16 August 2021
Akbelen struggle gives hope in these difficult days
Author: Nilay Vardar, Communications Consultant at Europe Beyond Coal
‘‘I can’t breathe right now.
We knew this day would come.
They came early in the morning while everybody was at work or busy tending to their animals.
They started cutting down the trees before anyone had the chance to stop them.
We are not dealing with humans here.
We try to reason with them, to convince them to stop, but they are not human.
They are like stones, people with stone hearts.’’
This was Nejla Işık’s lament when men came to clear the forest near her village.
Akbelen is the last patch of forest in İkizköy, a village in Muğla, Turkey, and it is currently threatened by the expansion of yet another coal mine. The people of İkizköy are leading a growing resistance against this destructive deforestation of their community, keeping watch in tents in the forest 24 hours a day, 7 days a week since July.
Muğla’s coal history began in 1979, the year Nejla Işık was born, when the first pickaxe was struck in her grandmother’s village. For 40 years people have been living under the destructive grip of the three power plants (Yatağan, Kemerköy, Yeniköy) fed by the mines that first pickaxe started.
Eight villages in Muğla have been cleared for the mines to supply coal to the power plants. If YK Energy (Limak and İÇTAŞ) and Aydem Holding behind the plants, gets its way, 40 more communities will be forced out of their homes.
Nejla Işık’s husband’s village, Işıkdere, now part of İkizköy, is one of them. Nejla’s daughter, Esra, is a 3rd generation coal victim, who has witnessed the destruction of the region her father is from, and the relocation of her family. The pain her family suffered gave her the strength to protect Akbelen now.
‘‘I never believed that I would be motivated by the pain of the past. But the deep sense of sorrow we carry from our experiences back in Işıkdere has driven us to protect this area for more than three years now.’’
Since 2018, the people of İkizköy have been issued demands to leave their homes, and their water supply has been cut off several times by YK Energy as a warning. As spokesperson of the İkizköy Environment Committee, Nejla is busy organising in the village, while her daughter Esra shares their story with the rest of the world through social media.
The Turkish government claims it is determined to extend the life of coal power plants and mines privatised in 2014 for another 25 years, without Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs), and despite investors fleeing as the economics of coal collapses.
Nejla Işık tells that she has been sleeping like a fox for days: one of her ears is always on alert against intrusions to the forest. Unfortunately, what they have been dreading happened on 17 July. Forest Management Authority teams entered the Akbelen Forest at six in the morning and managed to cut down nearly 30 trees until the people of İkizköy found them and stood in the way.
With the intervention of the villagers, the forest chief had to stop the cutting and the gendarmerie and the clearing team withdrew from the field. The people of İkizköy started a 24-hour watch in the forest.
While the forest watch was in progress, forest fires that ravaged all of Turkey started and the fire reached Yeniköy Power Plant. Even under the smoke and ashes, the people of İkizköy did not leave their forest. They proved to be right in doing so, when the company cut down 102 trees on the night of August 8th amidst all the devastation forest fires were causing. With the resistance of the villagers, the deforestation stopped.
However, two days later, the gendarmerie intervened with disproportionate force, demanding that the people of İkizköy leave the forest. The people stood their ground and won. Tarkan, one of Turkey’s most famous singers, has also shown his concern.
The villagers have also taken their struggle to court, challenging the decision of the General Directorate of Forestry to allocate the forest to YK Energy last November. While enduring this latest struggle, they received a decision from the court: a stay of execution (temporary halt of operations) on forest cutting.
The good news from Akbelen gave hope to everyone in these difficult times when the whole of Turkey was preoccupied by fires and floods.
Still, the villagers will continue their forest watch. Their demands are very clear: Annulment of the mining operation permit in the 740-decare Akbelen Forest, an old and natural red pine forest, home to many different animal and plant species, and allowing public participation in the decisions around life extensions of the surrounding power plant and mines.
Nejla Işık hopes that Muğla will soon follow the rest of Europe and phase out coal: “The land is precious. If you produce, if you work, if you do it with love, the land will repay you. I want us to leave coal behind…”.