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‘We will not give up’: How a Turkish forest became the site of fierce coal mine resistance

88-year-old Zehra Yıldırım hugging a tree to protect it from being felled on 26 July. She is shielded by activist leader Esra Işık.
88-year-old Zehra Yıldırım hugging a tree to protect it from being felled on 26 July. She is shielded by activist leader Esra Işık. Copyright Beyond Fossil Fuels
Copyright Beyond Fossil Fuels
By Lottie Limb with Reuters
Published on Updated
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With the world’s eyes on Rhodes, campaigners point out the irony of trees being felled for coal across the Mediterranean Sea in Türkiye.

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Turkish villagers have been sprayed with tear gas while attempting to protect the Akbelen Forest from being cleared for coal this week, campaigners say.

For two years, locals from the Muğla region have kept a constant watch over 780 acres of woodland where Turkish company YK Energy is seeking to expand its coal mine.

Despite an ongoing lawsuit over the site near İkizköy town, forestry clearance workers moved in on Monday 24 July, leading to days of fierce clashes between protesters and police.

“As tens of thousands of people across the Mediterranean region flee rampaging wildfires caused by the climate crisis, it is incomprehensible that a company is allowed to destroy a forest - one of our most important carbon sinks - to expand a coal mine,” says Beyond Fossil Fuels (BFF) campaigner Duygu Kutluay.

Here’s how the environmental conflict has evolved over recent days and years.

14 activists have been arrested in Akbelen Forest

Armoured vehicles and security forces were deployed to block protesters from entering the forest this week. BFF claims that activists have been hit with “volleys of batons and tear gas” by Turkish gendarmerie armed with riot shields and water cannons.

"Some activists were hospitalised. My grandmother fainted during a clash with police. We will continue to resist," says Esra Isik, a local environmental committee spokesperson.

Arman Atılgan, a lawyer, said 14 activists accused of "resisting police officers" had been detained during the protests this week. Police in Muğla could not immediately be reached for comment.

The protests have gained national attention, and a delegation led by Türkiye's main opposition CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu is set to visit the affected Akbelen area today (28 July) to show solidarity with the protesters.

Why are coal companies trying to expand into the Akbelen Forest?

Muğla has been living “under the grip” of three power plants - Yatağan, Kemerköy, Yeniköy - for 40 years, says BFF.

Over the past 35 years, eight villages have been cleared for coal mines to supply the plants, according to a report by the NGO Climate Action Network Europe.

In order to keep the latter two plants running, YK Energy - which was bought by Türkiye’s Limak Group and IC Ictas in 2014 - says that lignite (aka brown) coal reserves under Akbelen Forest must be extracted.

Since the plants were built to run on the chemical properties of local coal reserves, it says that only this coal will do.

“These power plants are of strategic importance for Türkiye, producing an average of 2.5 per cent of the country’s electricity demand and approximately 62 per cent of the electricity used in the Aegean Sea coast of Turkey, an important asset of the country’s tourism industry,” a YK Energy spokesperson says.

“If mining activities do not resume at the Akbelen site by September 2023, electricity generation will terminate in 2024.”

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In 2020, the forestry ministry granted permission to YK Energy to expand the open pit mine in 780 acres of forest in the Akbelen area.

But local communities, fed up with the environmental destruction, filed a lawsuit to oppose the decision.

How are locals fighting back to protect the Akbelen Forest?

The legal battle has spilled over into on-site clashes. In July 2021, forestry clearance workers operating on behalf of YK Energy moved in and felled 30 trees, says BFF. This prompted the 24/7 vigil from local people.

Muğla 1st Administrative Court ruled in August 2021 that no further clearance could take place until it has ruled on the lawsuit. But in November 2022 a report from court-appointed experts found that the forest was suitable for mining, and so the temporary halt to tree cutting was lifted.

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YK Energy didn’t move in straight away, however. This week marks the start of renewed clearance work, and locals are now amplifying their call for the court to reinstate a temporary ban until the lawsuit is concluded.

On Thursday, some campaigners protested in front of the administrative court in Muğla, carrying a banner saying "Justice for Akbelen".

Activists say the Akbelen forest will be totally destroyed by 31 July if the deforestation continues, something they are determined to oppose.

Forests feed us. We will not allow them to be cut down.
Zehra Yıldırım

"We will not give up our fields. These lands are ours. We will not give them to anyone,” says 88-year-old İkizköy local Zehra Yıldırım, who comes from a family of olive farmers, in Turkish.

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“They cut down our pine trees. Our water flows under the trees, they feed us. If these are cut down, we will be without water. Forests feed us. We will not allow them to be cut down."

“We should all be grateful to the heroes of Akbelen Forest, many of them elderly, who are putting their bodies on the line to oppose this violence against our communities, nature, and the climate,” adds Beyond Fossil Fuels campaigner Duygu Kutluay.

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