Local residents, environmentalists, and opposition politicians have clashed with police in a forest in southwest Turkiye after they tried to prevent a company from cutting down thousands of trees to make way for a new coal mine. Dozens of people have been arrested and injured in the process.
The issue started four years ago, when the Turkish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry handed over some 780 acres of land in Akbelen Forest, located in Muğla Province’s Milas District, to YK Energy. The company is a joint venture between Limak Holding and İÇTAŞ Enerji. The partners have identified coal reserves in the forest, which they want to mine.
Plans for a new coal mine have been fiercely resisted not only by locals in the nearby village of İkizköy, but also nature conservationists, climate change activists, and left-wing politicians. Around 300 organisations have rallied around the İkizköy villagers to help them stop the mining of lignite in their neighbourhood.
Lignite is a crumbly brown coal that is relatively cheap to mine and is used to produce electricity. However, as a low grade coal, it produces less energy than hard coal, generating more air pollution and is equally hazardous to the environment.
Despite a court order calling for YK Energy to suspend its activity in the forest, the company has ploughed on, felling an estimated 65,000 trees.
For the past two years, a coalition of opposition has formed among the different civil society groups, who have come together in Akbelen Forest by erecting tents as part of an ongoing vigil against the deforestation.
However, in a re-run of the events of Gezi Park in Istanbul a decade ago, police used aggressive tactics to try to break up the peaceful protest, which the authorities deem illegal. At least 40 people have been arrested since the start of the latest protest on 24 July.
Things reached a critical climax in the early hours of 29 July, when Turkish gendarmerie and police surrounded the protestors’ camp, stopping anyone from getting in or out. Deforestation work commenced at dawn and any protestors who tried to leave were pushed back by police using tear gas and water cannons (TOMA).
Among those arrested on the day were local lawyers İsmail Hakkı Atal and Leyla Bilgen, who tried to enter the blockaded area.
The Muğla governor’s office has described the protest as “provocative” and “ugly’, while also trying to appear receptive to environmentalists’ concerns by promising to compensate for the trees being destroyed by planting 130,000 saplings in the area.
The pledge was laughed off by activists, who say the saplings will not offset the massive damage being done to the forest, given that the maturity of the trees being cut down, which are aged between 60 and 90 years old.
Villagers have traded barbs with politicians from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its chief ally, the far-right National Movement party (MHP), with each side accusing the other of ‘destroying the peace’ at Akbelen. MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli went as far as accusing the demonstrators of being ‘criminals’ and ‘terrorists’.
— Kuzey Ormanları Savunması (@kuzeyormanlari) July 26, 2023
Nöbet alanına girmek isteyen arkadaşlarımız yoğun darp ve işkenceye maruz kaldı. Gözaltına alınanlar var.
— Doğanın Çocukları (@DogannCocuklari) July 29, 2023
The publicity about the protests and police handling of it has seen even more people flock to Akbelen Forest to support the local villagers’ protests.
Social media is awash with photos and videos of women from İkizköy bravely putting themselves between the police and the forest, as they try to peacefully stop the deforestation machines. Their brave resistance has made them the country’s new green icons.
“The [mining] plant means death, poverty; it means we are finished. Soil means bread, water, air. If there are trees, there is life, water, we can breathe”
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Different women from İkizköy told a crew from German broadcaster DW why they are protesting: “I went and hugged my trees, kissed them. Every time the tree was cut, I felt like a lost a limb, like we have been cut off from our children. No matter what we did, we could not stop them. They used force against us, they dragged us, hurting us.
“We residents of İkizköy village are holding a vigil, fighting for the future of our country, so it does not disappear, so our land and soil doesn’t disappear, so that we still have air to breath and water to drink, so that we still have our village. This is why we are here.
“The [mining] plant means death, poverty; it means we are finished. Soil means bread, water, air. If there are trees, there is life, water, we can breathe.”
Other women have also shared their experiences at Akbelen Forest, along with the bruises they’ve received after battling with police to stop the mining company.
İkizköy, Karacahisar ve Çamköylüler olarak Akbelen Ormanı’nın girişinde, Ören karayolunda buluştuk. Sabrımızın sınırındayız. Bu haklı mücadele yolundan asla vazgeçmeyeceğiz! #AkbeleneDokunma #HerYerAkbelenHerYerDireniş pic.twitter.com/41XodICLPD
— Akbelen Yuvamız Vermeyeceğiz (@ikizkoydireniyo) July 29, 2023
The events at Akbelen comes at a time when Turkiye is facing more wildfires than ever and pressure is growing for the AKP government to make serious policy changes to tackle the climate crisis. As things stand, it seems President Erdoğan’s government will continue to prioritise economic development over the environment and the need to invest in cleaner energy supplies.
Main image, top, police put up barriers to keep protestors at bay as they try to stop Turkish company YK Energy from cutting down trees to make way for its coal mine in Akbelen Forest, Akbelen protests in Muğla, southwest Türkiye – 30 Jul 2023. Photo © Kenan Gurbuz/Depo Photos via ZUMA Press Wire/Shutterstock (14028633ab)