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Erdogan's AKP: We didn't light the fire

ISTANBUL – When a pine tree burns, it screams loudly to the residents of Mazikoy, a village on Turkey's Aegean coast. Also olive trees. When their insides burn, they scream. At this point it is almost impossible to put out the fire.

That year, on July 31st, the smoke appeared over the ridges around Mazikoy. When the bay's residents – many of them clerks and small hotel owners – saw him, they knew how quickly the parched pine trees that felled the bay would burn from a record-breaking heatwave. They evacuated all of their guests in the middle of the night.

"Nobody had any idea what was going to happen," told me Cagri Tas, whose family owns the Incekum guest house in Maziköy, when I visited.

Summer vacationers lined up at the bay's only dock and waited for lifeboats sent by the coast guard. At around 3:00 am, they piled on these boats with their luggage and pets – "like Noah's Ark," said Tas – and were taken to the nearby town of Bodrum. Locals stayed behind.

At dawn, helicopters brought the fires under control for a moment. But on August 1st at 9:00 a.m. the fire surrounded the city on all sides.

When flames swept across the only road that led to the bay, firefighters were unable to reach the restaurants and hotels on the beach. While the electricity and water were turned off, hotel owners and their families carried water in buckets from the ocean to the flames. With the exception of eight men who had stayed behind to fight the fire, Mazikoy people boarded boats at eleven o'clock and headed out into the bay. Behind them, they saw flames seeping into their homes and livelihoods, the sky burning orange and smothered by smoke.

When the Tas family returned to Mazikoy on August 2nd, the hills behind their hotel were black. Likewise the sea, the ash-lined beach. The family's property was intact, but other hotels on the bay weren't as lucky.

Later that week, while the local government cleared up the remains of the burned buildings, villagers heard little from the national government other than a condolence visit from Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu. They had to ask themselves: where was help when she needed it? And how could these fires wreak such havoc in the first place?

The hills behind Mazikoy, Turkey, are blackened by forest fires on August 6th. Erin O’Brien for Foreign Policy

The Turkish government's relief efforts for this summer's forest fires in the southern regions of the country have been widely condemned as inadequate. Without an immediate, aggressive nationwide response – and with temperatures exceeding 104 degrees Fahrenheit – the fires could burn more than 150,000 acres of forest and kill eight people in just two weeks.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have tried to politicize the disaster, making the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which Turkey and the United States consider a terrorist group, for sabotage and local communities responsible for their lack of response. The government also criminalized a social media campaign – #HelpTurkey – aimed at raising money for the affected areas, with prosecutors investigating posts using the hashtag. Erdogan and his supporters argued that the campaign was aimed at making the government appear weak, and they launched a rival campaign – #StrongTurkey – which praised the federal response to the fires.

The coastal regions of Turkey mainly elect the opposition Republican People's Party. In the four weeks since the fires there, floods in the Black Sea region in the north of the country have killed at least 82 people and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. In contrast, this area, which is Erdogan's ancestral home and strongly supported the Popular Alliance between the AKP and the ultra-nationalist party of the Nationalist Movement in the 2019 local elections, received immediate pledges of support from government agencies, with Erdogan even announcing a fundraising campaign. The different responses to these two crises have only underscored the political and strategic nature of the AKP's relationship with environmental disasters.

During her tenure at the helm of Turkey, the AKP has prioritized development, urbanization and capital gain over environmental protection. Since Turkey's founding in 1923, successive governments have positioned development and industrialization as state-building, but this trend has only accelerated since Erdogan took power nearly two decades ago.

Since the Gezi Park protests in 2013, the AKP has treated environmental activism as inherently anti-government. The protests, sparked by government plans to convert a green space in central Istanbul into a shopping mall, turned into large-scale anti-government demonstrations when demonstrators were met with extreme police violence. The Gezi Park protests, which lasted more than a month, are considered a turning point in the anti-democratic turn of the AKP. Despite the strict protection of forests and natural areas enshrined in Turkish law, Turkey is unable to effectively combat environmental degradation and climate change due to the ethos of economic development and the politicization of environmental issues.

When the religious conservative AKP came to power in 2002, it did so on a platform that emphasized development and industrialization. That strategy worked for the first decade of the party's tenure. Turkey's GDP per capita skyrocketed from just over $ 3,600 in 2002 to a high of over $ 12,600 in 2013, but has steadily declined since then. However, many of the government's major development projects have enormous environmental costs.

For example, the Ilisu Dam project flooded the ancient city of Hasankeyf near the Syrian border. The transformation of Lake Salda, once a protected habitat, into a public recreational area has led to its rapid destruction. Urbanization in and around Istanbul, combined with poor enforcement of industrial waste regulations, has caused the Sea of ​​Marmara to be choked with snot. According to experts, the Istanbul Canal project proposed by the government could lead to the destruction of natural habitats on its planned path and destroy ecosystems in both the Marmara and Black Seas. And the Kemerkoy thermal power station, which has been in operation for almost 30 years despite local court orders and widespread protests, is wreaking havoc on Gokova Bay, a protected habitat. On January 1st, 2020, the facility was closed due to a new environmental ordinance passed in parliament. Shortly afterwards, however, the Ministry of Environment and Urbanization issued him with a “preliminary operating document” that enabled the facility to continue operating despite non-compliance.

