At three o’clock in the afternoon, the protesters finally got a break. The police had completely run out of pepper spray, having already thrown everything they had at the townspeople since the standoff first began at 8:30 that morning. Tears lined the faces of those who had been in the direct line of fire. While a few demonstrators used cheesecloth to shield themselves from the gas, most had no means of protection. Weary but undeterred, the recovering demonstrators brought in boxes of lemons to clean out their eyes, and looked after the older participants – some of them over 80 years old - who had been on the frontline.
Their relief did not last long. An armoured vehicle belonging to the National Guard advanced on the fledgling crowd, and directed its high-pressure water cannon at them. The protesters regrouped. Their stand - which took place on September 5th last year - would go on for another 5 hours, until 8:30 that evening. And in the end, their defences held firm. The residents of Gerze, a Turkish coastal town, had accomplished their single goal - they prevented the Anadolu Group from conducting survey drilling for its proposed coal-fired power plant.
For the people of Gerze, which nestles along Turkey’s Black Sea coastline, the events of September 5th represent but one battle in a war which has dragged on now for years. The turbulence began three years ago, in 2009, when the Anadolu Group first announced its plans to build a state-of-the-art, coal-fired power plant in the area and one which would, if it went ahead, become of the five largest coal-powered plants in Turkey – and the second largest to be operated by a private company.
To say that the Anadolu Group is well-financed is an understatement. The company is massive - a multinational conglomerate that employs over 23,000 in 81 separate companies. The corporation, based in Istanbul, has effectively built itself around its Efes Pilsen brand, a beer which enjoys 89% of the market share in Turkey and has since become the 8th largest seller in Europe.
In addition, Anadolu also controls the marketing, bottling, and distribution of Coca Cola in most of Central Asia and parts of the Middle East, including Pakistan. And with other notable controlling interests in McDonalds and Honda, Anadolu Group is involved in industries ranging from automobiles, to banking, to health.
The proposed 1200 MW coal power plant planned for Gerze represents the company’s bid to enter Turkey’s energy sector and Anadolu is working to raise the 2 billion dollars worth of capital, 35 percent of which comes out of its own pocket.
For the site of the power plant, the Anadolu Group proposed an area just outside the town of Gerze, in a small farming village named Yaykil. The 80 hectares of land was selected for a number of reasons, not least that coal plants require ample access to water for their cooling systems. Gerze is also one few regions of the Black Sea Coast with a low population density. Combined, Gerze and the village of Yakil have a population numbering just above 13,000. The site is also situated at the Northern most point of Turkey, making for shorter shipping lines to Russia, which would be among the most important sources of imported, high-yield coal for the plant. This is coupled with a network of existing infrastructure in the area from two already-completed hydroelectric stations, and state highway investments made for a proposed nuclear power plant in nearby Sinop.
So with its sights set upon Gerze, the Anadolu Group began to establish a presence in the area. In late 2009, the company launched a PR campaign worthy of its capital reserves. Baskets of chocolates appeared upon the doorsteps of residents as gestures of goodwill. Brochures detailing promises of new jobs proliferated around the town. Fourteen new welding machines were delivered to Gerze’s trade school. And a youth basketball training programme - featuring star players from Anadolu’s own Efes Pilsen basketball team, (and usually reserved for the large cities like Ankara and Istanbul) was brought to Gerze. The Anadolu Group even formed its own NGO - named Gerçek, meaning “real” in Turkish - to coordinate efforts to bus residents to neighbouring coal plants, like one in Zonguldak, and alleviate concerns about coal’s environmental impacts.
But not everyone was pleased about the prospects of a coal plant being built in their neighbourhood. Opposition started to mobilise. And in Gerze, one group in particular took the mantle of leading the charge.
The organisation is known as the Platform for a Green Gerze, or YEGEP for short.
We first caught up with YEGEP at their offices in Gerze. And as if to really emphasise the undercurrents of tension in town, we discovered these offices are located less than a block away from the Anadolu Group’s NGO, Gerçek.
