Turkish Fishing Villages Blame Pipeline for Dwindling Catches

"For the fisherman, life has gotten worse since the pipeline arrived," said Mesut Altinkayak, a former fisherman who now helps manage a small seaside restaurant owned by his family. "There have been some jobs at the terminal, but most of them are temporary."

"The fishermen don't have work, so even our grocery stores are closing. The fishermen don't even have money to buy cigarettes," Altinkayak added with a weary smile.

As elsewhere along the pipeline's route through Georgia and Azerbaijan, the BTC company compensated local residents for disruption caused by the project, paying some 50 fishermen around $12,000. Pipeline officials also came to Golovasi before the BTC was constructed and asked the locals what the village needed, Altinkayak recounted.

Potable tap water was named as the most pressing need. "Our mukhtar" -- the village head -- "gave them our request, but we are still waiting," Altinkayak said. Several years later, the village water remains undrinkable.

Similar stories can be heard in other villages near the terminal and along the pipeline's route in Turkey, which goes through mostly rural and impoverished areas. While locals had expected that the disruptions caused by the pipeline's arrival would be offset by jobs and economic development, what they have found is that, as in Golovasi, they are still waiting for the pipeline's benefits to arrive.

But one expert warns that some of these expectations might be unrealistic. In many ways, he says, BTC's role in Turkey is not economic, but political.

With few energy supplies of its own, Turkey sees the pipeline as the initial step in its effort to become a major energy player as a country crisscrossed by pipelines carrying oil and gas from the Caspian basin, Russia and North Africa. In an era when countries are increasingly looking to diversify their energy sources, Turkey wants to establish itself as a kind of energy supermarket, betting that controlling oil and gas routes will prove as strategically valuable as producing the stuff.

"It's been a major political prestige project for Turkey. The main thing was to get it built," noted Gareth Winrow, a professor of international relations at Istanbul's Bilgi University.

"The larger strategy, the Turks keep saying, is that they are going to play a major role in energy security for the European states, that they will help the European Union diversify its energy sources," Winrow added.

The economic impact matters less; the $1 billion Turkey expects to earn next year through BTC transit fees is only a small part of the country's $400 billion economy.

Nonetheless, the mega-size of the BTC project has meant that little room exists to pay attention to those affected by the pipeline, argued Fikret Adaman, an economist at Bosphorus University in Istanbul who specializes in environmental and development issues.

"The main issue in these kinds of projects is to identify the stakeholders and identify their needs," Adaman commented. Without that, bitterness is inevitable when villagers feel left behind; one fishing village, for instance, reported receiving school bags with the BTC logo but no follow-through on its assistance requests.

BTC officials in Turkey counter that they conducted extensive social and environmental impacts studies before the pipeline was built and that they continue to monitor the BTC's impact on affected communities. A mechanism is in place for villagers to file complaints, they say.

"It is the intention that all communities with an interest in the pipeline will be visited regularly by the liaison experts," a company representative said in response to questions submitted by email. The BTC company's Community Investment Programme is designed to back projects that encourage sustainable rural development in pipeline communities. The company is also hoping to hire more locals from areas affected by the pipeline, the representative said.

In the hamlets surrounding Ceyhan, a broad labor pool exists already to help the company meet that goal. With catches growing smaller, dozens of fishermen in the nearby village of Deveci Usagi have instead found jobs working for American military subcontractors in Iraq.

"Before, I didn't think about going anywhere else to work. We earned enough from fishing," said 49-year-old Kadir Devecili, who spent two years working as a driver at an American military base in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

But those days are gone -- possibly forever. In the village of Yumurtalik, the standard for a good catch has fallen in the past year from 30-50 kilos of fish per day to a mere five kilos. Fishermen, now whiling away the hours in a teahouse, doubt that that number will ever increase.

Instead, many of these men have banded together to sue both the pipeline and the power plant for dwindling fish stocks. Commented fisherman Adem Vay: "Fishing here is finished. We have boats, but we don't really use them anymore."

Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. Rena Effendi is a freelance photojournalist based in Baku.

Turkish Fishing Villages Blame Pipeline for Dwindling Catches

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