology of rural spaces. The government justified the law by saying that it resulted in making budgetary and infrastructure decisions more efficient, while the opposition saw it as an attempt to reduce local political autonomy and further centralize power. Thus, it has become difficult to accurately determine rural population data. Nevertheless, with the new status, village population stood at 5,190,797 in 2014 (TBB). But, between 1999 and 2019, cultivated land areas went down by 3 million hectares and more than 3.5 million people left agricultural production (TurkStat 2010; TurkStat 2020). A recent report, focusing on the pandemic consequences on labor market, records a further loss of 102,000 registered farmers (TEPAV 2020,17).


Peasantry and rural social movements: the case of Çiftçi-Sen

A loose definition of the peasantry as small-holding farmers, relying on family labor to work the land for subsistence, does not always grasp the different geographies of political arrangements. European feudalism saw a different kind of peasantry from that of latifundism established by the colonial enslavers of Latin America and that resulted in its landless peasantry. Clarifying what is meant by the peasantry in Turkey is necessary. This can be done by looking at a common denominator in the so-called “agrarian question”: From the time of global colonial extractivism to the establishment of global capitalism (Wolf 1982), how has the peasantry always been dispossessed? Dispossession has been formulated as a “corporate food regime” (McMichael 2006) framing the agrarian question as:

A relentless assault on small farming by a new balance of forces, including financial relations incorporating agriculture into global industrial-retailing circuits, intellectual property rights protocols displacing peasant knowledges through seed monopolies, and globally-managed circuits of food displacing small farmers (McMichael 2006, 407).

This newly framed agrarian question is not just about the displacement of people and rural poverty. It is also about food security and loss of biodiversity, which have been met by the transnational peasant movement La Via Campesina. This movement is known for its stance on food sovereignty in terms of resistance that translates to farmers’ rights and sustainability of agroecology and precisely defines the “new peasantries” (van der Ploeg 2009), although rural poverty characterizing traditional peasantry remains central. As it follows, the death of the peasantry is denied by its revived resistance to force into retreat a colonial–postcolonial continuity of dispossession (Araghi 2012), while it constitutes a global struggle for food rights against agri-business (Borras, Edelman, and Kay 2008). But it also constitutes a struggle for land and livelihood, which have always represented a claim for autonomy by the traditional peasantry (van der Ploeg 2009). In other words, the (new) peasantry’s existence is based on its resistance to agrarian injustice. It is unavoidable to relate rural social movements with the peasantry’s current debates since they are, in the twenty-first century, at the very core of the agrarian question.

My doctoral research focuses in part on how to position the Turkish peasantry in this new agrarian question, by interrogating how resistance is organized and how it constitutes the political agency and representation of the peasantry. The question is linked to a hypothesis that considers historical restrictions on the formation of a peasant organization’s culture, from the centralized Ottoman administration, the legal-bureaucratic machinery of the early Republic, and more recently from the coercion of the current regime’s authoritarianism. Although the risk of landlessness is increasingly due to the depopulation of the countryside and land accumulation by large enterprises, the hypothesis also considers that landlessness was never predominant in rural Turkey, as it is in Brazil where it constitutes the main focal struggle of MST – Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (Landless Worker’s Movement). Altogether, there are issues restraining class consciousness formation among Turkish peasants.

The Çiftçiler Sendikası (Farmers’ Union, or Peasants’ Union) or Çiftçi-Sen is a broad peasant organization, whose representation spans over different agro-food producers and sectors that are widely extended across the country. Despite its official name implying the Union’s traditional work, it rather resembles a movement mobilizing peasant struggle for its connection to other civil society platforms and La Via Campesina. Çifti-Sen was established two years after AKP’s rise to power, so that studying it allows to capture the effects of neoliberal policies on agriculture. The challenges that Çifti-Sen has been facing are illustrative of an unorganized resistance culture and of how the current agrarian political economy places obstacles to any effort by organizations to organize. As such, we can wonder why the “collective action aspect of class definition is little applicable in rural Turkey today” (Öztürk 2012, 125). It was precisely the agrarian political economy on the verge of the twenty-first century, with AKP, or better said, the deepening of the neoliberal agrarian political economy starting in the 1980s, that set up the first steps of the organization.

From Ottoman times onwards, the farmers have had no organization. We needed a bottom-up strategy for farmers. Our initial aim was this. [Before Çiftçi-Sen] The organizations were still following the policies of fifty years ago and they were not prepared to resist because state policies were in favor of the farmer.

