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Sep 4, 2015

Turkey: Looking Beyond the Numbers

Each country ranked by the Environmental Performance Index has a story behind the numbers. What's Turkey's story?
Protesters during the beginning of the Gezi Park conflict. Photo from Flickr by Murat Livanell.

The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) scores countries using a proximity-to-target method. In the biodiversity and habitat issue category, for instance, the target is for nations to have 17% of their territory declared officially protected. The closer to the target, the better the score a country receives. But while a country may be doing well in the numbers game, it may simultaneously be failing to enforce policy or passing legislation that negates some of its positive initiatives. As illuminating as quantitative data can be, it can never tell the whole story. For every country the EPI ranks there is space between the numbers and the reality. 

Investigating this space in the context of Turkey yields startling insights into its environmental performance. Since 1960, the population has tripled to nearly 80 million, and the nation has become a center of world tourism. Turkey has grown to be the world’s 17th largest economy, tripling in size in the last decade alone. This growth has been largely fueled by its construction sector, though, leading to a bubble that is now about to pop. The Turkish lira has lost nearly 50% of its value against the USD since 2011 and Turkey’s stock market index is below its level in 2012.

As Turkey has developed, it has been called “a hopeful model of a modern and secular democracy.” In recent years, though, it has faced criticism for becoming increasingly authoritarian. For many, this was made most clear by the conflict that ensued after the Gezi Park protests in 2013, when a small environmental rally quickly escalated into nationwide demonstrations that were met with a state crackdown. It was also a reminder that historically, the environment has never been high on the Turkish government’s list of priorities—or, for that matter, that of the public’s. A recent poll showed that in comparison to other nations globally, Turkey has little concern for environmental issues. In April of this year, just 0.3% of Turks asked thought that the environment was a big problem, placing it last amongst present problems the country is facing. 

Even so, there is a small core of environmental activists and scientists who try to keep environmental issues in the spotlight. In researching this piece, we spoke to some of them. They requested that they remain anonymous for fear of being blacklisted and their environmental work suspended.

Protests in the heart of Istanbul during the Gezi Park demonstrations. Photo from Flickr by Stephan Csikos. 

The current regime takes much of the blame for the general lack of concern about the environment. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became Prime Minister of Turkey in 2003, remaining in that position until 2014, when he became Turkey’s first directly-elected President. He has faced recent criticism for prioritizing development and construction over environmental concerns. His relationship with environmentalists is only deteriorating as a result. The Gezi Park protests were not the only clash between Erdoğan and environmentalists. 

In September 2013, just months after Gezi Park, Erdoğan told activists protesting the construction of a road that would require the destruction of 3,000 trees that he could send them to “go and live in the forests,” and told police to attack them with gas and water cannons. And in pursuing what have been characterized as “megalomaniacal projects” like a third airport in Istanbul, a shipping canal that would connect the Marmara Sea to the Black Sea, and the construction of a third bridge across the Bosphorus, Erdoğan is only fueling tensions with environmentalists. In other encounters with them, Erdoğan called protestors “looters” and “uncivilized bandits” and went so far as to say that he would demolish a mosque for the sake of a construction project. And this July, the government resurrected its plans to build over the Gezi Park, nullifying its own decision from last year. Environmental protests in Turkey are not a new phenomenon, with many having taken place in the last twenty years, but it is Erdoğan’s antagonistic relationship with environmentalists that has amplified their voices in recent years. 

Turkey’s environmental performance has its upsides. It does well in areas like air quality and water sanitation. But its poor performance in categories like Biodiversity and Habitat protection are of greater concern. Turkey’s biodiversity value is almost unparalleled. It is home to three of the world’s 35 biodiversity hotspots, including the Caucasus, Irano-Anatolian, and Mediterranean. More than 10,000 plant species and 80,000 animal species call the nation home, thousands of which are endemic to the territory. But despite its rich biodiversity, conservation is low on the list of priorities. About 5% of Turkey’s territory is considered protected, falling far short of EPI and OECD targets. Only 1.2% is strictly protected. Many of Turkey’s other protected areas have been under threat by excessive development and hydraulic construction projects. An illegal tourist complex in Beydağlar National Park is just one example. Development has already led to extreme losses: 1,300,000 hectares of wetlands and 87% of peatlands are just some of them.

Turkey’s deteriorating performance is becoming increasingly noticed in international circles. This was likely a factor in Turkey losing to Hawaii in its bid to host the 2016 IUCN World Conservation Congress, the world’s largest and most prestigious conservation event. Yet, legislation is making it even easier for the government to pursue construction projects nearly wherever it pleases, effectively allowing them to go on without regulation. Environmental impact assessments (EIAs) are required. However, the vast majority of the time the results of EIAs do not matter. Whether or not they approve a project, the project will continue on. Some estimates put the number of EIAs done at 7,000, with just two disapproving a project—projects that went on regardless. Lawsuits filed against hydroelectric construction projects have seen similar results. Between 2009 and 2011, nearly 100 lawsuits were filed; of the 41 heard, 39 were ordered by the courts to halt construction. Yet work continued.

