Fight to safeguard nature in rural Turkey

Farmers in the İşkencedere Valley, a region drowning in tragedy, are fighting against government-backed ecocide.

Our main goal at this point is to raise public awareness of the unlawfulness happening on these mountains and expose the wrongdoings.

Rainfall gracefully soaks into the tea fields in a picturesque valley covered in lush, dense woodland. This is the setting for a tale as old as time. The villagers care for the valley and in return it looks after them, offering fresh produce, clean water, and honey from bees that thrive on chestnut trees and wild rhododendrons. 

The northeastern district of İkizdere in Turkey's Rize province is home to a pastoral paradise - the İşkencedere Valley. But this fine balance between society and nature is now under threat.

This article has been published through the Ecologist Writers' Fund. We ask readers for donations to pay some authors £200 for their work. Please make a donation now. You can learn more about the fund, and make an application, on our website.

Stunned 

The villagers grow tea, potatoes, corn, and green beans, and raise cows in the green, steep mountains that reach all the way to the heavy gray clouds above. The villagers' livelihood is contingent on this delicate balance, with farming being the main source of income in the area.

The company Cengiz Holding is known for its close ties with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish president and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). It aims to extract millions of tonnes of basalt from the valley, irreversibly destroying its habitat and biodiversity, and leaving a gutted shell where rich wildlife roamed and trout-filled streams flowed.

The stone quarry will support the construction of a new logistics port on the coast of Rize, which also happens to be Erdoğan’s hometown, where voters have overwhelmingly backed him in the past.

An estimated 65 million tonnes of stone will be extracted from the valley, with 16 million tonnes of that utilized for the port, unless the villagers' resistance prevails over the government-backed ecocide. 

It all began in late April 2021, at the plateau of the pandemic pandemonium in Turkey. The situation was grim, with people dying in overcrowded hospitals due to a recent spike in COVID-19 infections and curfews in place to prevent them from going out on the weekends to curb the spread of the virus. 

Climbing

On April 21, the villagers were roused from their beds by the shrieking sound of diggers tearing through the forest to build the road for the quarry. The villagers were stunned to discover that President Erdoğan had approved a decree authorising the expropriation of their lands just days before the diggers barged in on their land.

They were never consulted. In addition to the devastation of the valley, about 15 householders would lose land used to cultivate tea and graze cattle. This spurred the villagers into action. They filed a lawsuit demanding that the execution of the project be halted and the project canceled.

Our main goal at this point is to raise public awareness of the unlawfulness happening on these mountains and expose the wrongdoings.

They also set up guard tents, claiming that there was no state of war that would allow Erdoğan to make an immediate expropriation decision for the valley. They would not hand over their valley to anyone, and they would fight against the devastation of their habitats until the very end.

On the first day, more than 50 villagers, including many elderly women, from the villages of Gürdere and Cevizlik, which are located around the İşkencedere Valley, sat in front of heavy machinery as scores of gendarmerie were brought in to remove them.  

The women of the valley walked for hours every day through the dense, thorn-filled forests with sticks in their hands to reach the construction site. The protests heated up as villagers defied a strict weekend lockdown to confront Cengiz Holding and the gendarmerie, using beehives to block the valley's entrance and climbing to the trees to prevent them from being felled.  

Uprooted

However, president Erdoğan is two decades into his rule and no longer tolerates protests, except those led by his supporters. So it was a common sight when the gendarmerie used excessive force to quash the demonstrations.

During the following days, which saw hundred-year-old trees being uprooted and thrown into the streams used by the villagers for drinking water, there was a severe attack on the protestors, and footage of elderly women rolling down the hill after the gendarmerie pushed them with their shields was released through social media.

The gendarmerie also used pepper spray and detained many men, prompting women to climb nearby trees and perch aloft for several hours. At times, excavators brought to construct the quarry road were used to throw stones at the villagers.  

“We had to go there right away,” Eren Dağıstanlı, an environmentalist, told The Ecologist a recent interview. When the protests began, he was in a nearby district, attending the trial over the killing of retired teacher Metin Lokumcu, who died after being pepper-sprayed while protesting against hydroelectric power plants in the region.

Dağıstanlı was present during the protests in İkizdere, and now considers the villagers to be family. “Be it the construction of a hydroelectric power plant or a stone quarry - everyone around here has suffered from this one way or another, so we always rush to help. This behaviour is common in the Eastern Black Sea region.”

With even more people traveling from other cities, the protests grew stronger and fiercer, and this was significant for a variety of reasons. The demonstrations were spearheaded by women, who undertake the lion's share of the daily work in the village with little help from their husbands.

