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Destruction of olive trees in Turkey triggers protests

A Turkish company cutting down 6,000 olive trees serves as the latest example of disregard for the environment in Turkey.
Villagers drive a tractor carrying olive tree branches near the border city of Kilis in Gaziantep province April 21, 2012. REUTERS/Murad Sezer (TURKEY - Tags: SOCIETY TRANSPORT) - RTR310YB

Turks have woken up to the importance of their environment since the May 2013 Gezi Park protests in Istanbul that spread across the nation. “Istanbul is a big metropolitan area, unlike Yirca. Our population in this village here is only 400. Yet I realized in the last two to three days while appearing on television news, or speaking to journalists, how much people care about us here, too. That touched our heart,” Yirca village headman Mustafa Akin told Al-Monitor.

In the early hours of Nov. 7, 6,000 olive trees that were 85 to 100 years old were cut down in Yirca village, which is attached to the western town of Soma in Manisa province. The Kolin Group — one of Turkey’s biggest conglomerates and known to have a close relationship with the government — decided to build a power plant in the olive grove. “If they would have shifted their location by just one kilometer [0.6 mile], we would have kept our trees in place,” Akin said. “The Council of State decided 10 hours later that the company should stop all activities at our grove, but it was already too late. The trees are gone, and we are now waiting for the final decision of the court before making up our minds as to what we can or cannot do next.”

Once the trees were gone, the villagers were numbed.

“I did not take care of my babies as well as I did my trees,” one elderly Yirca woman said, sobbing with her body wrapped around trees lying on the ground.

The Kolin Group brought its private security guards and workers to uproot the trees despite the continuing court process and the villagers' 52-night-and-daylong guarding of the grove.

“It takes at least 20 years to get good production from olive trees,” the village headman said in his CNNTurk interview Nov. 7. “I don’t know how these people can now eat olives or use olive oil without losing their appetite!” Those were his last words in that interview, as he could no longer hold back his tears. It was a moment that captured people’s hearts and consciences.

“It was at that moment that I decided that I needed to go down there and do something,” Baris Sozen, who was among a group of 100 people who planted new olive trees at the Yirca village on Nov. 9, told Al-Monitor. “We reflect people’s conscience. There may not be hundreds of people this time, but more will be coming the following weeks.”

Sozen, an Istanbul-based businessman in his 40s, expressed how touched he was watching the village headman crying helplessly on television. Yet, he also observed that people have mostly held back, remembering how police used excessive force during the Gezi Park protests, indicating that many people may prefer to lie low this time around. The group of volunteers was mostly composed of people from the agricultural engineers chamber and other nongovernmental organizations focused on the environment.

Large numbers of trees have been cut down in the last few years to create space for construction projects. While people hold the government responsible for the damage done to the environment, it seems to be to no avail.

Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus sought to absolve government policies from blame. “As you well know, olive trees don’t grow easily. They are valuable trees. We cannot surrender nature to the [rules of] violent capitalism,” Kurtulmus said Nov. 9. “We need to find the middle ground. Yes, we need electrical energy. We need power plants. But it is also wrong to damage the environment in a thoughtless, reckless way just because we have some economic needs.”

But the Council of State cannot offer much to find a middle ground in this case, given that the trees are already chopped down. Akin, however, told Al-Monitor that if the court’s final decision favors their side against the Kolin Group, they can in the least ask for compensation and start planting their trees to begin anew.

“We had a symbolic activity on Sunday [Nov. 9] where we planted about 100-110 olive trees,” Akin said. “If the court decides in our favor, we will then expedite our efforts to plant more trees. We will have to first wait and see what the court says. And that decision may come in a month, six months, a year or it may not come at all. We don’t know.”

The Yirca village headman did offer this, however: “You know what it means to go underground in this country to work in the [coal] mines. We won’t do that. We probably won’t leave our village. Some of us may end up going to bed hungry at night, but we won’t go underground to work in the mines risking of our lives.”

In May, an explosion at a coal mine at Soma — not too far from Yirca — killed 301 miners in Turkey’s worst-ever industrial accident. When such incidents pile up — whether an explosion at a mine or the cutting down of trees in the middle of a night despite a continuing court process — people’s trust for building a just and a better future is also significantly reduced.

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