In 2012, the 2B law took effect in Turkey. Its consequences are felt by over 4 million acres of forested land—areas which were previously free from construction and agricultural activity. Under the new legislation, previously protected forestland is now open to development and construction, as the law redefined some forests as “not forests” and also added the category “forests that will not benefit from protection.” The draft Law on Nature and Biological Diversity Conservation only poses greater threats to Turkey’s natural habitats and protected areas.

Despite the name, this piece of legislation has the potential to further decrease protection of land. Critically vague, the law stipulates that protected areas strategic for “great public welfare” will be managed “under certain conditions.” Fears abound that this will leave protected areas wide open to construction with public welfare as the excuse. Furthermore, the notable absence of the term “national park” in the law leads to concerns that the entire concept will no longer be a part of Turkish environmental laws. More than 100 environmental groups have raised their voices in opposition to the law, and since the Gezi Park protests, the bill has been held in Parliament. The possibility of its passing is still very real. 

Recent restructuring of Turkey’s environmental ministry has not helped matters, either. Originally the Ministry of Environment, in 2007 it was combined with Turkey's dam-building agency Devlet Su İşleri (DSİ), comparable to the US Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s, and renamed the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. The director of DSİ, Veysel Eroğlu, was made the minister by Erdoğan. Eroğlu declared "my job is to build dams" and made dam construction and related infrastructure projects the ministry’s main focus. In 2011, the ministry was divided into two: the Ministry of Forestry and Water Affairs, dominated by DSİ and led by Minister Eroğlu, and the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning—which speaks to how the government of Turkey would like to couple environmental management and the expansion of construction projects. Minister Eroğlu is the longest serving minister in Turkey's current cabinet.

The budget of DSI General Directorate is approximately 40 times that of the budget of the Nature Conservation and National Parks General Directorate. DSI’s pursuance of hydroelectric projects, pushed relentlessly by Eroğlu, has been the source of widespread controversy. Plans are underway to have almost all of Turkey’s rivers dammed by 2023, with a target of 4,000 dams total. These dams are predicted to negatively impact the livelihoods of and possibly displace up to two million people. And those who have already been displaced by such projects receive little compensation, some as little as 15,000 lira, or just under $5,000. Meanwhile, Turkey’s enormous wind and solar energy potential are largely unused, with almost all its renewable energy attributed to dams.

The Goksu River in Turkey, just one body of water affected by incessant dam building. Photo from Wikimedia commons by Cobija.

As is the case in many countries, environmental conservation often goes against big commercial interests that are entwined with construction and massive corruption. In December 2013, the son of the Minister of Environment and Urban Planning, Erdoğan Bayraktar, was arrested for corruption linked to construction. The minister himself was implicated and had to resign – a very rare admission of guilt for a politician in Turkey. Minister Bayraktar declared that Prime Minister Erdoğan approved most of the projects in the inquiry and “should also resign.” Erdoğan, who was recorded on the phone on that day telling his son “to zero the money,” as much as $1 billion, declared the corruption inquiry an “attempted coup.” Hundreds of policeman were replaced with people loyal to Erdoğan. The government had an arrest order for public prosecutors leading the corruption inquiry and the prosecutors had to flee Turkey to seek asylum in Germany. 

Part of what’s driving Turkey’s extensive development and, in the case of nearly useless EIAs, seeming corruption in this sector is the dependence that many businesses have on the government for contracts and state tenders. This dependence means that companies that are in charge of conducting EIAs and those that execute construction projects are more likely to do as the government pleases—which means prioritizing development over environmental concerns. Moreover, the government has a monopoly on data in general, including environmental data. Most of its data are collected by the government itself; for others to conduct research, they must obtain a permit from the state, which the state increasingly withholds from scientists whose findings contradict the government’s agenda. This can lead to inaccurate or skewed numbers. Erdoğan’s ridiculous assertion in 2013 that his regime had planted two billion trees in the past ten years, then upped to 2.8 billion by Minister Eroglu, bears this out—nearly 800,000 trees would have needed to be planted every single day. Considering that Ministry of Forestry employees, like most government workers, rarely work during the weekends, this is over a million trees per work day, not counting official holidays.

After the 2012 EPI was released, Turkish media released articles highlighting the nation’s poor performance and imploring it to take steps to improve. That is one way of demonstrating how the EPI has entered the conversation amongst civil society in Turkey and urged concerned NGOs and citizens to do their parts to prioritize environmental performance. Our sources tell us of their extensive use and reference of the EPI in their research and environmental advocacy work both independently or through NGOs. They use the EPI to understand Turkey’s performance, focus on trying to improve weak areas, and to heighten awareness around the environment.

Regardless of how Turkey fares in the upcoming 2016 report, the EPI can continue to act as a leverage point for activists and the public to raise greater awareness of their country’s environmental weaknesses and put pressure on otherwise unresponsive or unconcerned leaders. When governmental structure is failing the environment, the EPI stands as a tool for grassroots action.