Inside the YEGEP headquarters, there were about 10 people crowded around a long conference table, talking animatedly and sipping Turkish Chai from miniature, pear-shaped glasses. The walls around them were plastered with propaganda posters, many of them with dark, menacing drawings of nuclear and coal power plants on them. One of the posters featured a little girl crying, clutching a teddy bear which was covered in black ash.
It didn’t take long to figure out who was running the show. After noticing the two of us (the authors) standing awkwardly in the doorway, the people at the conference table fell silent and turned their heads expectedly towards a middle-aged woman with bleached blonde highlights who was sitting directly in their middle. This was Şengül Şahin, known as the principal architect behind Gerze’s three year-long resistance to the coal plant. She peered at us suspiciously with bright blue eyes. When we started asking questions about her organisation, she cut us off quickly. “She wants to know more about you first,” our translator explained. It was only after we passed her interrogation about how we had heard of YEGEP, and who we were writing for, that we were invited to ask our questions at a meeting set for the following day.
Şengül, as we later learned, has been fighting against the Anadolu Group since the start of this protest. A resident of Gerze, she founded YEGEP as a central platform for community members to voice their concerns against the coal plant. Indeed, while we were in the region, we heard many of those concerns. But at our first formal meeting with Şengül, she summarised what she felt were the most important of these issues.
Aside from the aesthetic blight of having a coal-fired power plant along the Sinop coastline, YEGEP and its members are concerned about the pollution the plant would cause for the surrounding environment, and a number of different commercial industries in the area. To begin with, the coal plant would be built right on top of a major source of fresh groundwater for Gerze, which the community fears could easily become contaminated by the plant’s ash deposits. The Anadolu Group contends that the State’s new Erfelek Dam project - scheduled for completion later this year - will solve the problem by importing fresh water from 20 kilometers away, but Şengül is skeptical. “Besides, there will be acid rain” she went on.
If true, this would clearly have detrimental effects upon local farming, rendering the soil unusable, and damaging the surrounding forest and the Sarkikum Nature Reserve which is about 20 miles to the North. In the fishing industry, this is coupled with concerns the plant might also raise the sea temperature of the bay directly in front of the site.
At a café in Sinop, we met an 85-year-old fisherman, Mr. Duran, who echoed those concerns that any rise in sea temperature would inhibit fish breeding in the region. This, he told us, is not what he needs when he is already struggling to make a living because of decades of overfishing in the Black Sea.
“And lastly,” adds Şengül, “there are the archeological sites.” She then gave us the name of a California State University researcher, who has also confirmed that there has been late Roman/early Byzantine pottery discovered in the area.
Whichever one of the grievances they may hold, about 6,000 people in Gerze have now signed petitions against the plant, according to Şengül. And after she formed YEGEP, her organisation started holding regular meetings in town, informing people of Anadolu Group’s plans. In effect, YEGEP quickly became the key opposition group to the Andolu Group’s own and much better-financed PR campaign.
The Conflict Heats Up
For almost three years then, this conflict has simmered under the surface. There have been occasional demonstrations but these have all been peaceful in nature. Until April 2011 when things began to boil over.
Companies planning to build power plants in Turkey are required by law to hold meetings in nearby communities to tell residents about their plans, and answer any questions they might have. The Anadolu Group scheduled their meeting for the Gerze’s basketball court in April of last year and invited both company representatives and energy experts to speak to the community.
The event was boycotted by the Gerze opposition and a large protest was staged outside of the arena. As the protesters advanced on both the arena doors and Anadolu’s own vehicles, police were called in to disperse the crowd which they did with pepper spray and batons. The meeting was then cancelled.
