IKIZDERE, Turkey – Villagers in the pristine forests of Rize province in northeastern Turkey have always had two natural advantages: a largely unspoiled landscape, rich in wildlife and trout-filled streams, and the influence most popular and powerful local citizen protector in the region, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
But now, at a time when Mr. Erdogan is under political pressure at the national level, his home province has become a battleground between some of these villagers and the president. For weeks, they have staged protests against Mr. Erdogan’s plans for a quarry that threatens to destroy 220 acres of woodland that rise steeply behind a cluster of houses and are a vital resource for rural Ikizdere district.
“This is our paradise,” said Gungor Bas, who lives in his grandfather’s house next to a stream already clogged with mud deposited by excavators. “We were drinking from the stream. But for 10 days we have to drink bottled water. “
The protests over the career last month were notable as they erupted in Rize, Mr Erdogan’s loyal home province on the Black Sea coast. His political opponents took the opportunity as an opportunity to undermine the already besieged leader, who is on the defensive in the face of the precarious state of the economy and the fallout from the pandemic.
The protests that continued in Ikizdere began at the end of April and opposition politicians, eager to exploit any cracks in Mr Erdogan’s grip on power, rushed into the district. to support government officials intervening to quell protests.
Mr Erdogan no longer tolerates protests – except those of his supporters – and riot police have used a heavy hand to crush protests in Rize.
The quarry, near the village of Gurdere, is the latest of many big projects Mr Erdogan has championed to generate growth and jobs in the country over the past 19 years. With unemployment and inflation high, he promised his supporters even more.
But for his opponents, the destruction of Ikizdere goes to the heart of what is wrong with the increasingly authoritarian leadership and cronyism of Mr Erdogan after 19 years in power. The president and senior officials have recently been rocked by accusations of corruption and links to organized crime.
Opponents of Erdogan say big business comes first, and government and law enforcement are at the service of construction companies rather than the people.
“These are the types of projects that are designed to make money,” said Yakup Okumusoglu, an environmental lawyer who represents some villagers. “I don’t think this is progress for the people.”
Transport Minister Adil Karaismailoglu dismissed criticism of the project as an invention of the political opposition.
“Recently, false rumors about the quarry have spread,” he said during a visit to the region.
Rize has been the site of a number of other massive development projects overseen by Mr Erdogan, including dams, highways and ports on reclaimed land along the Black Sea coast.
Two of Turkey’s largest construction companies, which have strong ties to the government and have built many of the president’s projects, have won the tender for the construction of a new port in the city of Iyidere and a license to mine black basalt for this port of Gurdere – both in the Ikizdere district.
The villagers say they have never been consulted about the quarry project.
They first heard career plan rumors two years ago, recently said Musa Yilmaz, a businessman who returned home to help organize the protest. Then at the end of last month, the villagers were awakened from their beds by the sound of diggers tearing the forest apart.
“We don’t want this career project, and we will be here until they stop,” Yilmaz said, standing in front of a “resistance tent” where protesters have set up a protest camp. under the quarry site. “They don’t need to ruin nature for stones.”
Protesters say they don’t oppose the planned port, but insist the stone for him can be mined elsewhere rather than sacrificing an area valued for its biodiversity, where farmers grow tea in steep valleys and collect precious honey from thriving bees. wild rhododendrons and chestnut trees.
Protests have escalated amid a recent spike in Covid infections, and villagers have defied a strict lockdown to confront riot police.
Some of them climbed the forest to block the path of the diggers for several days until the government deployed paramilitary police to clear them. Police moved in with pepper spray and arrested eight men, which prompted two women to climb nearby trees, perching for several hours until a local lawmaker persuaded them to come down.
“The places we thought were ours the next day we learned were not ours,” said Funda Okyar, one of the tree climbers who said she grew up wandering these woods. .
Villagers were shocked to discover that Erdogan had signed a decree ordering the expropriation of their land just days before the diggers arrived. About 15 homeowners will lose land used for growing tea and grazing livestock, they said.
“He’s a son of this region. He should protect us, but he isn’t, ”Ayse Bas said of the president as she plowed the land behind her house. “This is my home, my land. Where am I going to go elsewhere? “
A few days after the clash in Ikizdere, opposition politicians began to arrive to show their support. They were soon followed by Mr. Karaismailoglu, the Minister of Transport.
He insisted that the port of Iyidere would bring jobs and prosperity to the region, and promised that the quarry would only be active for two years – not the rumored 70 years – and would be replanted by the after.
But villagers and their supporters were not convinced, claiming to have seen destruction caused by construction projects elsewhere.
“It happened all over the country. But until that happened to us, we didn’t understand the pain, ”said Mustafa Tatoglu, 75, speaking outside his home in Gurdere.
The project exposed the unhealthy ties between construction companies and Mr Erdogan’s government, said Ugur Bayraktutan, a local MP from Turkey’s largest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party.
The government and the company in charge of the quarry insisted that they had acted legally.
“Samples were taken from 10 locations, including existing quarries, to find the necessary stone reserves that were resistant to seawater, and it was determined by scientific and unbiased advice that the appropriate stone was here. ”, Declared Mr. Karaismailoglu during a press conference. in Ikizdere. “The environmental effects will be monitored on an ongoing basis.”
An opposition MP, Mehmet Bekaroglu, hoped to delay the work of the diggers and generate support for the protest, but he was pessimistic.
“There is little chance that we can stop this,” he said.
Mr Erdogan still enjoys strong support in Rize province, where voters overwhelmingly supported him in the past – 77% of the province in the 2018 presidential election.
Some villagers in Gurdere praised him for improvements such as universal health care, support for retirees and building roads that have reduced commute time to towns.
“If someone is sick, just call an ambulance,” said Cevat Tuncer, 75. “We should be grateful.
But the loyalty of one of his neighbors was wavering.
Overlooking the valley where the quarry is planned, Cevat Tat has just built a house for his retirement after 17 years working as a construction planner for Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party in Istanbul. Now he contemplates life with daily explosions shaking his house and thick dust settling on his fruit trees.
When government officials and the construction company promised to restore the land to its original state after extracting hundreds of tons of basalt from the mountainside, he went to see a four-year-old quarry in the neighboring village of Pazar. He was dismayed to see the valley ravaged and devoid of vegetation.
“My heart broke,” he said, looking at the green hills. “It was a valley like this and they ruined it.