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Meet TEMA, Turkey’s fastest growing civic group

In a country where civic organizations are met with suspicion, Turkey’s environmentalist group TEMA has reached a membership of 600,000 people.

Be it for lack of awareness or political courage, getting organized is not exactly a Turkish strong suit. With a population of 78 million people, Turkey today is an international laggard in terms of unionization and membership in civic society organizations. As of January, only 1.5 million of Turkey’s 12.7 million workers were unionized, according to the Labor Ministry, down from 2.5 million in 1980 when the population stood at 42 million. Similarly, 87% of Turks are not members of any association. About 109,800 associations are active today, in addition to some 5,000 foundations established since 1980, according to official figures.

The very act of getting organized has taken on a negative connotation, and the word “organization” has come to almost mean “illegal group,” leading many to use an alternative word that sounds more like “establishment.” What brought Turkey to this point is a history of political turmoil, marked by bloody street clashes between opposing groups and military coups, which discouraged political activism. Furthermore, the state came to view any organized activity as suspicious, and successive governments installed laws that put shackles on what was once a politically vibrant society.

But despite all hurdles, one civic organization stands out as a fast-growing movement, reaching out to all segments of Turkish society. The Turkish Foundation for Combatting Soil Erosion, for Reforestation and the Protection of Natural Habitats (TEMA) has signed up 100,000 new volunteers in the past two years, bringing the total to 600,000. Setting a shining example of civic activism, a major requisite for participatory democracy, TEMA boasts a nationwide network of volunteers of all ages, mobilized with innovative strategies.

For TEMA Chairwoman Deniz Atac, “luring young energy” lies at the core of their success. “Education and raising awareness is the most important thing we do. You have to make people realize how important nature is for humankind — not as a cliche, but as a true awareness that they are part of the nature,” Atac told Al-Monitor. “You achieve this easier with children as they are free of prejudices and calculations. We reach out to 75,000 children annually. And we do this not through one-off conversations but through field education that engages them in activities from preschool to the final year of university.”

Founded by businessmen Hayrettin Karaca and Nihat Gokyigit in 1992, TEMA became a household name with the slogan “Don’t let Turkey become a desert” — a reference to erosion, which destroys an average of 743 million tons of soil in Turkey every year. Today, TEMA’s network extends to 510 locations in all of Turkey’s 81 provinces, working not only to raise environmental awareness, but also to push legislation for the proper management of natural resources.

Stressing that TEMA’s founders left “an amazing legacy,” Atac said, “Today we have a terrific [leadership] team aged between 35 and 40 with a very good training. Knowledge and experience have been merged.” TEMA, she stressed, keeps politics at an arm’s length, embracing volunteers of all stripes. “Veiled girls are also coming, which is fine as long as they don’t bring their political convictions along,” she said.

Atac’s emphasis on politics is not without a reason, for even environmental issues have become highly politicized in Turkey under the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The government’s aggressive construction drive has posed threats both to natural riches and cultural heritage and was a major grievance that drove the mass anti-government protests in the summer of 2013.

TEMA’s nonpartisan stance doesn’t mean it shies away from criticizing the government. Four years ago, for instance, the AKP pushed through parliament a controversial bill that allowed the state to sell the so-called 2B lands — lands officially registered as forestland but deemed to have been deforested throughout the years. TEMA’s statement on the issue read, “The bill on the sale of the 2B forests, under discussion for about a decade, has been approved by parliament overnight while most of us were asleep. The question of whether forests are salable assets was never discussed. Instead, parliament discussed prices, market values, payment installments and discounts for cash payments. And then hands were raised. The 2B forests were proclaimed to have ceased to be forests, becoming lands to be sold to their occupiers. But that was not all. [The bill] also paved the way for forestlands, deemed to be unworthy of preservation as forests under arrangement 2A, to be converted to real estate. We, the TEMA foundation, are aware that forfeiting and selling the 2A and 2B forestlands is a big mistake and we ask: How are we going to answer to the future generations?”

Besides education and forestation projects, TEMA works on rural development projects. “We are acting as catalyzers. With the money we take from sponsors, we help farmers to spin their wheel,” Atac said. “In Gaziantep, for instance, we implemented a project to boost pistachio output. Working together with a local research center, we achieved substantial results. Another project was implemented in Afyon, where the Borusan company transferred funds to retiring employees. The retirees made investment in their hometown, in the fruit-growing sector, and as a result, people began to return to their villages [from big cities].”

Fourteen million trees and 799 million acorns have been planted across Turkey in the forestation campaigns TEMA has led, in addition to more than 60 projects on rural development, environmental protection and biodiversity preservation. The association has been instrumental also in the legislation of laws protecting pastures and soil. Currently, it keeps up forestation work on 287 locations, in addition to awareness projects targeting private sector workers, local administrations and women. In 2012, TEMA became one of the first recipients of the UN Land for Life Award, which recognizes excellence and innovation in sustainable land management.

Apart from raising environmental awareness, TEMA has succeeded in breaking the prejudices of those who would flinch at the mention of “civic society organizations,” looking poised to surpass the 1 million mark in its membership in the next few years.

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