Campaigners resist destruction of Istanbul forests and wetlands for airport megaproject

Trucks in the airport excavation area. Photo: North Forest Defence.
Trucks in the airport excavation area. Photo: North Forest Defence.
Destruction of 76 square kilometres of forests, lakes and farmland is proceeding north of Istanbul for the city's third airport, writes Rosie Bridger. But the gigantic ‘aerotropolis' project is vigorously opposed by local farmers and residents, and an urban resistance fighting other ecologically destructive megaprojects across the beautiful, biodiverse region - both on the streets and in the courts.
... swathes of forest felled leaving bare desert-like earth, colonised by grids of identikit grey sheds, lakes filled with earth, rivers and streams giving way to ribbons of concrete, flocks of storks traumatised by removal of their nesting sites.

Campaigners in Istanbul are resisting construction of the city's third airport. Vast tracts of forest, lakes and farmland have already been obliterated and a far larger area is at risk.

The masterplan is a blueprint for an airport of gargantuan proportions, a megahub with six runways and 16 taxiways. The site, alongside the Black Sea coast 50 kilometres to the north of the city, is gigantic: 7,650 hectares (one hectare is about the size of a football pitch).

The airport project is supported by government at the highest levels, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. On 11th February 2014, as commencement of construction loomed, an Istanbul court suspended environmental approval for the airport, ordering a stay of execution, in response to a lawsuit filed by residents living in districts neighbouring the site.

But national government officials, determined to bulldoze the project through the legislature, pledged that works to prepare the site for construction would continue. Erdogan stated that laws would be amended if courts continued to issue such rulings and said: "The trucks are waiting in the construction zone."

Enter the forest defenders

A few days later, on 22nd February, protesters opposing the airport project marched with a banner depicting Erdogan as a bulldozer uprooting a tree. Arriving in front of government offices they met with a wall of riot police.

Kuzey Ormanları Savunması (North Forest Defence), an organisation which campaigns to protect the forest from industrialisation and urban sprawl, led the action and described the airport plan as a "death-sentence for the last bit of greenery left in the city." Within the space of two weeks, on 11th March, the ruling suspending construction was revoked.

Presiding over the groundbreaking ceremony for the new airport, on 7th June 2014, Erdogan laid the foundation stone and made a statement that left commentators in no doubt of the scale of ambitions for the project:

"Istanbul is marking a historic day. Turkey is marking a historic day. The biggest airport of the world and six continents is going to rise here ... We are building not just an airport, but actually a monument of victory today."

... swathes of forest felled leaving bare desert-like earth, colonised by grids of identikit grey sheds, lakes filled with earth, rivers and streams giving way to ribbons of concrete, flocks of storks traumatised by removal of their nesting sites.

As Erdogan made his grandiose pronouncements a crowd of forest defenders gathered in the centre of Istanbul for another protest against the new airport. Some wore tree costumes with garlands of interwoven leaves on their heads, others carried shields decorated with images of leaves, the emblem of North Forest Defence.

One protester dressed as a stork, just one of the 300 bird species, including rare raptors and spotted eagles whose habitat is imperilled by the project. Singing and dancing, they met with the customary riot police and water cannon vehicles.

Already, pre-construction activity had begun wreaking ecological havoc. Draining of 70 lakes had commenced, the water channelled via canals into the Black Sea in preparation for replacing a complex wetland ecosystem with giant slabs of impermeable concrete.

The Turkish Chamber of Engineers and Architects warned that raising the site to the level of elevation required for airport operations, using 2.5 billion square metres of infill, would sever the flow of rivers and underground seepage.

That would cause long term problems with water deprivation in the city, where a shortage was already evident, and jeopardise irrigation of agricultural and pastoral land.

Against life, nature, the environment, people and the law

North Forest Defence brings together a broad coalition of environmental, neighbourhood and civil organisations, along with professional associations of architects, engineers, economists and scientists.

This remarkable regional solidarity has proved highly effective in scrutinising and critiquing the airport project and a wealth of expertise is evident in a comprehensive 100-page report, The Third Airport Project: Vis-a-Vis Life, Nature, Environment, People and Law, published in March 2015.

The report reveals the full extent of ecological destruction that has already occurred and what is at stake should the airport plan be fully implemented, which would entail 90% of the site being concreted over. About 80% of the area is forest, the remainder consists of lakes and farmland.

Extremely rare plant species and biotopes are being destroyed and the multitude of species of trees includes black pine, oak, hornbeam, ash, linden and cedar. An abundance of biodiverse flora and fauna is being wiped out.

In addition to resident bird species the forest is one of only a few resting places on global migration routes. Each spring 400,000 birds fly over the area, and another 200,000 every autumn, a flight pattern dating back tens of thousands of years.

