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Turkey's threatened sea turtles

An AKP-affiliated developer's privatization attempts on a beach preserved for endangered sea turtles has turned Dalyan’s residents into environmental activists.
caretta UNDP Tahsin Ceylan.jpg

In any decent travel guide for Turkey, one of the must-see sites on the western Mediterranean coast would be Iztuzu Beach, better known as the Turtle Beach, or Dalyan Turtle Beach of Mugla province. Nearly a million tourists visit Dalyan annually. With its Kaunos ancient city, mud baths, the Lycian rock tombs and picture-perfect beaches, Dalyan is a major tourist attraction for Europe.

Iztuzu Beach is a narrow strip; about 5 kilometers (less than 3 miles) long, where fresh water from a river meets the sea, forming a delta lagoon that creates a natural habitat for Caretta caretta turtles (also known as loggerhead sea turtles), an endangered species. If you happen to be in the vicinity between May and September, you will see the beach is sealed off from sunset to sunrise and no umbrellas or chairs are allowed so as not to disturb the incubating and hatching of these rare and endangered loggerhead sea turtles. They hatch out of their eggs under the sand and crawl to the sea. Looking over the white egg shells and little baby turtles crawling all over the place during the season, one may find it hard to believe they are endangered; however, they are on the red list of IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). There are about 20 beaches worldwide where Caretta carettas nest, and Dalyan ranks as one of the most important.

Yasemin, a native of Dalyan town, who only shared her first name, told Al-Monitor with tears in her eyes: “You may think turtles are old and rough animals, and there are so many of them out here, why the worry? Well, that is wrong, because their numbers have been decreasing 6-8% every year, precisely because of us, our recklessness. This beach is where I learned to swim. At the time, we did not know the white shells were where the turtles came from. Once we were old enough to understand, my friends and I made it a task to be the guardians of the eggs and the babies. We would hover over the strangers who might be stepping over them, or reckless young boys. This is why it is forbidden even to lay a towel beyond a line on the beach because that is where the majority of the eggs are laid.”

Yasemin was in tears because on the night of Dec. 29, developers cut the locks on beach gates and drove their bulldozers and large trucks on the beach. She said: “I am just a regular, 50-year-old housewife, and now I have become an activist. I know “Captain” June [a 90-year-old British woman who has lived in Dalyan since the 1970s and actively worked to protect the turtles] saved this beach from developers in the 1980s, and now I will join forces with her and others to protect the turtles. We owe it to the next generations.”

Indeed, facing pressure from developers who wanted to build luxury hotels on the beach, the government declared “Koycegiz-Dalyan Special Environmental Protection Area” in 1988 to prevent any construction. Therefore, the jurisdiction for this region falls under the Turkish Environmental Protection Agency for Special Areas.

Sadly, this was not enough to protect the idyllic beach and its precious sea turtles from greedy developers. Residents of the region, environmentalists from all over the country and nature-loving tourists who are in the area have been keeping vigil on the beach since Dec. 30. Mainstream media has deliberately ignored the groups' legal battle since June 2014, so they have been struggling to raise awareness through social media. Murat Demirci, spokesman for Save Iztuzu Beach Platform (an umbrella organization supported by several local and regional nongovernmental organizations) explained the events to Al-Monitor in detail:

Activists protect the beach habitat of the loggerhead sea turtles in June 2014 (Müfit Kanmaz).

“This is a public beach; for the last 15 years Dalyan municipality has run the beach successfully [respectful of the needs of the endangered sea turtle species]. In June, we learned that in a haphazard manner they were transferring the authority to run the beach to a private company. We could not understand what was happening because there was a no public tender, no contract that we could view. We started a petition to protect the beach. The courts agreed that the decision to transfer the beach to a private company was illegal. Yet, on Dec. 29 in the middle of the night, the DAL-CEV company entered the beach with construction trucks. We have no other means but to organize a sit-in here to protect the beach.”

Ramazan Oruc, the chief executive of DAL-CEV, which had won the bid, told reporters: “I have been in Dalyan since 1988 and our firm has been operating for 25 years. We have successfully completed the bid, we now expect to have support of the Dalyan’s residents.” Oruc claimed that everything was transparent and much of the news about him is not accurate. He also promised employment for all residents of the town and facilities for disabled people as well as children and families. Without explaining how, he also said his firm would help the struggling farmers of the region as well. Watching Oruc’s news conference, one cannot help but get the impression that he is campaigning for political office. Indeed, he ran for a seat on the city council in the March 30, 2014, election on the Justice and Development Party (AKP) ticket, but lost.

Contesting Oruc’s defense, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) representative Omer Suha Alda in a speech at the Turkish parliament said the government had given the bid to DAL-CEV, which did not exist at the time of the finalization of the bid. Alda said: “This company that won the bid was established two days after the bid was finalized.” The company’s Web page provides no information about the bid or DAL-CEV’s history for that matter. Save Iztuzu Beach Platform initiated another petition asking the British partners of DAL-CEV to withdraw their financial support from this firm.

Berna Ulutas, a local lawyer and a member of Save Iztuzu Beach Platform, told Al-Monitor: “There was no written bid. It is our understanding that the deal was brokered over personal conversations. We fear partisan favoritism. Not only Oruc, but the director of the firm ran for office on the AKP ticket.”

Beach Platform spokesman Demirci posed crucial questions: “If this is a legitimate company that cares about the environment and the health of the turtles, why would they enter onto the beach breaking the locks and driving in with bulldozers at midnight? A private company is about profit, right? This company [says its focus is] ‘tourism, construction, property and hotel management.’ How can we trust their operations if we do not know what kind of profit they aim to accumulate from which resources? Who will be liable if nature is destroyed beyond repair? That is, who will guard the public interest to be protected under the profit-seeking establishment?”

Considering this beach has been declared a special protection area since 1988, and that the sea turtles are endangered species that faces serious challenges, such as harm from fishermen and propellers on boats, should “new sun beds” be the most compelling concern of the management?

Slowly, the Turkish public is hearing the voices of Dalyan residents. On Jan. 7, Redhack announced it had hacked Oruc’s company Web page.

In addition, a group of Turkish actors, actresses and musicians released messages standing in solidarity with Dalyan protesters.

In the last decade, most of the AKP’s grandiose construction projects have faced resistance from local residents. Yet, except for Gezi Park, almost all of these nascent local movements had to cave in to legal and political pressure. In many cases, even if the residents win in court, it is too late. Although thousands have joined the Iztuzu sit-in protest, they need all the support they can receive internationally and domestically to stop the construction threat on the beach before more turtles are harmed.

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