Turks defend nature against Erdoğan’s development push

Lush, thick woodland and green tea fields coat the slopes of an idyllic valley, a slice of pastoral heaven near the Turkish president’s familial home that will soon be gone.

A government-friendly company plans to extract 20 million tons of stone from a quarry in the northeastern town of İkizdere for one of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s latest development projects.

The locals are rising up in protest, challenging the government and its priorities in a region dear to the powerful Turkish leader’s heart.

Under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power since 2002, Turkey has seen rapid modernization, with new airports, roads and bridges.

The AKP says robust infrastructure will help transform the nation of 84 million people — still considered an emerging market — from a regional player into a global force.

Critics argue that Turkey is sacrificing the environment as it develops, with forests among natural resources destroyed by companies close to Erdoğan for profit.

Residents of Gürdere village in Rize province, the Black Sea home of Erdoğan’s family, have protested against the planned quarry in İşkencedere valley since late April.

But in a country where dissent is poorly tolerated, the Rize governor issued two 15-day bans on protests in May and June, after standoffs between security forces and older women in headscarves.

Residents say their livelihoods and nature will be demolished by the quarry, which the company, Cengiz Holding, and Ankara say is needed for a new logistics port nearby.

‘Animals punished’

The gushing sound of freshwater streams reverberate around the valley, a rarity in a country pushing ahead with urbanization at great speed.

Organic tea grows in abundance. Brown bears roam the forests, and villagers produce chestnut honey.

One of those picking tea was Pervin Baş, who was among several detained during the protests.

“We have honey, we have tea, we feed our animals with these forests,” Baş, 50, said after spending the morning picking tea leaves.

“I used to feed my animals there, and now they are stuck in the barn. They’ve even punished my animals,” she said.

Güngör Baş, a relative of Pervin, said he felt pained by the destruction wrought on the place where he spent his childhood.

“Dust coats our houses,” the 58-year-old said.

There are two legal cases against the quarry, lawyer Yakup Okumuşoğlu said.

Cengiz wants this quarry because it is conveniently close to the planned İyidere logistics port, he said. But the company told AFP the site was chosen by the transport ministry.

“You say there’s stone below, but above there’s life, a life of so much more value. This belongs to everyone,” villager Asuman Fazlıoğlu, 60, said.

Transport and Infrastructure Minister Adil Karaismailoğlu last month said “marginal groups” and “outsiders” sought to exploit the protests and that villagers actually backed the quarry.

Green of the dollar’

Erdoğan inaugurates hospitals and dams with bombastic speeches appealing to his base craving a stronger Turkey.

The opposition says the tenders given to companies are a way to keep Erdoğan’s friends in construction happy rather than serving a real infrastructure need.

Cengiz Holding was among the top 10 contractors worldwide with the most public-private partnership projects between 1990 and 2018, according to the World Bank.

“This government prioritizes money over the environment,” said Ali Öztunç, a main opposition party vice chair responsible for environmental issues.

“They love the green of the dollar more than the green of the trees,” Öztunç said.

Experts say a focus on growth alone can be misguided.

“We cannot call it development when there is no value given to nature, earth, air, water,” said Chamber of Environmental Engineers (CMO) chair Ahmet Dursun Kahraman.

“Development is a yarn. We keep saying we’re developing since the Ottoman Empire. It’s 2021 and we’re still apparently going to develop,” Okumuşoğlu quipped.

‘We haven’t lost’

Erdoğan proudly points out that Turkey now has 56 airports, up from 26 when he came to power.

One of the airports due to open later this year is in Rize, which was built with stone from another quarry hit by protests four years ago.

Its once-green valley is now covered in black and grey.

The gaping wound is a sore point for some villagers, who say there are daily dynamite explosions while trucks kick up dust as they come and go.

“This was a green area. We had different kinds of trees. Animals lived here, birds lived here. There were gazelles, deers. They’ve all gone,” Mahir Karaca said.

The 42-year-old villager said he was not against having an airport.

“As long as it provides a service, as long as it’s good for the country, no one is against this,” he said.

But in İkizdere, they remained defiant.

“We haven’t lost,” said Zeynep Baş, 43, who is related to Güngor and Pervin.

Restoration promise

For environmentalists, deforestation is a major worry.

Up to four million trees were chopped during the construction of İstanbul’s third major bridge, activists say, while others claim up to 13 million were cut for İstanbul’s newest airport, which opened in 2018.

“The future of forests is now at risk,” said Foresters’ Association vice president Hüsrev Özkara. “It’s not just about cutting one tree, what is actually damaged is the forest’s ecosystem.”

Cengiz promised that once the stone was extracted, it would ensure vegetation and trees would be planted to “restore the natural life.”

The CMO’s Kahraman dismissed this as “baseless.”

“It’s deception. You’re going to take rock from there, how will you then plant a tree?” Kahraman asked, adding that the quarry’s impact would be felt across generations.

“This is how we should look at such actions and projects. What are you leaving behind?”

(Raziye Akkoç, AFP)

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