The lakes are havens for many amphibians and fish species including cranes, carps and catfish. Fragmentation of habitats has adverse effects on mammals requiring large unbroken areas for their survival.

Elimination of habitats supporting wild boars is increasingly evident to residents of Istanbul. They have no option but to flee, and sightings of the bewildered creatures wandering the city streets and swimming in the Bosphorus are becoming more frequent.

The consortium of five firms was awarded the tender to construct and operate the airport downplays the ecological value of the project site, implying that it is a former mining area. A small portion of the project site was indeed ruined by mining, but restorative work and natural processes are transforming abandoned craters into lakes hosting a diversity of plants, birds, insects and fish.

Draining the lakes has thrown a heartening rewilding success story into reverse with all aquatic life being destroyed.

Camouflage for a massacre

North Forest Defence rips apart the travesty of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) that paved the way for approval of airport construction, slamming it as "camouflage for the massacre". Hastily prepared by the consortium it is utterly inadequate, riven with intentional omissions, trivialisation of environmental impacts and lack of technical data.

A litany of legal violations includes expansion of urbanisation northwards into the forest that contravenes the Environmental Plan of Istanbul and the fact that the tender for the airport was issued before the EIA had been approved.

Claims that there were no plans to build on the coastline or within the Black Sea were misleading. In reality, the site encompasses 20 hectares of the Black Sea and land reclamation is having a devastating impact a stretch of coastal ecosystem including sand dunes protected by international conventions.

Coastline is also threatened by excavation of sand for use as aggregate on the airport site; the village of Ağaçlı has no beach left because thousands of truckloads of sand have been taken away for earthworks on the airport site.

Ağaçlı is one of the villages most severely affected by site preparation for the airport. The place name means 'wooded' or 'with trees' but it has lost its meaning because of deforestation. If construction continues 657,950 trees will be cut down.

The EIA states makes the bizarre claim that another 1,855,391 trees will be moved to another place. A forestry expert confirmed that such a large scale relocation and replanting of trees would be technically impossible. Therefore, over 2.5 million trees are at risk.

North Forest Defence's protests, research and legal interventions are bolstered by an astonishing photographic and video record of the ecocide: piles of felled trees, bulldozers gouging at the earth, swarms of trucks loaded with earth for infill.

Aerial images show the bigger picture: swathes of forest felled leaving bare desert-like earth and the beginning of its colonisation by grids of identikit grey rectangular sheds, lakes filled with earth, rivers and streams giving way to ribbons of concrete, flocks of storks traumatised by removal of their nesting sites. This visual evidence is distressing but highly effective in raising awareness and galvanising action.

North Forest Defence also casts some light on distinctly murky airport financing. Citizens are on the hook for liabilities, even though the consortium of five firms - all with close ties to the government - awarded the contract to construct the airport and operate it for 25 years, and public bodies supporting the project, have denied this, perpetuating a myth that liabilities incurred would not covered by Treasury guarantee.

In fact, Turkey's airports administrator General Directorate of State Airports Authority (DHMI) bears responsibility for the airport. As DHMI is a public enterprise the project does fall under the scope of the treasury. And the cost has already mushroomed from $16 billion to $20 billion.

A Trojan horse for an 'aerotropolis'

Campaigners' investigations revealed plans for a monstrous development that is more than just an airport. Forest is being cleared to make way for the largest airport car park in Europe with capacity for 70,000 vehicles, hotels, a convention centre, a clinic and the world's largest-duty free shopping area, a massive 53,000 square metres.

A trade press feature claims that this gigantic temple to consumerism, part of a megaproject that is obliterating unique and beautiful terrain, will "preserve the fabric of Istanbul", by dint of a veneer of decorative details such as a "stunning roof inspired by Istanbul itself". In contrast, the EIA hints at a nightmare vision of emulating the "artificial paradise" of Dubai, a notorious concrete jungle.

The airport site, a sprawling 7,650 hectares, far exceeds what would be required for airport operations, even if the projected 150 million passengers per year materialises. Scepticism over the prospect of the new airport reaching full operating capacity is not confined to opponents of aviation expansion. Leading aviation industry analysts Centre for Aviation (CAPA) regards the projected passenger numbers as unrealistic.

In comparison, the world's busiest airport, Atlanta in the US, handles more than 95 million passengers annually. Yet, even with the typical associated commercial development surrounding a major airport, such as shopping malls and warehouses, Atlanta covers a site of 1,625 hectares. The area that would be available for non-aeronautical activity Istanbul's third airport is far larger, estimated by North Forest Defence at 57,000 hectares.