Four months after the abandoned community meeting, in late July, YEGEP got word from a government source that surveying was still being planned for the coal plant site. On August 1st, the protestors set up a tent city to prevent the machines from arriving. Then, at midnight on August 22nd, the protesters got the chance to make their stand. Tractors equipped with drills and surveying equipment moved in on the scene with the support of hundreds of soldiers and policemen. The timing was designed so that machines could slip by while there were few protesters, and it almost worked -- only thirty people were present when the envoy appeared. But within a half hour, hundreds more had arrived. The protest was led by nine Yaykil natives, all older women who laid themselves out in the road to block the tractors. The standoff lasted no more than a few hours. While it was difficult to ascertain who commanded the stalled troops, a minister-level official in Ankara decided it was not a day to fight, and called off the police and army.
This skirmish only prompted an expansion of the protestors’ tent city where the numbers swelled into four digits. They knew Anadolu would make another push, and so waited patiently for that to happen.
On the night of September 4th, a festival was being held in Yaykil to celebrate the circumcisions of four local children. Many of the protesters were in attendance. But during the ceremony, a source in Sinop passed word that a large build up of police and military personnel were gathering in the city and preparing to head to Gerze. They arrived at 8:30 am. Witnesses estimate that there were roughly 1,000 troops at the site, divided evenly between the army and police. As for the number of protesters, the estimates vary widely, and have not really been confirmed. YEGEP itself claims a crowd of 6,000 during the day other witnesses say it was closer to 2,000. Even direct witnesses cannot be sure and not least because the protests were spread over six different sites that needed to be drilled. What is certain (and confirmed) is that there were sufficient numbers to produce stiff resistance to almost 1,000 riot control troops.
Hale Okuz, an activist we first met in Sinop, was on the front lines and gave us an account of police tactics. “They squeezed pepper gas into our eyes,” she said, and added that they also threw pepper bombs into the crowd at random. “I was subject to the gas 11 times during the day, and badly affected for two days afterwards.”
The government troops had closed the roads leading to Yaykil, but small numbers of protesters arrived by hiking trails through the mountains. Lemons were passed around to help clean the eyes of the resistors. At the climax of the fight, during the afternoon, military armoured vehicles blasted the protesters with high-pressure water cannons. They dropped so many pepper bombs that they ran out, and had to be resupplied by ambulances.
Despite the increasingly aggressive advances of government troops, the tractors arrived at only one of six designated drill locations. At 8:30 PM, exactly twelve hours after they arrived, the troops departed, dropping pepper bombs around them to clear the way. Twenty five protesters were hospitalised. And according to Today’s Zaman, an English language newspaper based in Istanbul, at least 150 people came under investigation, with just one person was incarcerated until December.
Newspapers around the country ran headlines, and Gerze entered the national limelight. In the weeks that followed, the resistance against the coal plant was invigorated by attention from numerous NGO’s, including and especially a focused campaign from Greenpeace International.
A spontaneous demonstration of some 600 people, made up dozens of Istanbul environmental NGOs and organisations like “Friends of Sinop”, was held on Istiklal Street, Istanbul’s central shopping district. A sit-in of a McDonald’s was also organised, and protesters ordered hundreds of hamburgers that they later refused to pay for.
Greenpeace particularly targeted Anadolu Group’s Efes Pilen brand, asking supporters to send emails to the group’s chairman. 70,000 people signed the petition, and the company’s own call centre for the brand was flooded by callers ringing to protest the power plant. As a play on the company’s own marketing tactic - which uses the slogan “beer is under this cap” - Greenpeace distributed flyers and online material with the slogan “coal is under this cap.” And in an act of pure chutzpah, Greenpeace also covered half of the Anadulu Group’s skyscraper headquarters with a banner declaring: “Efes, don’t bother your lovers.”
Finally, on November 10th, the third annual rally in Gerze was held against the coal plant. About 10,000 people attended, gathering from all over the region. They protested in peace demonstrating that the opposition had gained momentum and unity.
In the meantime, Anadolu backed out of and away from the community and has been keeping a low profile ever since.
The Man Behind GES
We met Zafer Gencsoy, the man who would know what Anadulu is planning next, in the nicest office in Gerze. He was the face of the Anadolu Group in town, and would be the power plant’s boss when it was built. There were six cubicles downstairs, though only one was occupied. On the walls were neatly mounted graphics of what the coal plant would look like, in day and night, from sea and from land. Zafer’s office was on the mezzanine.