With [this government’s] neoliberal policies and with farmers suddenly facing companies without the state as an intermediary, they ended up having more debts, losing young labor force and suffering the effects of the privatization of state-owned factories. We had to give a response to this. (Çiftçi-Sen’s Secretary of Organization, July 30, 2020)

After the 2000s, a set of laws (2001 Tobacco Law, 2001 Sugar Law, and the 2006 Seeds Law) considered to be “the final nails in the coffin” (Aydin 2010, 152) forcefully led farmers into entering contract-farming with agri-business firms and their monoculture production. The case of sugar (sugar beet is traditionally an important crop in Turkey), reveals two-folded consequences on farmers’ impoverishment. First, the Sugar Law stipulated that 27 publicly-owned sugar factories had to be privatized, setting uncertainty among the sugar beet farmers who depended on factories to absorb their production. Secondly, the law-imposed reduction in production quotas on Turkey’s sugar, de-regulated the internal market, making the state’s influence on sugar prices practically nonexistent and opening the way for starch-based sugar (Aydın 2010). Over the last years, more factories owned by the public Turkish Sugar Refineries Corporation (Türkşeker) have been privatized, while in 2018, three factories were up for auction, and fourteen more were on the list for privatization (Hürriyet Daily News 2018). The majority of starch-based sugar companies in Turkey are foreign, such as the US giant Cargill, which has had a leading influence in the sector since 1986, in collaboration with another giant, Monsanto, since 1998, for biotech seeds. The company has also benefited from its strong connections with the Turkish government to effectively increase quotas for artificial sweeteners in sugar production (Hürriyet Daily News 2018).

Against state policies that support big companies, we were able to stand by most producers in tea, tobacco, grains sectors, but not in all sectors. For this reason, and to catch the contemporary debates on food sovereignty movements and local production models, we decided to form the Union of Farmers in February 2020. (Çiftçi-Sen’s Secretary of Organization, July 30, 2020)

At the beginning of this year, on February 21, the organization decided on a major restructuring, precisely to extend its work to all farmers in all sectors of agriculture. When it was formed in 2004, Çiftçi-Sen was short for Çitçi Sendikaları Konfederasyonu, a confederation of different sectoral unions (originally grapes, then tobacco, hazelnut, grains, tea, and finally olive oil). Since last February “by unanimous vote, all the crop-based unions will be reorganized into one union, and farmers will have crop-based platforms within this union” (Çiftçiler Sendikası 2020). This restructuring also strengthened the ideological stand to be more in line with the global movement for food sovereignty and for further integration with local platforms and initiatives to bring agroecology and organic farming to villages.

Since it was always for collecting votes that villagers saw some outsiders coming in different clothing and briefcases to the village coffeehouse, they are used to turning their heads and not listening, but back then they were making enough to support their children and afford their lives in the village. In those times, no one had to sell their lands.

Now the farmers need support, but they still do not think in the long term and they are worried about the short time gains. When someone comes and speaks about agroecology or organic farming and they don’t see a quick return, they even close up further and, unfortunately, even sell their lands. Founder of Kirazlı Ekolojik Yaşam Derneği, member of Çiftçi-Sen, July 31st, 2020)

The Kirazlı Eco-life Association is a 2005 project funded by the UNDP’s Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme (GEF/SGP) in Kirazlı (a neighborhood since the 2014 law) in the Aegean province of Aydın. The project took four years, started with ten farmers, and reached fifty―a third of the village. It implemented the use of local seeds, solar energy, and certified organic agriculture. As a member of Çiftçi-Sen, the initiative exemplifies the challenges posed by grassroot village by village mobilization into organized action. The project faced problems to keep its farmers into organic farming after quick returns were not reached. Continuity is a significant challenge in several ways.

In different geographies of the country, protests may arise when something threatens immediate livelihood, but they do not evolve into organized continuous resistance.

In the Black Sea region, people defend their livelihood against mining projects. If we go to eastern parts, Rize, Artvin, people protest against hydroelectric power plants because they threaten their immediate livelihood, but they do not organize to defend the tea sector.  

Under the agrarian political economy of AKP, priority is given to energy projects in rural areas. It’s “accumulation by dispossession.” So we have been facing this situation and other main issues, prices, the indebtedness problem, the middleman problem, and the labor problem. Peasants cannot develop a proper organization against these issues. (Rural researcher, volunteer at Çiftçi-Sen, September 18, 2020)

For small farmers, although rural poor, land was at the end of the day güvence (an assurance), as the volunteer told me. Currently, güvence still applies, but “it does not mean that the farmer will not be indebted. The debt will be more and more each year and the farmer will be forced to leave [the village] to pay the debt.” In sum, collective action is a historical issue for the peasantry. So far, the confederation turned into a single Farmer’s Union – the first and only – but faces the challenge of changing that history by setting in motion continuous and organized resistance, which is an even greater challenge amid Turkish peasants’ generalized weak class consciousness and neoliberal authoritarianism.

If people here in the village said that “we will only produce for ourselves this year” life would stop [for consumers in urban areas], but unfortunately they think that if they stop selling, their life would also stop. Villagers are not aware of the power they have. At Çiftçi-Sen, we have to work on this problem and mobilize them. (Founder of Kirazlı Ekolojik Yaşam Derneği, member of Çiftçi-Sen, July 31st, 2020)


José Duarte Ribeiro is a rural sociologist living in Ankara, Turkey. He is a Ph.D. candidate at the Sociology department of Middle East Technical University and a Lecturer in Portuguese Studies at the Faculty of Languages, History, and Geography of Ankara University. His current doctoral research is a historical-comparative analysis of the peasantry and rural social movements in Turkey and Brazil.




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Photo: Two villagers are bringing the herd back from grazing at the end of the day. A rural area in western Anatolian region of Turkey near Manisa province | Shutterstock
Published on November 10, 2020.


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