These women are fighting back on the continued destruction of Turkey's Akbelen forest

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

On July 24, two companies — Limak Holding and İÇTAŞ Enerji — with ties to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) moved to cut down trees in Akbelen forest, in Turkey's southwestern province of Muğla. The move followed the decision by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry to hand some 740 decares (740,000 square meters) of forest land over to YK Energy — a joint company set up by Limak and İÇTAŞ — to mine for lignite in April 2021. Since the felling began over a week ago, scores of local residents from the nearby İkizköy village, environmental activists, representatives of opposition political parties, and nature conservation organizations have been holding a vigil in the area.

Some 300 organizations have rallied behind the residents’ call to stop any mining activities in the area in a statement issued on July 28. Media reports indicate that local police have used force, tear gas, and water canons against them, while some 40 people have been arrested over the past week.

On July 30, the governor's office of Mugla announced that work to clear the forest had been completed. The statement also described the resistance as “provocative” and “ugly.” The statement vowed to “rehabilitate” the area by planting 130,000 saplings. Activists say these promises are futile. In a press statement, the President of the Turkish Foresters’ Association (TOD), Hüsrev Özkara, said promising to replant new trees to replace the 60–90-year-old ones being cut is nothing but a joke. It is also not known how many trees in total have been cut but environmentalists estimate the numbers could be as high as 65,000.

Meanwhile, the accusations leveled against the protesters that they were provocateurs also made it into a statement by the leader of the National Movement party (MHP) — the ultra-nationalist ally of the ruling AKP — Devlet Bahçeli. The 75-year-old lashed out at the protesters, describing them as criminals and terrorists trying to “destroy the inner peace” at Akbelen. Ironically, the village residents and all those who joined them in recent days accused the ruling government of doing the same. Meanwhile, despite the statement from the local governor's office, the felling continued while reports of signal jammers being installed by the authorities and further violence and force used against protesters, which by now have grown in numbers been shared online.

Meet the women behind the resistance

Shortly after the destruction of the forest began on July 24, a group of women from İkizköy village became the symbols of the local resistance. In this video, the local women speak of their cause and how much pain the destruction of their forest is causing them:

I went and hugged my trees, kissed them. Every time the tree was cut, I felt like a lost a limb, like we have been cut off from our children. No matter what we did, we could not stop them. They used force against us, they dragged us, hurting us.

We as residents of İkizköy village are holding a vigil fighting for the future of our country, so it does not disappear, so our land and soil don't disappear, so that we still have air to breath and water to drink, so that we still have our village. This is why we are here. The plant means death, poverty, it means we are finished. Soil means bread, water, air. If there are trees, there is life, water, we can breath.

In one video, a local woman resident begs others to stop the carnage. “If there is one thing you can do for me, please stop the felling,” the woman says in tears. “You can do whatever you want — tear gas us all you want, arrest us — we are staying here and won't go anywhere. We all are going to die anyway because of what you are doing here. We gave 70–80 years of our lives to grow these trees,” another woman was seen speaking to the army officers who were sent to the village to prevent the residents from stopping the felling.

This young activist tried to stop the local police from approaching the protesters:

In another video shared online, five women are seen on the ground, drenched from water sprayed by water cannons. The stream stops only after the cannon runs out of water.

Screenshot from the video report from Akbelen forest by Tele1 news channel.

Senior Consultant on Environmental and Climate Policy Deniz Gümüşel shared this photo of herself with a bruise she got as a result of violence during the protests. Gümüşel was also briefly detained.

The struggle to preserve the forest

Since 2019, the local residents of İkizköy village 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.

The scale of destruction of forest areas over the last ten years in the province of Mugla was recently documented by one local media news platform, Fayn Studio. In the time lapse video, the gradual deforestation has spread with no accountability. Meanwhile, the struggle to stop the felling continues.

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