Environmental protection in the ‘New Turkey’

Teaser Image Caption
Northern Forests that have been severely damaged by 'mega' projects such as the third airport, the third Bosphorus bridge and the North Marmara highway.

In the last two decades environmental conflicts as well as Green consciousness have been on rise in Turkey. It started with a resistance movement of local farmers in the Aegean region against the first gold mine of Turkey in Bergama in late 1990s and continues to our day. The Gezi movement of 2013 can be considered as a climax of these movements. Protests started as Istanbulites opposed a shopping mall project on the most symbolic park next to the iconic Taksim Square. Large-scale infrastructure projects like roads and airports, private mines, the construction of nuclear, coal or hydro-electric power plants, or the state-driven rapid urban transformation  have been instigators of dozens of local resistance movements.

In these movements what the local-to-national activists were aiming at can be summed up as the protection of the environment, the cultural or historical heritage, or the rights of people themselves. Often, the authorities were criticized for violating court orders or acting against existing legislation designed to protect heritage or nature sites. Now, that protection regime itself is being transformed according to a recent report in daily Hürriyet.

According to the report, the Ministry of Environment and Urbanization has begun a scientific research project on the natural protection areas two years ago, whereby 2430 protection areas of ca. 1,8 million hectares and the special protection area of 180.000 hectares of Tuz Gölü (Salt Lake) in Central Anatolia were surveyed by teams of experts. The ministry has led the research process in order to revise the categories of protection, as well as the status of the areas under consideration.

The Ministry justifies the need for revision with the argument that several of the areas have been meanwhile degraded and could not be considered as protection sites. Moreover, the new regime is supposed to provide a more efficient protection with its gradual structure as opposed to the existing one which according to the ministry employed a too strict framework or did not provide protection at all.

Yet experts, NGOs, and activists criticize the reform due to its methodology, the revisions it foresees in protected areas, and the risks it brings about by allowing construction. NGOs find it inappropriate that the research was made in cooperation with private companies instead of the NGOs specialized in the field. A professor from Istanbul University, Doğan Kantarcı, opposes the revisions saying “You cannot stop defining an area as a forest because it was burnt down.” Eyüp Muhcu, the Head of the Chamber of Architects thinks that the new regulation will open the way of a dense construction wave on natural areas currently under protection.

The mayor of the Aegean province of Muğla, Osman Gürün from the main opposition party CHP has run a bipartisan and inclusive process of evaluation upon the request of the Ministry. The process ended with the consensus of the members of the provincial assembly to request from the ministry that the status of the sites will maintained and not be opened to what the ministry terms “controlled use”.

In these days when increasing economic risks are joining political instability, and while devaluation of the national currency signals new challenges towards the model of construction driven economic growth, Turkey’s civil society, already suffering the effects of the state of emergence on the democratic standards, is trying to prevent further environmental degradation in the coming decades.  As recent comparison of aerial photos of Istanbul from today and ten years ago gives an impression how much was already lost.