Their courageous pushback would win country-wide recognition, especially as the outraged voices had erupted from Rize, the loyal home province of President Erdoğan on the Black Sea coast.  

Children

Within days following the clash in İkizdere, opposition politicians started arriving to lend their support. They were quickly followed by Adil Karaismailoğlu, the minister of transport, who insisted that the planned port would bring jobs and prosperity to the region.

Disregarding the villagers' complaints, he stated that the site of the quarry would be rehabilitated afterward. Villagers and their supporters, however, were not convinced since they had witnessed the ecological harm caused by development projects elsewhere. 

The villagers had chosen a walnut tree as their meeting place; they would gather around it and continue their watch to protect the valley. “It was a beautiful — beautiful walnut tree,” Dağıstanlı tells The Ecologist. “They chased the villagers away and uprooted the walnut tree while they were constructing the road to the quarry. This, I believe, was meant to intimidate them, and it was one of the last straws.” 

The protestors managed to stall the construction machines for a while by using paths only known by the villagers to reach the area — they call themselves the children of the valley, after all. Once they arrived, they laid themselves in front of the excavators. 

When it became clear that the villagers wouldn’t back down without a fight, a large iron door was set up in the front of the valley, and the gendarmerie, who had discovered the pathways the villagers took, blocked them from entering the construction site. The last blow was the government imposing a breaking the curfew since withdrawing, and using it to levy heavy fines. 

Development

President Erdoğan spoke publicly about the İşkencedere protests for the first time last September, stating that “all the leftists and communists in Turkey are coming to İkizdere.” Erdoğan said: “You cannot stop us. We will build these facilities and roads. Your power is not enough to stop us.” 

While the physical protests have largely died down, the villagers are still adamant about their case; they say they don’t oppose the planned port but insist that the stone for it can be quarried elsewhere rather than destroying an area valued for its biodiversity.  

Instead, they want the tea factory they were once promised by the government. Although the villagers are being blamed for being against investment and development, they have been vocal about their desires from day one. “There was a carcass building that was supposed to be converted into a tea factory,” Dağıstanlı explains.

“While they were building the road, they demolished that building, too. Who is the enemy of investment here? They destroy the valley, then they call the villagers who earn their entire living from it enemies of development. How is that fair?” 

Muddy waters

Almost one year after the demonstrations, the destruction in the valley continues apace, despite an expert committee report showing the environmental repercussions of the quarry.  

The frequent coming and going of trucks carrying loads of stone and dirt, routine explosions shaking homes, thick dust settling on tree plants and fruit trees, and excavators digging into the valley have now drowned out the sound of birds and rushing streams below plantations.  

According to the latest estimations, 1.7 million tonnes of stones have already been taken, and the process will continue at an accelerated pace unless the court makes a decision to stop the destruction. 

Seven experts have prepared a report showing that the project would cause irreversible damage to the İşkencedere Valley, which has been included in a lawsuit filed by the villagers and the İkizdere Environment Association.

Tea plants

The report states that, in the Project Introduction File prepared by Cengiz Holding, there is not enough information on the risk of landslides and the damage done to water resources. 

There have been endless water problems since the construction began. Farmers who’ve always relied on the pristine water coming from the mountains to quench their thirst now say that they’ve had to purchase water from markets for the first time due to the excavation muddying up the streams.  

Furthermore, Dağıstanlı says that beekeeping, which is the primary source of income for many villagers, will likely no longer be possible in the valley owing to excavation dust that has settled over plants, soil, and houses.

The dust has also affected the growth rate of the tea plants, making them grow slower and almost impossible to properly cut and sell.  

Meanwhile, the Rize Administrative Court has yet to make a decision.  

Costs

“We are in a 30-day waiting period,” Yakup Okumuşoğlu, an environmental lawyer who represents some of the villagers, told The Ecologist.

The court decided to obtain additional reports from the experts before issuing a verdict, and the experts had to request extra time for that, which means that the villagers and their lawyers have to wait, even though it's been almost a year with the construction continuing at full throttle. 

“Unfortunately, we’ve learned that we can no longer make progress by filing lawsuits,” Okumuşoğlu said.

“When you’re up against the administration, and the project is important to the said administration for whatever reasons, you come to learn that you just cannot win those cases. In fact, we’ve had lawsuits where the stay order was issued after the constructions were completely finished.” 

Okumuşoğlu thinks that İkizdere is chosen because it’s easier to reach the Rize port from there, which possibly takes the costs down significantly.