But you could tell this building had been converted quickly. The stairway to the top was still a narrow spiral of steel, and Zafer warned us to duck to avoid hitting our heads. The furniture - a desk, a few armchairs, a conference table, and accompanying seats - seemed new, barely used, and no more than one step away from a trip to IKEA. It was a visible ‘launch pad’ for the project, nothing more. It was as if its sole purpose was to exist, to have a presence, perhaps to send a signal to the townspeople that Anadolu is here to stay.
Zafer ushered us in with a charming smile. The Gerze native comes from a prominent local family - his father the town’s leading doctor. Zafer, who left to become a mechanical engineer, has worked for the last three decades on energy platforms in Libya, Russia, and Qatar, to name just a few of the countries. When he got wind that a power plant would be built next to his native town, he contacted Anadolu to ask to be involved with the project. “There is no question the plant will be built,” he told us.
Zafer then gave us a brief tour of the proposed two billion dollar plant and its infrastructure, focusing on the environmental features. The plant will operate with a supercritical boiler, which essentially means the steam is at higher pressure and is more efficient. Emissions then pass through scrubbers for Ash, Sulfur, and other emissions. “What’s left?” exclaimed Zafer. “Carbon Dioxide. But that is not the problem of Turkey. That is the problem of the United States, China, Germany, Russia - countries that emit much more than we do.” Most such supercritical plants operate at 36 to 38 percent efficiency - a number which refers to the amount of chemical energy in the coal that is converted to electricity. Zafer boasts that this plant could achieve rates as high as 44 percent. But this is speculative, of course, and no one will know for sure until the plant is built and operating.
The engineer has reasons to be confident that the energy factory will move forward. The company is in the final rounds of a process that takes years. “During the first round, most of the applications are rejected,” said Zafer. “But once it is accepted, 98 percent of the projects are then built.” The company is certainly in position to begin a major project. The Anadolu Group has now purchased 50 percent, (40 hectares), of the land it will need to build the plant. The rest will be bought at a fixed price by the government itself once the application has been cleared and given the final go-ahead.
Zafer himself, plus the other engineers we met at the Gercek office, signal that the company is now investing in well-qualified manpower for this project. It has also started to process job applications and sifting through the 500 or so CVs it has received. at the project. It has reported that 90 percent of those originate from the Gerze area. And it is true that Zafer’s phone rang constantly during his interview with us. After one of these calls, he told us “people call all the time, saying ‘Zafer, do you have work?’. They’re free to call me whenever they want, because of course, I need them to.”
Holding the forward march of the plant is ÇED report, (pronounced CHED), an 1,800 page behemoth that documents the environmental impact the plant might have. It covers everything you can imagine, from studies of nearby archaeological sites to fish breeding grounds near the site.
The ÇED didn’t clear, because of concerns from the Ministry of Forestry, and the nearby 789 hectare Sarikum nature reserve. Protesters celebrated as the government gave the company just 10 days to fix their mistakes. But then the authorities backtracked. The Anadolu Group declared that 10 days was an unrealistic time frame to try and meet and the government signed an agreement that allowed it to finish the documents “as soon as possible.”
The ÇED has since been resubmitted, and is now awaiting government clearance. Ugur Tuzin, an Anadolu spokesman told us: “we have no idea how long this will take, but it takes a long time here in Turkey. It’s in the government’s hands now.” If the documents are complete, however, there are normally very few hitches in their approval. “It is very rare that the ministry rejects ÇEDs,” said Baturay Altınok, an attorney for the Chamber of Environmental Engineers in an interview with the newspaper Today’s Zaman.
As the formalities fall into place, Zafer’s confidence is buttressed by a local economy in shambles. Over the course of the last 20 years, the region has been stripped of all its economic keystones. Anchovy and Mackerel fisheries began to collapse when the Berlin Wall came down, primarily from overfishing and environmental contamination. Tobacco farming, once the chief cash crop, was eliminated in the late 90’s with changes to United States import regulations and US subsidies to their own farmers. The region also had a match factory, and a large US radar base in Sinop. Both of these are gone. “This is a sleeping city,” said Zafer.
