Quo vadis, Turkey’s nature?

On 8th August, we entered Turkey, the biggest country of our journey so far and the first one that we have not yet set foot on. We had some loose ideas about it, but did not know what to expect and planned to stay for 1-2 months. In the end, we left after three months, only because our visa ran out. We met with over 20 nature conservationists and cycled about 3000 km crossing the country. What we discovered was overwhelming beauty and diversity, both in nature and in the people. The scientists, conservationists, activists and nature lovers we met, showed us why they love Turkey’s nature so much and we covered their stories of inspiration and success in 13 articles. 

Turkey’s nature encompasses many diverse ecosystems & habitats.

Turkey’s nature under threat

But the biodiversity and ecosystems in Turkey are under threat. In 2022, Turkey ranks 172nd out of 180 countries in the Yale Environmental Performance Index. We had the chance to talk to some of the most knowledgeable conservationists that have worked across the country and shared their thoughts with us. All of these many conversations fed into this article, particularly the in-depth information of:

  • Oğuz Kurdoğlu: Associate Professor at Karadeniz Technical University specialized in nature conservation & protected areas and passionate conservationist who has been active in environmental movements for decades
  • Yaşar Ergun: Professor at Hatay Mustafa Kemal University and leading member of the NGO Hatay Tabiatı Koruma Derneği
  • Mehmet Özalp: Associate Professor at Artvin Çoruh University specialized in watershed management & soil erosion and member of the NGO Yeşil Artvin Derneği

Summarizing these conversations and our experiences in Turkey, we reflect on what we learned about the state of Turkey’s nature. We are still not experts on Turkish nature and its threats. Half of the country we didn’t visit at all and our conversations focused on single aspects. Hence, we cover six threats – and even them not comprehensively – that drew our attention and we talked about. We exclude many other threats like agriculture, which by itself is a massive and vital topic in Turkey.

Threat #1: Rapid road and residential construction

Coming from Central Europe, where nature has been intensely altered since the 1950s, we have found many natural areas that are wilder, larger and less ‘controlled’ than what we know from home. But we also saw ongoing construction at an incredible pace. Roads and buildings are being built everywhere. We even came across construction sites, where a new larger road is being built next to one that is already quite empty. Moreover, we saw countless houses that were abandoned, half-finished or mostly empty. This construction boom is intentionally promoted by the government to create jobs, money and the impression of development. 

Construction creates massive amounts of carbon emissions and uses up lots of land.

Environmental Impact Assessments are only necessary for large projects and it seems to be an open secret that many favorable assessments are written by people with questionable qualifications in exchange for easily earned money. In addition, there have been several cases, where critical assessments have been ignored or overruled by authorities. 

Roads have many impacts on the environment. They destroy or fragment habitats & create pollution and carbon emissions. They also open areas for other kinds of environmental destruction like urbanization, poaching and mining. One example is the Green Road project (“Yeşil Yol Projesi”) in the Eastern Black Sea Mountains. This development project entails the construction or enlargement of 2600 km of roads straight through the mountains in altitudes up to 2500m. While the government promotes it as a way to increase tourism, Oğuz and Mehmet represent those who see the downsides. Road construction in these fragile and rugged landscapes can lead to erosion and pollute or cut off vital waterways. They are also concerned that it intentionally opens new areas for mining and dam construction, driving out locals, who might resist.

Threat #2: Forceful push through of dams and mines

A similar issue that is not so present at first glance, but Oğuz and Mehmet emphasize, is the construction of dams, hydro-electric power plants (HEPPs) and mines. It mainly concerns the mountainous east of the country with the necessary natural resources, suitable terrain and scattered population. These projects are often planned and forced through by the national government and big national or foreign companies without any involvement of locals. This creates a lot of tension between local communities and the national government.

Deep alterations of the landscape are required for the construction of dams.

