Locals, activists fighting to protect western Turkey forest from pro-gov’t holdings’ mining threat

Environmental activists and villagers in Turkey’s southwestern province of Muğla have been struggling both physically and legally since 2019 to prevent the felling of trees in Akbelen Forest for a mine operated by two holdings close to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, Turkish Minute reported.

YK (YENİKÖY KEMERKÖY) Energy, Limak Holding and IC Holding’s joint venture, has taken action to include a part of Akbelen Forest in the village of İkizköy into the mining area that supplies lignite to thermal power plants.

YK Energy had obtained the necessary permits from the Agriculture and Forestry Ministry to operate a lignite mine in Akbelen Forest, but they faced resistance from villagers who wanted to protect Akbelen.

On July 17, 2021 a logging team from the District Forest Management of the General Directorate of Forestry of Turkey entered the forest and cut down around 30 trees before İkizköy villagers reached the area. Since then, the villagers have staged a nature vigil in Akbelen Forest, together with activists and environmental organization members they reached through social media.

According to a report by BBC Turkish service, the villagers and activists who have been defending the forest for four years faced a new logging attempt on Monday morning.

BBC quoted the villagers and activists, who aim to stop the tree logging, as saying that they faced a harsh intervention by the gendarmerie and were kept away from the logging area with a gendarmerie barricade on the first and second day of logging.

“From the sounds we heard, today the logging has accelerated even more. At this rate, they will cut down all the trees in the area within a week,” villager Anıl Işık told BBC.

The activists stated on social media that the gendarmerie used water cannons with “chemical-laden water,” pepper gas and batons on them, slightly injuring a few people.

Local media reported that some individuals who tried to enter the logging area by climbing over the gendarmerie barricade were detained.

Civil society organizations, politicians and celebrities have reacted to the developments on social media.

“We are deeply concerned about the developments in Akbelen as of yesterday evening. … We urge all authorities to protect the trees and ensure that not even a single tree is harmed,” the Turkish Foundation for Combating Soil Erosion (TEMA) said in a tweet.

The Nature Foundation (Doğa) also called for solidarity with the villagers, saying, “The logging in Akbelen Forest must be immediately halted, and the mining project should be canceled!”

Mahmut Tanal, a lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), called on the AKP government not to underestimate the right of the people of Muğla to live in a healthy environment for the sake of “financial gain.”

“While the climate crisis intensifies every day … forests are still being cut down for profit and greed. It’s beyond comprehension. For what? Money. [Stop] already. … Don’t hurt these beautiful people who are trying to protect nature, don’t make them suffer. Please listen [to me],” famous Turkish pop singer Tarkan tweeted.

Turkish media also reported on Wednesday that the activists, surrounded by gendarmes, are continuing their resistance by hugging the trees so as to protect them from being cut down.

According to a report by the Gazete Duvar news website on Wednesday, gendarmes attacked the villagers and the group that came to support them, including lawmakers from the Green Left Party (YSP), with water cannons, batons and pepper gas.

Bodrum Mayor Ahmet Aras from the CHP, who intended to travel from the Bodrum district of Muğla to Akbelen Forest to support the local citizens, stated in a video he posted on Twitter that an identity check was conducted at the district’s exit.

“I condemn those who ordered an identity check at the Bodrum exit to prevent us from reaching Akbelen. … Who are they trying to protect with this oppression? Shame on them,” Aras said.

Meanwhile, locals and environment activists also applied to the Muğla 1st Administrative Court and submitted a petition with 117,000 signatures to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, demanding the cancellation of the allocation of the forest for coal mining, according to a report by the ANKA news website.

Over the years, Turkey’s AKP government’s environmentally irresponsible policies, particularly regarding the mining industry, have been subject to widespread criticism. Environmentalists and local communities have expressed concern that the AKP’s policies prioritize economic interests and favor pro-government mining companies, often at the expense of important natural habitats.

One major area of contention has been the allocation of forestland for mining purposes. The government’s decisions to grant mining licenses in ecologically sensitive areas, including forests, have raised alarm bells among environmentalists and local communities that rely on these natural habitats for their livelihoods. Environmental activists, civil society organizations and concerned citizens continue to call for more sustainable and responsible practices in the mining industry as well as greater protection for the country’s valuable natural heritage.

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