Today, Gerze and the surrounding region subsists primarily off the nearly one million Turks with roots there visiting home and supporting family members. No wonder then, people need the work.
Sinem Hazar, 30, was one of the 500 applicants to the power plant, where she hoped to work as a security guard. Her husband, Cengir, had also applied to be a driver. She has been looking for a job for months, and hopes that the power plant will provide new opportunities to the community. In the meantime, Sinem and Cengir live off the 1,000 liras a month that Cengir earns at a mobile phone store. Neither has access to social security. “Almost all my friends have difficulty finding jobs. Some find them, but they are also underpaid and not on social security.”
But even with the knowledge of a local economy desperate for jobs, most of Zafer’s confidence comes from his support in Ankara. “The government is very interested in this project,” he said over dinner on the roof of his four star hotel. It has reason to be. According to the project’s website, the power plant would supply nearly four percent of Turkey’s electricity once it is built. Along with two small hydroelectric projects, its construction would make Anadolu the fourth largest energy producer in Turkey, a market that was only opened to the private sector in 1991.
To keep pace with the country’s energy demand, 4000 MW of power production needs to be built every year, to reach a 100 GW target by 2020- a doubling of today’s numbers.
The Leaders of the Opposition
YEGEP knows why Zafer is confident, and has few illusions as to what the protestors are up against. They are working frantically; the ÇED report waiting game has not slowed the pace of their efforts. At the site of the September 5th protests, we were invited to sit in on one of the organisation’s weekly meetings. “Lucky for you” Şengül said with a grin. “You’ll be here for our Tuesday gathering.”
Given that YEGEP and Anadolu have been pitted against each other at every turn, it seemed only appropriate that Şengül’s meeting place would be the total antithesis of Zafer’s immaculate, plasma screen filled office. We managed to hitch a ride up to Yaykil with a group of high school students from Istanbul, who said they were in the area to teach kids in Gerze about human rights and critical thinking.
Even from the window of the van, YEGEP’s meeting spot was hard to miss. A large bonfire raged just beside the road, sparking up each time one of the villagers piled on another branch of dried leaves. The flames cast a low, flickering light over a nearby shack that YEGEP uses as a guardhouse. The group told us they man the building 24/7 to prevent the Anadolu Group from entering the Coal Plant site. With a sheet metal roof, the building was barely large enough to accommodate a couple of sagging couches and a table wedged tightly between them, but clearly it was in use often; it contained two of the essential hallmarks of Turkish occupancy – a satellite television and a chai kettle. Plastered across its walls were the familiar, coloured protest banners we’d seen in the YEGEP office. ‘No to Efes Pilsen. No to McDonalds. Save Yaykil.’
To the left of the guardhouse, we could see silhouettes of a sizeable gathering - exactly 57 people in number. Most of the participants were older, probably past their 50’s, and seated in plastic chairs in a single, wide circle. Occasionally, some of them would rise to take food from serving trays of homemade pastries, meat dishes, and vegetables that were set upon long tables in front of the guardhouse. But most barely moved; they were listening intently to their emphatic leader. Even in the low light, there was no mistaking Şengül’s hoarse voice, which, when she got worked up, sounded as if it was on the verge of cracking. The crowd murmured and nodded their heads in agreement.
We turned to Onur, one of the high school students from Istanbul, and asked what was being said.
“They’re planning more community events” he explained.
The previous day, we had seen YEGEP unfurl a 10 foot banner from the sidelines of a handball match. The activists were now planning similar, small demonstrations to maintain their community presence in Gerze. This, we learned, was pretty much all the organisation could do for the time being.
“Now, we’re just waiting to hear that the ÇED report has been rejected” Şengül told us. “We’re absolutely confident it will not pass.”
Like the Anadolu Group, YEGEP has placed all their chips on the report’s legal process in Ankara.
