Turkish Environmentalists Strive to Change Policy

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (YouTube)

by Austin Bodetti

As Turkey deals with the fallout from its decision to import Russian-made technology for missile defense and navigates the complexities of intervening in the Syrian Civil War, the news media has rarely failed to cover the growing list of international crises confronting officials in Ankara. In comparison, Turkey’s dubious track record on environmental protection has barely received attention from foreign news agencies. Turks themselves, though, have had enough.

Since early August, Turkish environmentalists have been protesting the Agi Dagi Gold Project, a planned mine near the town of Kirazli overseen by Dogu Biga Mining, the Turkish subsidiary of the Canadian company Alamos Gold. Locals and scientists have voiced concerns that the project will contribute to deforestation, water pollution, and other environmental issues. The progressive Turkish website Bianet has drawn further attention to this potential ecological crisis by reporting on the broad cross-section of Turks opposed to the controversial Canadian initiative.

“People are angry not only because of the environmental damage caused by the mine but also because they have been excluded from and ignored during the whole process,” says Ibrahim Ozdemir, the founding president of Hasan Kalyoncu University and a well-established Turkish environmentalist who has criticized the project on social media. “Not only local people but also universities, experts, and environmental organizations have not been consulted.”

The Turkish Foundation for Combating Soil Erosion, for Reforestation, and for the Protection of Natural Habitats (TEMA Foundation) has asserted that Dogu Biga has cut 195,000 trees to clear land for Agi Dagi when Turkish authorities only permitted the company to remove 46,000. The TEMA Foundation failed to reply to LobeLog’s requests for comment.

“I define the ongoing ecological problems in Mount Ida as yet another ecocide in Turkey,” says Cagdas Dedeoglu, a Turkish political ecologist and a research associate at the Center for Critical Research on Religion. “The Kirazli mining project is not the only one causing harm to nature.”

While Alamos never responded to LobeLog’s repeated inquiries, the company’s chief executive, John McCluskey, has described criticisms of Agi Dagi as “misinformation” and highlighted his company’s plans to reforest rural areas around the project in the coming years. These promises have done little to assuage the grievances of environmentalists and protesters, who argue that the environmental issues presented by Agi Dagi extend well beyond deforestation.

“Based on our scientific knowledge, we believe that the environmental damage caused by the mine will not be limited to deforestation,”  Ozdemir tells LobeLog. “Depending on the miners’ technologies and scientific methods, we assess that cyanide may be used to extract gold during the project, which will contaminate the soil and the waters of a nearby dam.”

A cyclical combination of crony capitalism and financial mismanagement have limited Turkey’s economic growth, forcing the country to court foreign direct investment from companies such as Alamos. Experts worry that this drive will come at the cost of environmental protection.

“On the website of Alamos Gold, it’s written, ‘Agi Dagi represents our next leg of low-cost production growth in Turkey,’ ” observes Dedeoglu. “Low-cost for whom? Experts such as environmental scientists and forest engineers answer these questions in a completely different way. Here, the main question is not whether the company is foreign or national, but whether the technology is clean, whether the project field is well decided, and so on.”

Like Turkey, Canada has sent mixed signals through its environmental policy. On the one hand, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has noted the importance of fighting climate change. On the other hand, critics have denounced him as a “climate hypocrite” for neglecting to do more. Now, the growing number of Turks opposed to Agi Dagi are entering the debate.

“So far, Canada has a very strong, positive reputation in Turkey for Canada’s respect for human rights and the environment,” says Ozdemir, “but this project and what representatives of these companies have said to the public have made people in Turkey very angry. Many people are asking why Canada cares about environmental protection so much back home but does not care for our environment and the wellbeing of future generations in Turkey.”

At home, Turks have a history of demonstrating against projects backed by Turkish officials but decried by Turkish environmentalists. Nationwide protests against plans to destroy Taksim Gezi Park in 2013 provide the best-known example, but Turkish environmentalists have also launched smaller-scale demonstrations in recent years, including one against another mine in 2017.

“Raising awareness is essential—not enough, though,” Dedeoglu tells LobeLog. “The future of this project is related to the level of public pressure and political bargains. However, stopping a project or two is not the issue here. Anti-ecological business practices, as well as governance types, should be changed, but I don’t expect the protests to affect Turkey’s environmental policy in the short term. A real policy change is dependent on so many other factors.”

Turkish environmentalists emphasize the importance of engaging with academia, civil society, and the public before allowing companies to undertake projects that may risk harming the natural environment. Adopting this strategy would likely help Turkey avert future demonstrations.

“When deciding on long-term projects, any democratic country must talk with stakeholders, such as local people, NGOs, and academics,” Ozdemir tells LobeLog. “Foreign companies, on the other hand, should not try to work with the government alone. They also may talk with the people, civil society, and academia to enlighten themselves.”

Whatever happens to Agi Dagi, Turks will have no shortage of environmental issues to confront in the next few years. In addition to deforestation and water pollution, the country struggles with biodiversity loss, desertification, water scarcity, and a host of other challenges.

“The environmental movement in Turkey has been successful so far,” says Dedeoglu. “However, we should also take necessary steps toward an ecological citizenship model.”

Despite the environmental issues enveloping Turkey, Turkish environmentalists seem optimistic about their progress, noting that the environmental movement has mobilized Turks in a way that social issues have scarcely managed to achieve. Ozdemir has played a prominent role in the fast-growing academic field of eco-theology, the study of where environmentalism and religion intersect. He believes that environmental protection can unite Turks across the political spectrum, citing the protests against Agi Dagi as the latest instance of environmentalism’s intersectionality.

“What we have seen is extraordinary,” concludes Ozdemir. “For the first time, people from many different segments of Turkish society—secular, religious, leftist, liberal, and socialist alike—are marching together, and they all have a similar concern regarding the management of natural resources and the effect of megaprojects on ecosystems and future generations.”

Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Oman, South Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda, and his research has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired.

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