A paragraph in the EIA revealed the reason for the seeming discrepancy in the land allocated to the project. Istanbul's third airport is in fact the starting point for an 'aerotropolis': an airport surrounded by commercial development that is designed to be aviation dependent and facilitate growth of the airport.

Around the world aerotropolis projects supplement aeronautical revenue, from landing and navigation fees and other services to airlines, with 'non-aeronautical revenue' from airport-owned land, using it to cross-subsidise airport operations and growth. The CEO of the consortium confirmed that non-aeronautical revenue, from duty-free shopping and other facilities, is anticipated to exceed aeronautical revenue.

Gifting land for non-aeronautical revenue generation makes the government transfer of natural assets to private firms even more astounding. An enormous area has been 'handed on a platter' to consortium partners for their future profits.

Cihan Uzunçarş;ılı Baysal, a housing rights activist supporting villagers facing forced eviction for the airport, likened the project to a Trojan horse opening up land for exploitation by construction and real estate firms.

The megaproject complex

Istanbul's emerging aerotropolis is part of an integrated package of infrastructure projects tearing up the city's northern forests. Construction of a third bridge over the Bosphorus Strait, the large body of water that bisects Istanbul's Asian and European sides, connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara, is underway and a canal running parallel with the Bosphorus is planned.

Multilane highways schemes, to interconnect the megaprojects with each other and other developments further afield, place yet more forest at imminent risk of being ripped from the earth.

Twenty years ago, as mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan said of plans for a third bridge over the Bosphorus: "Making a 3rd Strait Bridge is committing suicide; this is a murder! It is nothing more than killing the green areas left at our northern region by opening it to reconstruction!"

As Prime Minister he championed the project, and continues to do so as President. Construction of the bridge, set to comprise eight car lanes and two railway lines, has proceeded in spite of 30 lawsuits opposing it.

Oak, acacia, linden and willow trees have been cleared for a 60.5 metre construction corridor. Two imposing columns near the landing point for the western end of the bridge arose from the sea floor off the coast of the fishing village of Garipçe. Habitats supporting fish stocks were destroyed, impacting on fishing livelihoods.

Erdogan's ego was in full flow when he unveiled the Istanbul canal scheme, in August 2011. He proclaimed it to be "one of the biggest projects of the century, with which the Panama Canal, the Suez and the Corinth Canal in Greece cannot even compete!"

By 2015 'Kanal Istanbul' had morphed into an even more colossal megaproject, the 150 metre width more than doubling, to 400 metres. Crossed by six bridges, the canal would turn Istanbul's' European side into an island.

Environmentalists warn that disturbance of the delicate ecological balance between the different elevations, temperature and salinity of the Black, Maramara and Aegean seas would be irrevocable.

The real rationale for the third bridge and canal is the same as for the airport: to open up virgin land for further plunder and trigger development of a new commercial centre. In combination the megaprojects work in a terrible synergy, feeding each other's growth. And the megaprojects are part of a wider government backed construction frenzy that serves as Turkey's the main economic stimulus.

Combined with real estate speculation, construction mania keeps the economic plates spinning. Istanbul's last remaining unspoilt ecosystems are being sacrificed to maintain what North Forest Defence's report calls an "unearned income machine". Economic growth and capital accumulation drive the ecological destruction.

Stalled, but not stopped

Forest defenders maintain their efforts to apply judicial brakes to stall construction of the megaprojects. In June, tenders for linking roads to the bridge were postponed for a third time and lawsuits against the project were being filed almost on a daily basis.

A stay of execution on acquisition of a large tract of land for the airport has been issued by the Council of State. But North Forest Defence warns that these court decisions over the third bridge and airport are not being implemented. Villagers are being evicted to make way for both.

The number of trucks conducting excavation works for the airport, currently 1,200, is expected to increase to 2,000. Construction of the terminal has commenced and DHMI is adamant that the first plane will land in the first quarter of 2018.

In response, resistance has stepped up a gear. North Forest Defence has joined forces with Istanbul City Defence to launch a new campaign tackling the third airport, third bridge, canal and other megaprojects in their entirety: "Stop the Killer Projects! Be the Breath of Istanbul!"

Uplifting artwork portrays human lungs as two branches of a tree, symbolic of the forests as critical for 'the very survival of life' in Istanbul and the wider Marmara region. Stepping up the inspirational social movement for environmental protection and justice brings hope of stopping the excavation trucks and bulldozers in their tracks.



Rose Bridger (@RoseKBridger) is a founder member of the Global Anti-Aerotropolis Movement (GAAM) and the author of Plane Truth: Aviation's Real Impact on People and the Environment, published by Pluto Press.

More from this author