Turkey: Taksim Protests Highlight Ankara's Dismal Environmental Policies

Yesterday was World Environment Day, a tricky occasion for the Turkish government, considering its brutal bulldozing of trees in the heart of Istanbul was the spark that led to the recent mass protests there and to what now might be a long-term "occupation" of the city's Taksim Square.

Tapped to give an official address to mark the day was Erdogan Bayraktar, the minister responsible for environmental issues. The environment was "number one" on the global agenda, the state-run Anatolian Agency reported the minister as saying. “The ability of ecological systems to renew themselves is severely limited and deteriorating every day,” Bayraktar further said. “Environmental issues have become topics that countries of diverse cultures and geographical characteristics have all agreed or have had to agree on.”

One only wishes Bayraktar himself and the government he represents listened a bit more to what he was saying. In fact, having Bayraktar deliver a speech on environmental issues is something of a cruel joke. His full title is actually Minister of Environment and Urbanization, an office created after the 2011 Turkish elections and one that nicely reflects the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) twisted understanding of both the environment and urbanization and how they should work together. Prior to becoming a minister, Bayraktar was the head of TOKI, Turkey's powerful and mostly unaccountable state housing agency, the main force behind Turkey's much-criticized "urban renewal" projects, which have led to entire communities being displaced and vast swathes of undeveloped land turned into cookie-cutter high-rise neighborhoods. As I wrote in a previous post, creating this hybrid ministry and then appointing Bayraktar to head it was like letting the housing fox into the environmental henhouse. (The ministry's official website is a fine example of its schizophrenic nature, featuring news about nature tours right next to an item about its efforts to improve the quality of the concrete poured in Turkey.)

Indeed, from a policy perspective, the last few years for Turkey have been all about urbanization and very little about environmental protection. The massive infrastructure projects that Ankara has cooked up in advance of the 100-year anniversary of the modern Turkish republic, such as the construction of a third bridge across the Bosphorus or the building of a third airport for Istanbul (the largest in the world!), are all coming at the expense of precious forest land and green space, with minimal discussion of their environmental impact. Meanwhile, in the Black Sea region -- one of Turkey's most pristine areas -- a series of hydroelectric projects that are threatening to cause severe ecological damage are moving ahead, despite local protests.

Writing in the Guardian, Greenpeace Turkey's Pinar Aksogan lists some of the ways in which the AKP has used its legislative power to open up vast areas of formerly protected land for development:

The laws to protect the environment from unchecked construction and development have been systematically undermined in order to allow grand government-favoured projects to go ahead without effective controls or regulation, and with no regard for human and environmental considerations.

Compulsory "environmental impact assessments" for new projects have had their rules changed so decisions are far more likely to favour the investor.

Forest laws have been transformed. The law known here as "2B" redefined some forests as "not forests" allowing them to be felled and turned to construction sites. Recently the government added the category of "forests that won't benefit from protection".

In fact, just before the protests broke out in Istanbul, parliament was preparing to discuss a new government-sponsored bill, the Orwellian-sounding "Law on Nature and Biological Diversity Conservation," which would allow for development inside Turkey's national parks and would give Bayraktar's ministry almost exclusive control over which areas can be listed -- or, more importantly, de-listed -- as protected. Thanks to the protests in Istanbul and across Turkey, the government decided to put the bill on hold, for now.

As the tension in Turkey continues, Erdogan's next moves will determine whether he and his government can work their way back political and economic success. On the environmental front, though, there's little Erdogan can do to salvage his legacy.

Turkey: Taksim Protests Highlight Ankara's Dismal Environmental Policies

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