'Executed' at home: the price one environmentalist couple paid to protect forests

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the 69-year-old leader of Turkey's opposition party, has joined the march for justice for the murdered environmentalists from the capital Ankara to Istanbul.
The alleged murder of activists Aysin and Ali Buyuknohutcu by a mining company following a legal dispute is resonating in Turkey. The married couple had been taken to court by Bartu Mermer after protesting to protect their local forest. In March 2017 the company’s lawsuit collapsed and the mining was stopped. But six weeks later, the couple were shot dead at their country home in southern Turkey, reports BURAG GURDEN.
Despite a cost of two invaluable lives, the verdict on the marble quarry stands as a great precedent for successors of the environmentalist couple.

Reported killings of environmentalists globally had reached a record high in 2015 with 185 deaths recorded in 16 countries. The victims included activists and indigenous families and leaders, such as Berta Cáceres. What they had in common is their struggle to defend statutory rights: human rights, indigenous rights and environmental rights.


And yet 2016 claimed even more lives in the struggle for environmental justice. The scope of research broadened and studies intensified as each new headline attracted more international attention.  A total of 281 killings of environmentalists has now been documented for the year across 25 countries.

Despite a cost of two invaluable lives, the verdict on the marble quarry stands as a great precedent for successors of the environmentalist couple.


The rising tide of violence has even spread to include government officials. Luiz Araújo, the environmental secretary to the Brazilian city of Altamira, in the northern Amazon, was murdered after conducting an investigation into the death of thousands of fish and illegal logging related to the company Norte Energia, which was then fined $11 million for the environmental catastrophes.


An environmental victory that cost lives


Aysin Buyuknohutcu and her husband Ali were shot dead in their countryside house in southern Turkey. The couple were well-known for their environmental and consumer rights activism. For six years they had led both a civil campaign and a lawsuit against destructive stone and marble quarries in Antalya, a Mediterranean city in southern Turkey.


The adverse environmental effects of open pit mining, particularly of those in Antalya, have been reported now and then. Over the course of the campaign, Aysin and Ali managed to have the operations of a marble quarry, operated by the local mining company Bartu Mermer, permanently shut down.


The struggle escalated during 2016, when Ali shared photographs and video on social media depicting the deforestation of highly-valued endemic Calabrian pine and cedar tree groves around the open pits, and publicly denounced the company.


The company sued Ali, accusing him of defamation. In the end, Ali was acquitted in court, and on top of that the judge cancelled the company’s operating license in the area. The final verdict by the state council in response to the company’s appeal also approved the decision of the regional court - securing an absolute victory for the environmentalist couple.


During the press conference following the lawsuit, Ali gave the following speech: “I am fulfilling my duty to protect nature according to the 56th article of constitution. It reads: ‘Protecting nature is the duty of all citizens’ …. [The companies] threatened and daunted the local supporters to stop our campaign …. Yet the final situation became not only a landmark to Antalya but to all our country. Before, citizens were scared to sue companies - now the decision will encourage all environmentalists.”


The verdict suggested that the operations of the company were incompatible with environmental regulations. The quarry was located near a site of  unique natural heritage and the state council required any company working in the area to submit a vital environmental impact assessment (EIA) report.


However, on this occasion the local government had unlawfully allowed Bartu Mermer to go ahead without the EIA. The circumstances surrounding this decision remain obscure.


The verdict in Ali’s case now severely restricts any future mining projects. More importantly, it leads the way for further proceedings against the remaining 13 stone quarries operating in the area, since they have apparently also failed to submit the necessary EIA reports.


The verdict was not the end of the struggle for Aysin and Ali. Far from it. A month after the court decision the couple’s dogs were poisoned. Then there was a forest fire close to their home. And two weeks later Aysin and Ali were found shot dead - apparently executed -  at their countryside house. A suspect was soon arrested. He testified that he was responsible for the shooting. He claimed he had been offered 50,000 Turkish Lira - £10,600 - by an anonymous quarry owner.


The Republican People’s Party (CHP), the opposition party in Turkey, has recently raised questions about the case during regular parliamentary meetings, requesting a special investigation to involve all stakeholders involved in the case. A member of parliament asked the Minister of Justice: “Are you going to investigate the connection between the murder of Ali Buyuknohutcu and his environmentalist struggle and legal victory?”


The criminal investigation is ongoing despite the breakdown of the rule of law in Turkey. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the 69-year-old opposition party leader, has even joined the march for justice from the capital Ankara to Istanbul for the last three weeks. He has been accompanied by thousands of Turkish protesters, several MEPs and a horde of police officers.


The crowd is walking up to 12 miles each day with a single motto of a single word: justice. The Justice March represents a shift of the opposition party’s rhetoric from ‘secularism’ to ‘justice’, which, sadly, reflects the increasing number of environmental conflicts in Turkey, as well as the increasing need for justice.


A bloody battleground


The case of Aysin and Ali is part of a much bigger picture, where the environment is emerging as a bloody battleground for communities and activists. Whenever industries push deeper into new territories we witness local communities taking a stand against the infringers. The Atlas of Environmental Justice has now documented more than 2,100 cases.


But we also witness the very same local communities getting rapidly surrounded by state forces, private security companies and - shockingly - targeted at times by contract killers. The calamity that devastated the Buyuknohutcu family proves the vulnerability of environmentalists and environmentalism once again.


A-Platform, a large environmental CSO, has now called on the government in Turkey for immediate action to maintain justice and leave no space for a justice gap over the couple’s assassination. It has stated: “Any judicial inertia or impunity at this point would put many lives at stake in future.”


Despite a cost of two invaluable lives, the verdict on the marble quarry stands as a great precedent for successors of the environmentalist couple.


This Author


Burag Gurden is a postgraduate student at Lund University. He is also a freelance writer and contributor to the British ‘International Development Journal’, Turkish ‘Dunya Gazetesi’ and the international ‘Words in the Bucket’ community. Currently he is working at the EnvJustice project.

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