On December 2, the academic delegation to Rojava visited the economic center in Dêrîk. There we heard a presentation on Rojava’s economy from Abdurrahman Hemo, the adviser for economic development for Cizîre canton. Hemo explained what he called Rojava’s three parallel economies: the community economy, the war economy, and the open economy.
I. Community Economy
Hemo: Our economic project is the same as our political project. We call it “community economy,” and all parts of society participate. It’s cooperative. We have started to build cooperatives in all different sectors: we have trade cooperatives, company cooperatives, construction cooperatives. The organizational model for our economy is the cooperative. Our aim is to be self-sufficient. If there is just bread, then we will all have a share. This is the main principle of cooperatives.
For two years now, we have tried to develop this economy. Before [the revolution] the culture was different, so now we have academies to promote the cooperative mentality. We’ve organized seminars and discussions, so that the community can be convinced this kind of system is better. Currently participation is at a good level.
The main economic activity here is agriculture, and so the majority of cooperatives are concentrated in agriculture. That is our community economy. The other cantons function in the same way.
Let me explain that in all three cantons we are surrounded—we are embargoed. Rojava is rich in natural resources and agriculture, but we receive no infrastructure investment. Internationally there’s no investment here. Internationally Rojava isn’t recognized—it doesn’t exist. If we want to develop in Rojava, we have to build everything ourselves.
So in the revolutionary process we created companies to develop agriculture economy, and to supply seeds to the peasants so they can continue to cultivate their lands. And we supply them with diesel for the agricultural machinery.
And we created companies to refine oil, produce diesel and other products. To produce diesel is actually less expensive than water. Water costs 25 cents a half-liter, while a liter of diesel costs 25 cents. Water is twice as expensive as oil. In Cizîre canton we have thousands of oil fields. But at the moment only 200 of them are active, because where would we send the oil? We are embargoed—we can’t trade with the outside world. So we just exploit the oil for our own use here in Cizîre.
Some oil fields are under the control of ISIS—one emir owns five or six oil fields. ISIS can sell their oil to Turkey–they have contacts with Turkish side and trade with Turkey. We have thousands of oil fields, but we can’t exploit them even for the use of the rest of Syria. We exploit oil only for our own use, for our own income.
We have also created companies to develop infrastructure and to build roads, with asphalt. All these are local companies—we get no assistance from outside.
Q: Who decides how much to produce, of what, and how to distribute surplus?
Hemo: The situation is complex. The democratic self-government, the committees for agriculture and finance, and the companies are all involved.
Q: Who owns the companies?
Hemo: Some of companies are private—the canton self-government has no control over them. Some of them made agreements with the self-government so they can cooperate. For instance, an oil company can be privately owned, but it has an agreement with the self-government. We own the oil, they give us diesel. The energy committee decides how pure the product has to be and how to price it. It’s similar for agriculture—there are private companies that have agreements with the self-government.
Q: How do individuals and people with families make money to live? What occupations are there? Have women and men changed in relation to the economy?
Hemo: There’s no division of labor. Agriculture is the main occupation. This is an economy of survival. There are no wages. Some people just make their living from a cow.
II. War Economy
The second big part of Rojava’s economy is the war economy. Under the democratic self-government, 70 percent of the budget is spent for defense—for the YPG, YPJ, and Asayiş. The war costs us $20 million each year. We buy all our weapons, and weapons are very expensive. We have an army that needs clothes and food. The need to finance the army forces us to centralize the war economy—otherwise it’d be impossible for fighters to live in these conditions.
The rest of the budget is used by the self-government provide public services and to finance itself. It finances all the costs of the schools in Rojava. We give the schools diesel. Before the revolution, the regime financed them, but now we are obliged to. We finances heat for the buildings.
And we finance bread. Every family can get three breads a day. [They are yeasted flatbreads.—ed.] Each bread costs us 100 Syrian lire, and we give it to the people for 60 Syrian lire. And we have to finance this. Just for supply bread to the population for a month, we take a loss of 20 million Syrian lire.
Q: You say 70 percent of the budget goes for defense, and 30 percent goes for public services. But where does the money come from? You can’t export the oil, and you consume your own vegetables.
Hemo: The income comes from selling oil products in the local economy.
Q: People have to pay for oil?
Hemo: Yes. Everything we get is just for us.
Q: But there’s just one source, oil, for domestic income? That’s all?
Hemo: And we also have some income from the border crossings.
Q: There must still be some people from the old days here who have more money than others, some wealth. Can’t you ask some kind of tax or contribution from them?
Hemo: We plan to ask for that. But most of the population is very poor. We decided not to collect taxes from the people. If we did, it would all be over. So we get no fixed income in the form of taxes to finance the system.
Since we are under an embargo, we get no outside help. Everything we produce goes for our own needs. We have limited electricity, clean water, the necessities of daily life. We used to get electricity from Raqqa, but not anymore—ISIS controls it. All we have to rely on is the diesel generators.