The plant happens to be in Turkevleri, another Aegean town that suffered from the flames this summer. The fire brigade was able to bring the fire under control shortly before the silo, from which the factory employees had removed all combustible material. Otherwise a poison gas bomb would have been waiting to explode.

A forest that was destroyed by fire on August 5th outside Icmeler near Marmaris in Turkey. Erin O’Brien for Foreign Policy

According to Global Forest Watch, the tree population in Turkey shrank by 545,000 hectares from 2001 to 2020, a decrease of 5.4 percent since 2000. According to the European Forest Fire Information System, around 175,000 hectares of forest have been burned so far, more than eight times so much land that by this point in the year has usually been burned. The forces that were supposed to protect these forests were also hampered. At the height of the fires, the Turkish fleet of around 12 fire-fighting aircraft was on the ground due to lack of maintenance. Many firefighter pilots have been fired in recent years, and the Turkish Aviation Association, which should have overseen the air strikes, is led by an AKP officer who was out of reach during the worst of the fires. (He later said in an interview that he was at a wedding.)

Article 169 of the Turkish Constitution states that in the event of forest fires "burned forest areas will be reforested" and "other agricultural and livestock activities are not allowed in these areas". Forest protection has long been codified in Turkish law: the first forest protection law was passed in 1839 as part of the Ottoman Tanzimat reform. After the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the first forest law was passed in 1937 and its modern form in 1956. In 1982 forest laws were incorporated into the constitution that is still valid today after the military coup. In all of these laws, a healthy forest is defined by the number of trees and reforestation that it is home to – not its biodiversity. After the recent fires, Erdogan himself stated that trees were being replanted in devastated areas.

"According to the constitution, burned areas are not allowed to be used for other purposes, they are reforested," he said on July 31. "As a government that has increased the presence of the Turkish forests, it is our primary duty to reforest whatever is burned there."

The problem is that once these trees are planted, there is very little regulation or willingness to contain development in the affected areas. The government can authorize the cultivation of scorched land for a variety of sanctioned purposes, including tourism. This ability was strengthened by a law passed by the Turkish Parliament on July 28th during the fires, which gave the Ministry of Tourism control of forest areas and coastlines. Many fear that the government and the state-controlled housing authority TOKI – the mechanism behind much of Turkey's rapid development – will use the land that has already been cleared by the fires for major projects such as luxury hotels and resorts.

The burned ruins of the Kale Pansiyon restaurant in Mazikoy on August 7th.

The ruins of Rota Pansiyon in Mazikoy on August 7th. Erin O’Brien for Foreign Policy

History confirms this fear. In July 2007, a forest fire broke out in the Guvercinlik region near the spa town of Bodrum. When the fire was brought under control, over 250 acres of forest and over 20 acres of fields and olive groves burned. After the fire, the head of forestry in the surrounding Mugla Province, former AKP federal legislator Ibrahim Aydin, insisted that the burned area should not be developed despite popular claims.

But soon afterwards the construction of three luxury hotels in the region began. La Blanche Island Hotel opened in 2012, five years after the fire, followed by Titanic Deluxe Bodrum and Lujo Bodrum Hotel in 2016 and 2018, respectively.

On July 29, wildfire in Bodrum's Guvercinlik district once again threatened the area where the three hotels are located, and over 3,000 tourists were evacuated into the sea. Although the hotels did not suffer any significant damage, the hills behind the three resorts have been reduced to rubble again, according to the manager of the Titanic Hotels group.

Two days later, TOKI shared a 3D model of a house on social media. The administration, wrote TOKI, has “mobilized to extinguish the effects of the fire” and within a year would accommodate “our citizens” in their “new houses”, which should be reminiscent of traditional regional architecture.

However, there is a catch: The residents have to pay the costs for these houses to TOKI over a period of 20 years. The region's economy – especially in smaller towns like Mazikoy – depends largely on tourism and the production of olives and honey. Regional tourism took a tremendous blow during the coronavirus pandemic and was nearly destroyed by the fires. Some of the hotel owners I spoke to in Mazikoy canceled all of their bookings through September. With no promises of tourism revenue, and with olive trees and beehives burnt, there is no guarantee that families who have lost their homes will actually have the means to replace them.

AKP representatives, on the other hand, praise the upcoming TOKI projects as a success. On August 2, Mehmet Ozeren, the AKP mayor of Gundogmus in Antalya Province, said in an interview that citizens should be satisfied. His response reflects the AKP's general stance on the environment: a focus on reconstruction and development after environmental disasters rather than addressing the root causes.

"Our citizens, whose houses have become unstable, will have houses built by TOKI according to their wishes, which will be paid for over 20 years with low interest," said Ozeren also burned down. ""

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