Law

This could explain why Cengiz Holding, which is one of the 'Big Five' companies that have dominated the Turkish economy during AKP's rule, insists on taking the stones from the İşkencedere Valley. To put that into context, the CEO of Cengiz Holding, Mehmet Cengiz, was worth $550 million in 2020

“This has become a vicious cycle, and people are aware of it. Whether we win or lose, those we are against can do whatever they want. So our main goal at this point is to raise public awareness of the unlawfulness happening on these mountains and expose the wrongdoings.

"We are trying to document in history that the plundering continues despite all these efforts.” 

When I asked him about the future of the İkizdere case, he assured me that the case will surely be won.”We're going to win because nothing they’ve done matches the commitments they've made in their own documents. But in practice, can we stop the destruction? Our hands are tied there.

"We are just a handful of people confronting law enforcement and the state and trying to save whatever we can from destruction. We don't have the means to achieve more: we are on the side that respects the law, and they are on the side that does not respect the law.”  

Wildfires

All of this turmoil and injustice is taking place in a region susceptible to devastating landslides and floods.  The emerald-green Black Sea highlands are endowed with a network of dozens of rivers and streams, and the Eastern Black Sea Region receives the majority of Turkey’s rainfall.

While the villagers have come to know when they’ll be hit with heavy rains, the amount of rainfall has reportedly doubled over the years as a result of human-caused climate change. 

In fact, deathly floods have become all too common in the region as a result of poorly constructed and situated buildings, including those within river valleys and on narrow flood plains.

Dam construction, mining projects, and new highways have significantly transformed the region's geography during the last two decades, unleashing a series of deadly disasters in recent years. 

Just last year, in August, as the southern coastal regions of Turkey were engulfed in flames due to raging wildfires, the northern Black Sea region saw the country's worst flash floods in years.

At least 82 people lost their lives to the unforgiving waters, while 228 were injured and 16 people were reported missing. 

Fate 

President Erdogan's government pushes ahead with numerous big projects championed to generate growth and employment in the country despite years of scientific findings, court decisions halting projects, and public opposition.

The government pledges to compensate people with money and tends to put the blame on 'fate' whenever there is a calamity and a loss of life as a result of these projects.

Little action has been taken to restore the natural balance and prevent future disasters despite the fact that further investigation is promised after every disaster.

And those living in villages surrounding the İşkencedere Valley fear that they may be the next victims of this vicious cycle. 

“Can the İşkencedere Valley, which already shoulders so many projects, bear this burden?” Dağıstanlı asked, but the answer is clear.

Killed

“They build houses on creek beds, dig up the ground and make quarries, and block the flow of small rivers.

"A geographic region already tormented by so much suffering cannot bear more of this burden. We’ve seen it can't in the past, and we’ll continue to bear the consequences.  

“If they had inspected the stream banks as they said they would, so many people would not have been killed in the 2021 floods,” Dağıstanlı continued.

“These people were murdered by the wrong development policies in the creek bed. No one can say that it was simply fate or that it happened only because it rained a lot.

"They were killed. In Hopa, where I live, we lost eight people who were dear to us in the 2015 floods.” 

Dynamite 

Dağıstanlı informed The Ecologist that two landslides occurred after the construction began in İkizdere. A construction machine also rolled into the creek, with a worker operating it stuck inside. Thankfully, no one was wounded in any of these incidents. But this further highlights how projects that destroy nature also devalue the labor of the workers.

When companies decide they need to finish projects before environmental lawsuits are finalized, implementing health and safety measures for workers goes out the window, and exploitation is taken to a new, more dangerous level. 

“From the people who gave permission for the projects to those who’ve signed it, all of those who are profiting from the destruction of nature are guilty,” Dağıstanlı said. “What happens if there is a deadly landslide or a flood in İkizdere? Who will answer for it? No one. They’ll probably call it fate.” 

It’s almost April again, and it'll soon be the anniversary of the start of the demonstrations in the İşkencedere Valley.

When spring arrives and the actual magnitude of the devastation is laid before our eyes, nature will sound its warning, but it'll be only audible to those who listen — if only they can hear it over the roar of the exploding dynamite.  

This Author

Derya Özdemir is a writer and editor based in Turkey, who works to raise awareness of climate breakdown and ecological crimes. She tweets at @OzdDerya. This article has been published through the Ecologist Writers' Fund. We ask readers for donations to pay some authors £200 for their work. Please make a donation now. You can learn more about the fund, and make an application, on our website.

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