The environmental issues here are similar as for road and residential construction. While hydropower is an important renewable energy, dams and mines can have devastating effects on ecosystems without thorough environmental assessment, considerations and measures. Often, these aspects are neglected despite protest by locals and scientists that warn of the detrimental effects to the environment and civil safety.

Mining leaves behind wastelands.

The role of the national government is very important in this topic for several reasons. Firstly, it owns much of the land in Turkey including all forests. Secondly, many of the companies benefitting from these projects are entangled with the government that is becoming more restrictive, limiting possibilities to influence these projects. This includes increasing control over courts, public defamation of protestors and cutting off access to crucial funding for nature conservation projects.

Threat #3: Plastic pollution

In Turkey, just like in many other countries, plastic in all forms has spread incredibly fast. Everything is packaged in plastic, many people only consume bottled water and plastic bags often come automatically when shopping. But neither the waste recycling system nor the awareness of many people has kept up. Suitable regulations and systems are theoretically in place, but rarely implemented efficiently. In our three months in Turkey, we only came across a handful of recycling bins.

Once plastic trash ends up in the ground or water, it is almost possible to remove.

Many times, we saw people throwing bottles, packaging or whatever plastic trash they had on the ground no matter where they were. We even witnessed cars or trucks emptying whole bags of trash into riverbeds or other hidden places. The sad climax were fields close to the Mediterranean sea, where farmers plowed plastic sheets used to cover crops into the fields instead of removing them after the harvest. This plastic is impossible to remove and will remain in these fields forever. We saw the results in several wetlands that we visited. Here, the trash accumulates and turns important biodiversity hotspots and habitats for migrating birds into trash dumps. At the Karadeniz Technical University, we learned about the consequences of this pollution in the sea.

Threat #4: Underutilized protected areas

Only 7% of Turkey’s land surface is protected, which is significantly less than the global average of 10-15%. In comparison, in its new biodiversity strategy, the EU aims to protect 30% of land surfaces. And when we researched protected areas, especially national parks, we found little information, barely any in English. In many countries, national parks are important attractions that draw national and international visitors. In contrast, there is neither much visitor infrastructure nor promotion in many Turkish national parks. Hiking and other outdoor activities are not as popular amongst domestic tourists as Turkey’s diverse landscapes might suggest. For us as outdoor lovers, it is weird that visitors mostly drive through national parks by car or with guided tours barely leaving the vehicles. Not every km² of a national park should be full of hikers, but it can help to really get a feeling for the biodiversity of an area and its state rather than seeing it as a background for nice pictures.

Some important areas of Turkey’s nature are protected, but the coverage is not nearly sufficient.

Oğuz confirms that an increase of ecotourism in natural areas can contribute to their conservation. It makes them financially beneficial for locals and more renown, increasing appreciation of them. Hence, he suggests that all mountainous areas above 1500 m altitude should be protected areas, both to sustain tourism and to protect the very important ecosystem services of the mountains.

Threat #5: Increased logging

Since all forests are public land and managed by the national forestry service, forestry is completely under their control. This can be a great thing if the forestry service considers ecological aspects and it has worked well for decades. However, the current economic downturn in Turkey has prompted the government to put more pressure on the forestry service to increase the amount of logging and hence profit. As a result, in some regions the amount of logged wood has increased by three or four times within only four years, as Oğuz and Mehmet tell us. This affects all forests outside of protected areas, even in areas where it sharply increases the risk of erosion or endangers old-growth forest ecosystems. As Oğuz adds: “Many see the exploitation of nature as a way to improve the economic situation. The big mistake is that nature is thought to be the antidote to lack of money and backwardness and is consumed ruthlessly.”

Many parts of Turkey’s nature have already been deforested, making the remaining forests even more valuable.
Threat #6: Stray dogs and cats

A smaller problem that should nevertheless not be neglected are stray dogs and cats. In Turkey, they are everywhere. In every village and city we encountered them. Stray dogs –  there are several millions in Turkey – are more common in villages while the big cities are full of cats. While most are cute and friendly and, just like other tourists, we enjoy petting them, they are a serious threat to wildlife. Dogs build packs and hunt animals such as gazelles as well as compete for food with scavengers like hyenas. Cats kill countless birds and consume their eggs every year, posing a serious threat for many species.

