The issue of the environment has become a significant problem influencing world politics in the last three decades and has gained prominence in public discourse due to huge disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima.
We could say that the emergence of political parties focusing on these matters is the result of this. Even though the Greens are not likely to come to power, these parties have attracted popular attention to environmental issues; people are now aware that there is a strong link between the environment and the quality of life. The environment is an important item on the agenda in the countries where it does attract attention.
A closer look at effective environmental awareness and economic indicators will suffice to show that environmental awareness is a kind of parameter for development. There is a clear link between economic development and attention to social issues and improved environmental awareness. We also see that these societies have developed an understanding of environment and nature that involves the climate, animals and even microorganisms. This awareness is also becoming common in Turkey, where there is a growing attention to environmental issues, including concern over the construction of dams, nuclear plants and hydroelectric stations.
In Europe, the environment has become part of political debates. Not only civil society and environmental agencies but also the environmental ministries in these countries fight against the ministries of industry, economy and energy. However, the case is quite different in Turkey, where the minister of environment aligns with the energy minister or economy minister to promote projects like hydroelectric power plants, focusing on the economic aspects of such initiatives. For this reason, the environment is still not a controversial issue that attracts attention in the Cabinet. In addition to its well-known environmental issues, Turkey is now facing many “unseen” environmental disasters. The outlook for the country’s nature is changing every day, and many things are disappearing.
If you take a closer look around, you will see that many things which were once part of your life in the past are disappearing. Maybe these are small details. But with a closer look, you will realize that many similar problems are emerging in different parts of Turkey and that these minor environmental problems are changing the country, and this makes one sad. I felt this state of sadness in Altınözü, where I took a tour in early April this year to see the Altınözü bluffs after so many years.
The Altınözü Heights, one of the four areas that the Nature Association (Doğa Derneği) aims to protect in Hatay province, holds crucial importance in Turkey not only because of the animal species in this area but also its flora. The heights -- dispersed along the edges of the Amanos Mountains through the Amik Valley -- are cut into valleys by springs and rivers carrying the waters of this rainy region. The most important one of these is Beyaz Çay (White Brook), which is commonly known as Kuseyr Brook. This runs through a valley of olive trees and passes by Altınözü bluffs; in this pattern, it creates small canyons. The stone-made dams constructed over these canyons carry water to mills and serve as irrigation systems for the region. The imprints left by the canal courses on the bluffs, as well as inns and remains of old castles show that the area was an ancient inhabitation. Dams, water canals and the evidence of grinding techniques are like imprints and legacies of centuries-old collective engineering history.
Up until recently, the bluffs have hosted a great number of animal species, including hyenas, jackals, foxes, rabbits and many bird species. The porcupine, which most likely does not live anywhere else in Turkey, used to make itself available by the “arrows” it used to lose in the Altınözü bluffs. It is not possible to see this animal in the Altınözü bluffs anymore. It is also not possible to see the chukar partridge in the region. The chukar partridge, which disappeared in Central Europe in the 16th century due to climate change, is now going extinct in Altınözü because of pesticides and the shrinkage of its habitat. And the bluffs, which used to host a great number of animal species, are about to disappear as well.
Local concerns over the bluffs
Local people divide the bluffs into three regions (Bloody Bluff, Seyrek Kaya and Donluğun Kayası), all of which are under threat. The “bloody” bluffs are so named because of the dark red color of the earth that can be seen as the bluffs are destroyed to make room for residential and business areas. The Bloody Bluff is no longer a habitable place for wild animals. The use of Seyrek Kaya by the state and private companies as a stone quarry seriously changed the look of the bluffs. The waste depot built at the top of the bluffs influences the ecology of the area and also disperses not only plastic bags but also products of “civilization” all over the bluffs.
Even though the Donluğun Kayası, located in the middle, was not greatly influenced by the environmental destruction, biotically speaking it is in a comatose state. These bluffs, which host small creeks in spring, were once an area where frogs and other animals laid their eggs. In these creeks, which once carried clean water, there is no longer any sign of life.
White Brook is also struggling for survival. It faces serious threats because its main sources are used to meet the need for potable water. The wastewater running through Altınözü and other residential areas of the valley pose a great risk and danger for the animals. In the spring, this brook used to tell the Muslim population in the region that Easter was approaching because the number of Christian fishermen in the area would grow. White Brook is under threat by modern agriculture. In the past, waters infused with olive oil would run through the brook, turning the color greenish. But the harvest would take long and for this reason, the rate of acid in the water always remained low. However, the wastewater from olive oil production is now posing a threat because of the high amount of acid in the water as a result of the use of modern machinery in the production. I believe it is possible to purify the olive waste -- which contains valuable materials, including oil and fuel -- by using inexpensive methods required under the law. Such methods are employed in Europe, where olive waste is collected in large pools to wait for the evaporation of the redundant content. However, there is no strong will in the state to enforce environmental laws. Only symbolic fines are issued for the violation of such rules every year; as a result, thousands of living creatures die due to poisoned water. I am sure it is meaningful to note that such wastes are used in Europe for gas production and that this is an alternative for Turkey, at least in theory.
In fact, the problem is not a lack of awareness or insensitivity among individuals. You can hear many villagers complaining that it is no longer possible to hear the call of the partridges; in a brief walk in the area, you can also encounter people who will tell you that they are no longer able to go fishing. The villagers are also concerned about the growing incidence of cancer and they are aware that something is going wrong. Is it possible that the people remain immune to environmental degradation?
The problem is that the state, which is supposed to protect the environment, is weak and fails to appreciate the seriousness of the matter. The unserious and reluctant stance of the state vis-à-vis environmental issues and the insensitivity of the bureaucratic circles that are aware of this leave the environment unattended and uncared for. The state may change through the strong and influential action of the environmentalists and civil society in general. Maybe the remaining species can be saved; maybe we can prevent the water and earth from being poisoned. In fact, thousands of mini environmental disasters constitute a grave environmental problem for Turkey.
There are some positive signs, though. There is the state-sponsored restoration of one of the stone-made dams which was partly destroyed in a flood eight years ago. The villagers say that the standing parts of the stone-made bridge will be repaired soon. A villager who has an agricultural field on one of the mounds was told not to plant trees because it was a protected area. He now says that he will use the field for agricultural purposes in order to not disturb the soil as trees would.
*Ali Yurttagül is a political advisor for the Greens in the European Parliament.