Fear in Turkey as environmental crackdown worsens

The repression of Environmental Defenders in Turkiye is devastating

“Even while making these statements of mine here, to an international community, I am feeling quite unsafe and scared”. These are the words of Elif (not their real name), a Turkish environmental activist and documentary maker, describing the climate of fear within environmental circles due to extreme repression by the government. Elif has not broken any laws, and has only been involved in peaceful protest, but the AKP repression of environmentalism is crushing all.

A flashpoint of repression occurred last summer, at the Akbelen Forest defence camp, in İkizköy. Led by local women, the Akbelen camp began in 2021, and involved locals and environmental defenders from all over Turkiye keeping watch over the forest to prevent its felling for a coal mine. However, on 24th July 2023 peaceful protestors were met with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons, as police cleared them away in service of a private coal company. The incursion was unexpected and extremely violent: grandmothers and children were attacked by the police and injured.

Nejla Işık, an Akbelen advocate, explained to me the basis of the Akbelen protests. “We started the Akbelen resistance, and are in this resistance primarily for the survival of our village. Because in our village we have lands, olive groves, orchards, forests, memories, past and future.”

“To not lose all this and not to sacrifice it to coal, we united as villagers and started this struggle.” Nejla had never been involved in activism before, but joined with her community to save their homes and their forest, with no idea of the intensive repression they would face over the following years.

Elif has been visiting Akbelen since the camp was formed. “Akbelen is the place that I discovered the real meaning of the phrase ‘environmental rights are human rights'”, she explains. In Akbelen, the destruction of the forest means the destruction of the local community, subsistence farming, ancient olive groves, and more. In the longer term, the coal mine will pollute the region and worsen the impacts of the climate crisis in Turkiye.

Turkish environmentalists are fighting a massive battle. Turkiye faces a litany of environmental threats, almost all of which are exacerbated by Erdogan’s spree of mega-infrastructure projects that he has embarked on since 2013. Turkiye was the last G20 nation to ratify the Paris climate agreement, only doing so in October 2021. The government has plans to increase coal power capacity by 20.4GW, despite 44,000 people dying in Turkiye each year due to disease linked to air pollution, one of the highest levels within the G20. Forests and rural towns have been decimated by wildfires: forest fires increased by 450% between 2020 and 2021.

2023 was already a bleak year for activists in Türkiye. In February, a huge earthquake hit Southeastern Türkiye, killing more than 40,000 - a death toll increased by negligent infrastructure practices and a slow government response, legacies of corruption. In May, Erdogan won another term in elections labelled the“most pivotal in Türkiye’s modern history”. This was a significant blow to those hoping for a more progressive government amidst crushing economic troubles and increasing authoritarianism. The destruction of Akbelen was another cause for despair.

This repression peaked on July 24th. Nejla says the villagers were “pepper sprayed, beaten and detained, from ages 7 to 70”. Following this incursion, houses and land were under a gendarmerie blockade for 3 months, a denial of their rights which has been taken to court.

Although the dismantling of Akbelen resistance camp was especially violent, suppression is not new. In the last decade, Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian government has cracked down hard on all opposition. Environmental activists have been under increased suspicion since the 2013 Gezi Park protests, which were originally led by the environmental movement, but widened into general popular resistance against AKP governance. Elif was part of the Gezi protests, which she describes as a fight to “reclaim the urban commons”, such a popular fight that it “spread across Turkiye within 5 days”. She identifies Gezi as a site of increased state violence against peaceful environmental movements, experiencing “incredible police brutality”.

However, after the failed coup d’etat in 2016, Elif says that “the government's pressure has taken another dimension”. Beyond police violence, after 2016 the AKP increased their use of state institutions to intimidate activists campaigning for environmental causes, and court decisions began to favour the government over protestors. This repression is directed against a range of interconnected activist causes, especially including the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights, and advocacy for the Kurdish cause. Elif knows many academics who lost their university jobs and faced trials simply for signing a petition calling for peace “against police and army brutality in Kurdish cities”. Activists are constantly “criminalised, targeted in work lives and in social lives”. In October 2023, after Elif shared pro-Akbelen posts on social media, two police officers came to her home address and pressured her to make a statement. The investigation was eventually cancelled, however it is intimidation such as this that makes protesting for a clean and safe natural environment almost impossible in Turkiye.

Many activists are scared that state accusations are not empty threats, and with fair grounds. Elif’s accusation that “the courts are controlled by the government and financial power holders” is backed up by convictions. In 2022, Osman Kavala, a Turkish civic leader, was sentenced to life in jail due to his alleged role in the Gezi Protests. In the trial, Gezi was labelled as an attempted coup, rather than the peaceful protest it was, in what Freedom House has called “deliberately convoluted political prosecution” The AKP fears an environmental movement catalysing wider discontent again, and is cracking down on anyone who stands in the way of Erdogan’s infrastructure plans.

These plans include reaching further and further into protected areas In the last decade, rural Turkish citizens have faced increased incursions on forests and protected land from private mining companies and government projects. Even areas with symbolic value are not safe: in the last decade, the government has made 9 attempts to change an historic 1923 law that protects olive groves from destruction, in order to legalise further deforestation. In Akbelen, those leading the fight are women, who’s families had lived in the area and tended to olive trees for generations, who were enraged that the government gave away their land without informed consent. These are the protestors the state is choosing to crush.

“There is still so much to tell”, Elif explains, of the plight of the environment and its protectors in Turkiye. On her most recent visit to Akbelen, after mine construction began, she says the forest is “like a war zone and earthquake zone. Explosions are taking place right next to the villagers houses and olive groves which is unlawful. There are cracks on their walls. And the heavy trucks are working all the time with incredible noise.”

Nejla says that the destruction of Akbelen has “turned our heaven into hell”. “I feel pain,” she continues. “The forest I grew up with was destroyed before my eyes. My forest, which I know as well as my home, is now unrecognisable.” Despite this, and despite police brutality and intimidation, the local people are continuing to fight. The Akbelen collective are still organising protests, still legally challenging the government in court, and continue to return to what is left of their forest to lay claim to their rights- at high personal cost. Nejla is devastated at the loss of the forest she grew up with and the “irreversible damage”, but vows that “even though there is ongoing pressure to sell, we do not leave these lands or Akbelen at any cost. We don't stop fighting.”