“Usually the ÇED is quite easy to pass, but look at how long this has already taken them [the Anadolu Group].” Şengül pointed out.
We questioned whether the Anadolu Group could do anything without the ÇED’s approval. She told us they could not. So why then, we wondered, did YEGEP still guard the construction site 24/7? “Well, what else would you do in our situation?” she challenged.
Her uneasy response seemed to validate our feeling that YEGEP is less sure of the ÇED’s outcome than their rhetoric made them appear. While they say the ÇED will not pass, the tense meeting, and the 24-hour guarding of the construction site seemed to indicate otherwise.
At the end of the meeting, the group disbanded by singing their protest anthem, chanting “Out out Anadolu Grupu!” During this time, we had a chance to speak with Yaykil’s mayor. When we asked him what he thought about the ÇED, he suggested we speak with his ally - the mayor of Gerze - who had attended Ankara in person to voice his opposition. We set a meeting for the next day.
The Mayor’s Stand
City hall was a lot less swanky than the GES office, but it was certainly much more busy. The entrance hall was crammed with armed guards, fussy attendants running around with binders, and lost looking people. The Mayor worked on the second floor, and as we sat in the waiting room we were offered tea and introduced to our translator. She was an optometrist’s assistant from Rancho Margarita, CA, visiting the city on vacation.
Ten minutes later, double doors opened to reveal Osman Belovacikli behind an over-sized desk, under an enormous portrait of Ataturk. A faux chandelier sat above him. It glinted as he smiled. We sat in plush leather chairs that were parallel to his desk, and distant. We hadn’t asked our first question before he made his position clear. “Is it okay for me as a human being to say okay to the coal plant, okay to polluting the air, [to allow them] to spew carbon dioxide out of their smokestacks?”
We sat in silence for a minute as we pondered how we could answer this question intelligently. We decided to ask the mayor how much of the town stood with him in opposition to the coal plant? “Ninety-eight percent” he said. “Those who want it are only in it for the money.”
It was the mayor who spoke of how Anadolu had worked hard to get the community onside. He told of gifts that the group had made to the community, depositing chocolates and branded merchandise door to door in Yaykil, and making gifts of toys and other merchandise to the Yaykil elementary school.
We asked he’d ever been directly approached by the Anadolu Group and he confirmed he had but had refused a meeting back in the middle of last year.
Mr. Belovacikli, like YEGEP, pins his hopes for a rejection of the power plant application on the stalling of the ÇED and the failure of Anadolu to meet environmental regulations. But if the ÇED does clear, he says he will not stand down. “If they come to build it, there will be war,” he told us. “To stop it” he added, “I will die for it.”
Will They Rise?
Zafer was quick to brush off the arguments of his opposition. “These people are against everything” he said, mentioning that there had also been protests against plans for factories in the past. “This power plant will be built.” We asked what he would do if the protestors persisted once the power generation license had cleared. “That is the government’s problem,” he responded.
For the moment, the conflict is at a stand-off, stalling for an answer from Ankara.
Zafer sits in his empty office, waiting for the phone call that says he can begin asking for bids. The mayor continues to voice his opposition in Ankara. YEGEP still guards the site, knowing that no one will come, and holding meetings to maintain morale as time drags on.
If the application process looks anything like those for past power plants, the green light is likely to be given soon. The question lies in whether the people of Gerze will continue to resist when the full weight of Ankara is pushing behind the project. An issued power plant license would mean the mandatory sale of land in Yaykil at fixed prices, as well as government contracts being distributed for the building of substations and long distance power lines. A physical resistance by the people of Gerze would mean a full-fledged fight, against a better-equipped military and a government that has a history of jailing dissenters.
But the question remains.
If the Turkish army marches again, with bigger muscles and more machines, will the people of Gerze still rise against them?
Chris Walker and Morgan Hartley are two American freelance journalists on a two-year bicycle trip from Paris to Shanghai. They write about the unusual stories they find along the way, and host a regular blog at www.postulateone.com