Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Faisal Husain reviews How to Make a Wetland

Caterina Scaramelli. How to Make a Wetland: Water and Moral Ecology in Turkey. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2021. 240 pp.

1 September 2021

Review by Faisal Husain

Despite its general aridity, the Middle East has harbored pockets of land saturated with water. A few of those wetlands survive to this day; the remainder have been lost in deep time, drying up inland or drowning along seacoasts. Since the 1960s, archaeologists, historians, and ethnographers have assembled a growing body of evidence showing the prominence of relic and current wetlands in the cultures of different Middle Eastern societies. Caterina Scaramelli makes an original and noteworthy contribution to this literature. Though an anthropological study of wetlands in modern Turkey, her book will appeal to readers interested in contemporary environmental politics in the Middle East and wetland conservation around the world.

The book studies how wetlands, after centuries of gross misunderstanding and abuse, have become objects of conservation and regulation in Turkey since the 1990s. In the process, the maligned swamp (bataklık) of the past has assumed the positive title wetland (sulak alan). Chapter 1 traces the origins of this paradigm shift from the early twentieth century and singles out the role of amateur and professional ornithologists in pushing the Turkish state to salvage its wetlands, home to hundreds of bird species, from relentless destruction. By 1994, Turkey finally acceded to the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, which provides a framework for wetland conservation.

The remainder of the book assesses the consequences of wetland conservation in two fine-grained case studies of the Gediz River Delta on the Aegean Sea coast (see chapters 2 and 3) and the Kızılırmak River Delta on the Black Sea coast (see chapters 4 and 5). The chapters are based on ethnographic fieldwork the author conducted between 2012 and 2018. On the ground in both river deltas, the author meticulously shows how the confluence of international and national commitment to conservation ensnared wetlands in a complex contest between people from all walks of life. The contest revolved around who has a more legitimate claim to the wetlands: The scientist studying fish or the fisherman making ends meet? The bureaucrat building a highway bridge or the environmentalist protecting flamingoes? And how about the grazing ground of buffalo farmers and the beachside houses of wealthy vacationers? Should they be cordoned off and demolished to protect wetlands from ecological disturbance?

The book’s main argument is that the environmental infrastructure of wetlands, built over time to both exploit and conserve them, has become an arena for all stakeholders to craft their own “moral ecology,” their own vision of what constitutes a just and moral arrangement by which people, other animals, and plants can share the wetlands’ bounty. The author is not interested in picking sides or deciding whose moral ecology is more legitimate. Instead, her task as an ethnographer, she believes, is to convey the myriad competing visions of moral ecology and the basis behind them. This is a refreshing approach to modern Turkish politics, often dramatized by the commentariat into a facile battle between secularism and Islamism. “Rather than serve as a simple reflection of the social order,” Scaramelli writes, “the wetland itself muddles, sediments, and transforms the political” (p. 14).

The concepts infrastructure and moral ecology pervade the book and equip the author with useful tools for ethnographic analysis. At the same time, they may muddy the waters for nonspecialized readers unprepared to digest too much theory and jargon. On many occasions, environmental justice could have easily supplanted moral ecology to simplify the analysis. While rich, the book’s conceptual landscape conspicuously excludes any mention of the Anthropocene.

Even though it focuses on the Gediz and Kızılırmak deltas, the book follows transnational movements that had left their imprint on wetland management in Turkey. The book features German ornithologist Curt Kosswig and British waterfowl hunter George Atkinson-Willes, as well as the French research institution Tour du Valat and the Swiss-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature. By tracking their careers and activities, the author deftly weaves the story of Turkey’s wetlands into the broader world around them.

Above all, this book makes an irrefutable case why ethnographers of Turkey can no longer treat the natural environment as a mere backdrop to human culture. Horses, flamingoes, buffaloes, egrets, and swamphens populate its pages as stakeholders in wetland management plans. Whether knee-deep in mud, on a dinghy boat, or in a university office, Scaramelli shows how environmental conservation in modern Turkey has evolved in dialogue with those colorful creatures and the boggy ground under their feet.