A variety of birds, mammals and other animals are threatened by predation or competition by stray dogs & cats.

Yaşar, a veterinarian by profession, tells us that solutions for this issue are available and discussed in the scientific community of Turkey. They are based on large-scale neutering and the housing of stray animals in shelters. But to bring the current numbers down to a manageable level, a massive effort is necessary and it needs support from politics and civil society, which is currently missing.

The pressure increases

The ‘European Commission’s Report on Türkiye 2022’ confirms that Turkey’s nature is in a dire state.

“Türkiye has some level of preparation on nature protection. No progress was made on adopting the framework legislation, the national biodiversity strategy and an action plan. Planning and construction in wetlands, forests and natural sites are still not in line with the EU acquis. […] The review of the status of protected areas continued over 2020 in a non- transparent and non-participatory manner resulting in the changes in status and boundaries of a number of potential Natura 2000 areas. In March 2022, the mining regulation was amended to allow mining activities to be carried out in olive orchards, which caused significant protests from farmers, political parties, NGOs and the general public. In April, the Council of State of Türkiye ordered a temporary stay of execution of mining operations in these areas.”

The European Commission’s Report on Türkiye 2022

While the pressure on the environment is rising in Turkey, so is it on environmental activists. The authoritarian government is increasingly suppressing criticism and free press. There is an atmosphere of fear open criticism might cost people their job in the public sector or even worse – all the way to imprisonment. This has already happened, especially targeting journalists. 

The government is also controlling courts, meaning that lawsuits are no more a reliable tool to fight illegal destruction of nature. While the government claims to develop construction projects to improve the lives of local communities, they neither ask them if they want these projects, nor do they give locals the opportunity to stand up against them.

For us, it is horrible to see that Turkey is making the same mistakes now that for example Germany made decades ago. Construction projects are forced through not for the societal benefit, but for the short-term profit of a few without considering long-term environmental, climate and social impacts. In Germany, the result of such actions is that there is little untouched nature left and now it takes massive effort and financial means to revert this.

A long way to go

Turkey still has the chance to prevent this trajectory and start taking the environment and local communities seriously. But that requires bold and far-reaching systemic change turning away from the current exploitation of Turkey’s nature. There are many people fighting for this change, not only in NGOs and civil society, but also in public offices, e.g. at the DKMP.

To protect Turkey’s nature while also continuing development that improves people’s life, we think the words of Yaşar Ergun are a good guideline:

“Prevention is better than treatment. Don't think for today. You can't save today's world, but you can save tomorrow's world.” 

We experienced different approaches to influence society and decision makers. Some conservationists refuse to work with the government because they cannot tolerate their decisions; others work with those people in public service who are on their side to create change together. Some believe that maximum attention can put pressure on decision makers, but others think that it is better ‘to pad politicians on the shoulder’ when they make a right decision instead of calling out wrong ones. And while in Artvin the older generation is on the forefront of protecting their home’s nature, in other parts of the country conservationists lost hope in convincing the older – often very conservative and religious – generation and instead put their full focus on working with children from a young age.

The passion to protect Turkey’s nature of the people we met along our way inspired us again and again

Despite all these issues, as our chapter in Turkey comes to an end, we’re feeling eternally grateful for who we’ve met and what we’ve learned along the way. It’s a deeply humbling experience to understand who we are in relation to each other, and how complex and fascinating this web of life is. There are so many people, initiatives and ideas in Turkey working to transform this amazing country and we’re in awe of it all.

Yaşar told us that ‘five to ten people are enough to change the world’. We met many more than that in Turkey and we are sure they will change Turkey and hence a beautiful part of this world.