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Locals, activists fighting to save Akbelen Forest stage protest in Turkish capital

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Locals and activists fighting to prevent the felling of trees to expand a coal mine in southwest Turkey have moved their protest to Ankara, making a joint press statement with representatives from labor unions prior to an extraordinary session of parliament, the Artı Gerçek news website reported on Tuesday.

Dramatic scenes have emerged since July 24 when Akbelen Forest in the Aegean province of Muğla was occupied by villagers and activists trying to stop the trees from being felled by the mine’s owner, an energy company close to the government.

Muğla 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.

YK (YENİKÖY KEMERKÖY) Energy, Limak Holding and IC Holding’s joint venture has taken action to include a part of Akbelen Forest in the village of İkizköy into the mining area that supplies lignite to thermal power plants.

YK Energy had obtained the necessary permits from the Agriculture and Forestry Ministry to operate a lignite mine in Akbelen Forest, but they faced resistance from locals, who have been struggling both physically and legally to protect Akbelen since 2019.

The protesters, who have been resisting for 16 days in Akbelen Forest, arrived in Ankara on Tuesday before the extraordinary session in parliament at 3 p.m. local time.

They were greeted by representatives from the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (DİSK), the Confederation of Public Sector Trade Unions (KESK), the Turkish Union of Engineers and Architects Chambers (TMMOB), the Ankara Medical Chamber and the Ankara Chamber of Dentists as well as opposition politicians.

It was emphasized in the joint statement read by Seyit Ali Korkmaz, secretary of the TMMOB’s provincial coordination board, that “living spaces” in Turkey are being destroyed through economic policies that view nature and cultural values as tools for capital accumulation and aim to turn them into profit.

“Declaring Akbelen Forest as a mining area, and therefore destroying nature, forested areas and wildlife, is an environmental and humanitarian crime. The planned mining operation and activities in Akbelen will alter the geography, eliminate biological diversity and forested areas, deplete water sources and lead to irreparable damages,” Korkmaz said.

The statement also drew attention to the ongoing illegal tree felling in Akbelen and the silence of state institutions, relevant ministries and authorities, regarding the issue. It highlighted that the people who defend their forests, lands and lives have faced pressure, detentions and violent attacks.

The joint statement also called on the government to “take your hands off of Akbelen” and cancel any projects that pose harm to both humanity and nature.

Meanwhile, a citizen speaking on behalf of İkizköy villagers responded to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent labeling of them as “marginal” by saying, “The marginal groups are here. If our 90-year-old Grandma Zehra is considered marginal, then we will be marginal till the end. We will not surrender Akbelen and İkizköy to the mines!”

Erdoğan on Monday dismissed the environmental protests in Akbelen, saying the campaign was led by “marginals” posing as environmental activists.

Speaking during his party’s group meeting on Tuesday, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), also referred to Erdoğan’s remarks about the protesters.

“You label those who stand beside the forests as marginal. … [However] if a political power has surrendered itself to the ‘gang of five’ in a country, then it has become marginalized,” the CHP leader said.

Limak Holding is among the five pro-government holdings in Turkey that have been awarded nearly all the large tenders during President Erdoğan’s time in office. Also including Cengiz Holding, MNG Holding, Kolin Construction and Kalyon Construction, the group is referred to by the opposition politicians as the “gang of five.”

According to data in the Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change Ministry’s Environmental Impact Assessment (ÇED), Limak Holding has received approval for 52 projects in 13 provinces since 2014, in addition to the large number of contracts awarded by the public sector.

Over the years, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s environmentally irresponsible policies, particularly regarding the mining industry, have been subject to widespread criticism. Environmentalists and local communities have expressed concern that the AKP’s policies prioritize economic interests and favor pro-government mining companies, often at the expense of important natural habitats.

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