Turkish gold fever

Gold mines threaten green Turkey: even national parks are no longer safe. Villagers protest and go to court. “We expected more support from Europe.”

If only it was so simple, sighs Kumsal Yenilmez, protester against the opening of more mines in the west of Turkey. A judge recently decided that a gold mine close to the village of Havran had to be closed until there is a more thorough report about the effects on the environment. But at the site the gold mining turns out to continue. “That’s how it usually goes in Turkey”, says Kumsal. And her skepticism is justified: various mines have already ignored a series of judicial orders to close without getting into trouble. The authorities give ‘special permission’ to enable the mines to go on exploiting the land, or don’t even bother to do that but simply don’t enforce the closures.
Kumsal Yenilmez has been living in Altinoluk for years. Altinoluk is a village on the western coast of Turkey. Originally Kumsal is from Istanbul, and initially she was looked upon with suspicion, but she won the trust of the villagers by tirelessly fighting the mines. The region draws its income from vast olive groves. They are in danger, says Kumsal walking through an olive grove where the trees are being pruned. The biggest danger is cyanide, the poison that is used to separate gold from stones. It is stored in big basins. If they start leaking, spontaneously or for example because of an earth quake – not uncommon in Turkey – the cyanide ends up in the soil and you can forget about olives.

Obsolete processing method

That accidents do happen became clear in June 2006 in another goldmine, further east, close to the village of Eşme. Because of an obsolete processing method cyanide escaped, and stayed in the atmosphere due to lingering dense, low cloud cover. Hundreds of people ended up in hospital with signs of poisoning. The mining companies say that the mining had nothing to do with it. Court cases over compensation are still pending. The mine was closed after a court order, which stated that there was too much danger to both villagers and the environment. But now there is a new court verdict: apparently there was a technical fault in the previous verdict, so for some months the mine has been open again.

The Turkish environmental movement made its first real mark when they protested the opening of the first Turkish goldmine, halfway through the nineties, close to the historical village of Bergama. In particular naked male protesters and a demonstration on the Bosporus Bridge in Istanbul drew attention. It was villagers who took action, and ever since it is still mainly local and regional groups that fight the mines. In western Turkey GÜMCED (South Marmara Nature and Culture Protection Organisation) is the most important one. The local branch is run by higher educated locals like teachers, lawyers, architects and retired civil servants. Practical help and expertise often comes from members of national professional associations – lawyers, engineers – that offer their help free of charge. Villagers take part in demonstrations at road blockades – such a blockade is again planned for later this month. Turkey’s biggest environmental organisation, TEMA, is involved only marginally, as are international organisations like WWF or Greeenpeace.

European Court

The protests in Bergama inspire people who want to prevent new mines from opening. Even though the Bergama protests were in retrospect not so successful: the mine was opened anyway, various court orders didn’t help, the government supports mining and doesn’t enforce the court orders. Protesters can also go to the European Court for Human Rights. Which actually condemned Turkey in 2007 for ignoring court orders. Only in ten to fifteen years, will Turkey probably be an EU member, and how much that will help remains unclear. The activists are suspicious: they expected more support from European politicians. They speak out about Kurds and the freedom of opinion, but not about the Turkish environment.
The fear of new mines and the motivation to fight them have been stirred up since in new law was passed that doesn’t safeguard even national parks from mining. The environmental movement protested officially against the law, but the High Court didn’t speak out about it yet and is not expected to do that any time soon. Environmental organisations say the law goes against the constitution, which gives every Turk the right to live in a healthy environment, and which states that both the state and civilians have the duty to prevent damage to the environment.

Land of mining and deforestation

Turkish and foreign mining companies guarantee to work responsibly and safely, and promise to restore the environment to its original state after the gold is won. But that doesn’t reassure Mehmet Öznal, activist for GÜMCED in Altinoluk: “More then six hundred licenses have been given out for mining, of which 110 are in this region. For every mine thousands of trees have to be cut down. Turkey is 780 thousand square kilometres in size, the licenses cover 155 thousand square kilometres. If all these mines are actually opened, Turkey will no longer be the land of many civilizations, but the land of mining and deforestation.”

The mine close to Bergama, closed by the court but kept open by the authorities, seriously affects the surroundings, but they are green. Many villages still live from agriculture, olive yards and especially from pine trees. There is no destruction of the landscape. Were the consequences of the mine not so bad after all? “Yes, they were bad”, says Irhan Keskin, one of the opponents of the mine. “You might not see it, but we are scared of the long term effects. If anything goes wrong with cyanide, we can forget about agriculture here. After a few years, the gold is won and the mining stops, while the environmental damage can be forever.”

Prosperous as Switzerland

Kozak, one of the seventeen villages around Bergama that unite in their protest against the licenses, are magically beautiful. Looking at it from above, one sees endless hills covered with pine trees. For generations now, people have made a living from the trees. Recently, says one village head, a professor of Izmir University called this region as prosperous as Switzerland. Seventeen villages, with 38 million dollars in annual income, all thanks to the pine trees. What he means to say is that the villagers will not welcome the mines because of the jobs they provide. “We have jobs, we lack nothing here. Mining makes multinationals rich, nature gets out of balance and then we lose our income.” As a right-minded Turk he wishes to quote Atatürk, father of  modern Turkey: “The land is sacred, we cannot leave it to its fate.”

Published in Milieudefensie Magazine – monthly magazine of the Dutch section of Friends of the Earth International

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