Protecting their faces with scarves, local women are taking the frontlines against water cannons and tear gas fired by security forces in southwest Turkey, resisting the felling of trees for the expansion of a coal mine.
Akbelen Forest, located in the Milas district in the Aegean province of Muğla, has been occupied by local villagers as well as environmental activists for over two years to defend the trees from an energy company that runs the coal mine.
While Turkey has been battling wildfires since early this month, tensions erupted last Monday between local villagers and gendarmerie forces in Ikizkoy village when logging crews turned up in the forest area, prompting hundreds of ecologists to rush to the rescue.
The gendarmerie set up barricades to prevent villagers from entering the forest, leading to violent scuffles when the security forces fired tear gas and water cannon to push back the crowds.
“They cut down our trees, uproot our olive groves, scrape and throw away our lands and burn it all in thermal power plants for gold and coal,” İkizköy resident Ayse Çoban, 54, told Agence France-Presse.
“The damage is done. They ruined the country. It tears my heart out,” he added.
Some activists who managed to get by the security barricades occupied the forests and hugged trees last week. Several villagers were detained after they refused to heed the call to leave the area.
“Akbelen, I think, has managed to send a marvelous message throughout Turkey and the world,” said Deniz Gümüşel, an environmental engineer and ecology activist.
YK Energy, a joint affiliate of IC Holding and Limak Holding, which is known to have close ties to the Turkish government, obtained permission in 2020 to cut down the trees in the 316-hectare section of the Akbelen Forest to expand a mine to provide more lignite coal to power plants in Mugla province.
Coal supplies over a quarter of Turkey’s primary energy, and the coal industry generates over a third of the country’s electricity.
“These are the most powerful companies not only in Turkey, but also on a global scale,” Gümüşel said.
“Those women, who we call uneducated, who we think are unaware of the world, are here defending the climate, fighting for climate justice,” she added.
Local residents started a vigil in 2021 awaiting a court ruling on a lawsuit they filed and which is still ongoing.
Last year, the court lifted its injunction temporarily halting forest clearance, and logging crews moved in after the elections this spring.
‘Saplings will be planted’
İsmail Hakkı Atal, a lawyer representing the protesting villagers, said the tree-felling was suspended during the electoral campaign that saw the re-election of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in May.
After a runoff on May 28, “we heard rumors from inside the company, like, ‘Now that we have won the election, we can start chopping down the forest’,” he said.
On Sunday, the governor’s office said in a statement that the deforestation work had come to a halt.
“After this process, the mining areas will be rehabilitated by the permit holder in compliance with the project, and 130,000 saplings will be planted,” it said.
Turkey ratified the Paris Climate agreement in 2021. The coal industry is responsible for a fifth of all global greenhouse gas emissions, more than any other single source.
Activists say Turkey has enormous renewable energy potential and does not need to rely on coal to produce electricity.
However, as of the end of 2022, only 15.5 percent of the country’s electricity was produced from solar and wind power.
Mugla province is home to three power plants, and activists say the coal mines that supply them threaten the region’s centuries-old olive groves, a vital part of the local economy.
“I love nature, I love the earth very much. Even when we die, the soil will accept us, not the concrete,” Çoban said.
“When we die, no one digs up the concrete, they dig up the earth to put us in. Because we come from the earth, we will return to the earth.”
© Agence France-Presse