Since 2019, the local residents of İkizköy village in Turkey's southwestern province of Muğla have been trying to prevent deforestation in the Akbelen forest, which is situated near their village. But in Turkey, the preservation of green spaces has never been a priority for the ruling Justice and Development Party, which has no sound environmental policy.
The crackdown in 2013 against a group of environmentalists trying to prevent the destruction of Gezi Park was a defining moment for the ruling government, marking the AKP's anti-environmental turn. Since then, scores of protests have erupted across Turkey, often staged and organized by local residents trying to protect the remaining green spaces and prevent the expansion of power plants. But with a ruling government that lacks any green vision, prioritizes the economy at the expense of the environment, and allows greedy companies to fill in their coffers at the expense of regular citizens, it is a struggle that is here to stay. The deforestation in the Akbelen forest that began on July 24 is a brazen example of this. Meanwhile, the companies behind the forest destruction have refused to comply with a court order that suspended the project in the first place.
Out of 35 coal-fired power plants, there are three power plants operating in Muğla — Yatağan (in operation since 1982), Yeniköy (in operation since 1986), and Kemerköy (in operation since 1993). All three were privatized in 2014. Yeniköy and Kemerköy were purchased by YK Energy, a joint company set up by Limak Holding and İÇTAŞ Enerji. Both Limak and İÇTAŞ are known for their ties to the ruling government.
Since taking over plant management, the companies have done little to address the devastating health and environmental implications of the plants. Local residents have documented these effects extensively in local and international reports. These implications also did not stop the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources from launching a new regulation in March 2022 that open the natural olive groves in the area to development, and green-lights mining activities for the power plants.
The same month, the Ministry of Environment, Urbanization, and Climate Change made amendments, for a fourth time, to a regulation governing protected natural areas (national parks, nature parks, environmentally protected zones, and wetlands), opening these areas for mining and construction. These decisions were announced amid an ongoing court case filed by the local residents of İkizköy village. Dismissive of the protests by the local residents, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry handed over some 740 decares (740,000 square meters) of forest land to YK Energy to mine for lignite in April 2021.
According to reporting by a local online news platform Bianet, the companies moved into the forest area on July 24, having obtained the necessary permissions to open 740 decares of land for cutting. The companies claim the lignite underneath the forest area will fuel the power plants of Yeniköy and Kemerköy, which use coal to generate just one percent of the consumed electricity in the country.
The protesters are now calling on the relevant authorities to scratch that permission. In a statement signed by 16 environmental non-governmental organizations, the signatories said, “Deforestation should not be allowed for the continuity of thermal power plants, which cause premature deaths and are one of the main causes of the climate crisis. Fighting the climate crisis is possible by working with nature, not against it. We cannot sacrifice forests, which account for more than half of the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions we have caused in the last 10 years, for the sake of coal power plants that threaten natural areas, climate, and the lives of all living things.”
Consequences of environmental degradation
In recent years, Turkey has been hit by a series of natural disasters and environmental crises such as drought, wildfires, floods, and mudslides, and as recently as February 2023, a devastating earthquake. As summer heat reaches new highs, reports of forest fires hitting Turkey have been making the headlines. Experts say while climate change or excessive weather conditions may have had a role to play, these disasters and crises were also an outcome of poor planning and incorrect decisions made at the government level.
According to the Climate Transparency Turkey report, Turkey continues to generate more than 30 percent of its electricity through coal. The report also adds, “Despite the decrease in coal-powered generation in 2021–2022, Turkey has no intention to phase out coal and has approximately 20.4 GW of new coal capacity in the pipeline, placing it sixth globally. In June 2022, the first block of the China-financed 1.3 GW coal power plant opened in Hunutlu. While the coal capacity pipeline decreased by 63 percent in comparison to 2020, to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celcius or achieve Turkey’s goal of net zero emissions by 2053, no new coal power plants should be built.”
Turkey only ratified the 2015 Paris Agreement, which set a goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celcius, in October 2021, five years after signing the agreement. At the time, Turkey also announced its goal to achieve net-zero emissions by 2053.
According to Climate Action Tracker, the country's efforts to reach the Paris Accord's goals are “critically insufficient.” And ratifying the Paris Agreement was not done with pure intentions. The decision came shortly after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan received guarantees of financial support from France, Germany, the World Bank's International Finance Corporation, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, according to reports by Politico and Reuters. Previously, Ankara said the reason it had not signed the agreement was because of unfair classification. Turkey was ranked as an Annex I group country — a “developed” or “industrialized” country — which prevented it from seeking funding, unlike nations ranked as “developing.”
Back at the Akbelen forests, pleas for help from residents and demands to stop the destruction of the forest continued into their fourth day. One resident speaking to a Turkish newspaper Evrensel, pleaded, “If this place goes, everywhere will burn, Turkey will burn. Let's not cut down our pines and forests.” Another resident said, “I came here from a village that was destroyed for coal before, and now they are kicking me out from here too. Aren't we the people of this country? Soldiers are preventing us. Help us.” Reports and footage of local police using force, pepper spray, tear gas, and water canons have been circulating online, elevating the gravity of the situation in the area:
Akbelen'de hem kıyım hem zulüm var!
Ağaç kıyımının devam ettiği #AkbelenOrmanı‘na Yesil Sol Parti ve CHP milletvekilleri eşliğinde girmeye çalışan direnişteki İkizköy halkına jandarma bir kez daha gaz bombalarıyla saldırdı. 3 kişi işkenceyle gözaltına alındı.#AkbeleneDokunma pic.twitter.com/TFpmrIZxEK
— Zeynep Kuray (@zeynokuray) July 26, 2023
There is both slaughter and cruelty in Akbelen. The gendarmerie once again tear gassed the people of Ikizköy, who were trying to enter #AkbelenOrmanı together with the deputies from the Green Left Party and CHP. Three people were detained under torture.
LİMAK ve İÇTAŞ ortaklığı ile kurulan YK Enerji termik santrale kömür sağlamak için Akbelen Ormanı’nda kesime başladı. Birkaç gündür devam eden kesimi engellemek isteyenlere jandarma sert bir şekilde müdahale etti.#AkbeleneDokunma pic.twitter.com/y4TKkIQtXc
— Ka (@kazimkizil) July 26, 2023
YK Energy, set up by LİMAK and İÇTAŞ, started cutting in Akbelen Forest to supply coal for the thermal power plant. The gendarmerie intervened harshly against those who wanted to prevent the slaughter that had been going on for a few days.
Journalists covering the events were also targeted:
Jandarma tarafından çekim yapmam engellenip doğrudan gözlerime biber gazı sıkıldı. pic.twitter.com/HowQFtXerJ
— Ka (@kazimkizil) July 26, 2023
I got pepper sprayed directly into my eyes, as gendarmerie prevented me from filming.