A lot of displaced people come here, to the Kurdish areas, and they live in very basic conditions. In this war situation, the UN agencies should supply electricity and access to clean water. Education and health are basic needs. Some international humanitarian institutions are in the refugee camps here, and they should help us provide such services, but their presence is just symbolic.
Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, the Assad regime has received billions of dollars in humanitarian help from the UN, the United States, and the European Union. But the Kurdish areas get no assistance from international humanitarian organizations.
No state helps us defend ourselves, and no one provides assistance. We consume bread together, and if there is no bread, we do not get bread.
III. Open Economy
The economy in Cizîre/Rojava is functioning on a survival basis. The other cantons, Afrin and Kobanê, depend on the wealth of Cizîre. Our economy is vital for the others.
We are paying all costs for institutions of self-government and public services.
We have no surplus to reinvest. We don’t have the means to develop our economy. We need it to invest in other areas, but we can’t. We’re not able to create an environment where everyone can a chance to work, where professionals can get jobs, because we don’t have the means to create companies.
The community economy income is all we have. The costs are growing because of the war. And the self-government’s administration, which we have to finance, has more members now.
If we get no opening to the outside world, our economy will stay the same, and there will be no development. But we need outside investment. To organize it, the government has passed a law called “open economy” to organize it. Any outside investor would have to respect the economy.
But there’s been no development. The resistance in Kobane has been discussed in the world, but officially Rojava doesn’t exist. International organizations that want to act here are told that they have to go through the KRG or Damascus.
There is a political embargo against us. The Turkish state sees nothing good happening here. Our boundary with Turkey is 900 kilometers long. In Afrin there is a border crossing, but it’s closed. Kobanê had a crossing, and Cizîre had three. They’re all officially closed.
When Al Nusra was occupying Sere Kaniye [in 2012-13], the border crossing was open. But after Al Nusra was expelled, Turkish officials closed the border—with a concrete wall. We need to open the Turkish border, so that all our cantons have access to the outside world. Within Syria, our neighbor is ISIS. With Iraq, we have just a small border. Three months ago, after ISIS occupied Sinjar Mountain, the KRG opened the border gate, but unwillingly. For now we have only the border crossing at Semalka with Iraq. What we call our brothers in KRG, in South Kurdistan, they just act in their own interest to open their borders; if it weren’t in their interest, they’d close it.
We need to change this situation internationally, to be recognized by the international community, to force Turkey to open the border crossing.
Q: It sounds like you are calling to the outside world invest in the existing system. You say you can’t be self-sufficient, but autonomy, as in “democratic autonomy,” means self-sufficiency. Yet you are asking for outsiders to help. Also contradicting democratic autonomy: you spoke about a centralized economy, which would be an economy founded on a state. Isn’t there a big contradiction between the political and economic paradigms?
Hemo: Yes, even in this war situation, we want to be self-sufficient. But let’s have no misunderstanding. To raise the quality of life as a whole, we need some kind of industry, we need electricity. Our oil industry is very primitive–we can just barely produce diesel. We need to build a refinery, but we need $300 million for that. Unfortunately the community cooperatives can’t pay for it.
We need electricity. To build ourselves a power plant would cost us $400 million, but we don’t have it. Community cooperatives can’t finance it. Yet we still need electricity. So we need help from outside, private or public.
We don’t have any factories to produce fertilizer for the farmers. We have all the raw materials to produce fertilizer, but don’t have the factories. We have to buy fertilizer from Iraq now. We need $5 million to build a fertilizer factory. Community cooperatives can’t provide have that money.
But we need them to come here so that we can build a kind of social economy together.
That’s why I described the system in terms of the three different economies. All three together constitute our economy, and we have to develop all three of them. The main activity will remain the community economy, but it cannot stand alone. If we were to insist on community economy alone, it’d last maybe one or two years. We have to finance the war. If the war situation becomes stable enough that we can develop industry, we will open to the outside world, in the open economy. If there is any opening, we have to develop industry.
Q: How big is the open economy? How is it implemented?
Hemo: We passed a law for it, but up to now we’ve had no investors. They have no access to our country. No one from outside has come and invested here. All the investment is local. The private companies are all local.
Q: What about the Kurdish diaspora? Can it link to the open economy?
Hemo: We are open to them, but no one is active. There’s no direct help. Perhaps it’s possible. Please organize it.
Q: Could other oil-producing countries, like perhaps Venezuela, help with refineries?
Hemo: We have some ties, and some people promised things, but practically they have done nothing. There’s been some communication, but … if you know of a company, please help.
Q: What about the airport?
Hemo: The Qamişlo airport is occupied by the regime. Building an airport could be a project to develop the economy here, if someone is willing.
Q: How would you like the economy to work ideally?
Hemo: Our main focus for development would be on the community economy. But it will coexist with the open economy and the private economy. For instance, we need factories related to agriculture. We need processing facilities. We need fertilizer, cotton processing. We produce petroleum, but we need facilities to produce plastics, benzene from it. If there is an opening, we can create facilities. We need some kind of common economy, and factories should be communally owned. But we won’t create a state economy, or a centralized economy. It should be locally organized.