The never-ending fight to keep Artvin green

After almost three months in Turkey, we unfortunately have to head towards Georgia because our visa is running out. Hence, we cycle towards the highest point of our journey so far. To get back to the Black Sea that we left before Istanbul in August, we have to cross the Pontic mountain range. This means thousands of metres of climbing including a 2450m high mountain pass. From this pass, it is only downhill for 65km down to the sea. As we get closer to the sea, we slowly notice the vegetation around change. While we have been cycling through mountains for weeks, they did not look like the ones we know from the Alps. They were often completely bare, covered only by scrubs or loosely by small trees. Now, we start seeing the dark green of conifers and beautiful autumn colours of broadleaf trees that we know so well. All topped by alpine meadows above the treeline.

Descending from the snow-capped peaks of the Pontic mountains, we cross Yayla’s, traditional summer villages on the alpine meadows, before reaching mixed forests.

Artvin is GREEN!

After this slow change, the mountain slopes explode into life as soon as we cross the last and highest pass. Suddenly, we entered the ‘Northern Anatolian conifer and deciduous forests’. This ecoregion is created by the unique geography of the Turkish Black Sea coast. Especially in the east, incredibly high mountains rise straight from the sea. The almost 4000 m high Kackar peak is only 40 km away from the sea. Prevailing west winds press clouds and humid air from the warm Black Sea into these mountains, which creates such a humid climate that one of the few temperate rainforests worldwide has formed here. 

As we descend from the peaks towards the sea, the vegetation becomes even more lush. We slowly transition from the mountainous mixed forest into the subtropical Colchian forest, which dominates lower elevations. Continuing our way east along the coast, we are constantly in awe of the rugged but lush landscape encompassing banana trees at sea level and snow-capped peaks in the distance. 

Heading from the sea land inwards to Artvin, an incredible variety of ecosystems and habitats is visible.

The Green Artvin Association

This awe continues when we head land-inwards towards Artvin to meet Neşe Karahan and Mehmet Özalp. Neşe is the president of “Yeşil Artvin Derneği” (Green Artvin Association) and Mehmet Özalp a professor for forestry at Artvin Coruh University and member of Green Artvin. The Green Artvin Association´s goal is to protect this incredible landscape and its biodiversity from exploitation and it is responsible for the longest standing environmental movement of Turkey.

Due to their ruggedness, the mountains in the Artvin province are still in a relatively natural condition. For centuries, local communities have lived in these mountains between sea and snowy peaks relying on traditional practices and adapting to the challenging terrain. This created a deep connection to this land and a strong sense of stewardship. But this is under threat by many big construction projects that are ongoing and planned in the province. The Green Artvin Association was formed by the local people themselves, creating a common voice to defend their land against construction companies and the government. 

Hydropower and mining transform the land

The unique features of the Artvin province have not only made it a biodiversity hotspot and unique in Turkey, they also make it an important goal for development projects. The narrow valleys and high precipitation make it perfect to build dams and hydro-electric power plants (HEPPs) and the mountains bear mineral deposits like copper and zinc. Hence, in the 1970s, the Turkish government started exploring how these resources can be exploited. Since then, more than 50 HEPPs have been built in the province and two big mines are in operation.

But this is just the start. The government has opened 71% of the province’s land for mining. Split up into 525 single permissions, mining companies are hence allowed to survey most of the province´s territory for mineral deposits and ways to mine them. In addition, over 150 new HEPPs are still under construction or in the planning stage.

Photos of the environmental destruction dams, hydropower plants and mining cause. Photos by Yeşil Artvin Derneği.

Big dams have already altered the landscape in Artvin massively posing an immense threat to biodiversity. The Çoruh river, the biggest in the province, is already cut into pieces by 8 dams including the highest in Turkey and fifth-highest in the world with 270m height. But it is not only wildlife that suffers, but also local communities. Several villages and towns were replaced to make space for the dams. People are forcefully removed from their family homes and relocated to newly built settlements. Environmental assessments are only necessary from a certain size and throughout Turkey, we heard that these assessments are either bought or simply ignored if they are unfavourable. All this shows that the national government and the companies only care about the money, not the local communities nor biodiversity.

The tireless struggle against mining

But Green Artvin is making sure their voice is heard. They began their work in the late 1980s, when the first big dams and mines were in planning. Most locals are against dams and Green Artvin´s mission is to organise and amplify their resistance. This includes contacting local decision makers, raising awareness across Turkey and beyond, organising protests, filing lawsuits and controlling illegal activities. 

Their biggest effort so far has been the 30-year resistance against mining in an area close to the city of Artvin called Cerattepe. In the 80s, a Canadian mining company started to survey this area for gold, copper and zinc and claimed to have found profitable deposits. Despite opposing independent results and foreseeable environmental impacts, the company with support of the national government pushed their mining plans forward. But the people of Artvin resisted and formed Green Artvin in 1995 to organise their resistance. From this point on, Green Artvin started a fight against mining in Cerattepe that should last decades and still continues. 

They started organising protests and petitions to lobby politicians in Artvin and the capital Ankara, which successfully prevented any further steps for many years. This led to the withdrawal of the first mining company. However, another Canadian took on the project. In 2005, the first lawsuit organised by Green Artvin was filed to halt all activities in Cerattepe. In 2008, the motion was approved and the second mining company withdrew as well, stating that “we have understood that we could not succeed without the support of the people and the politicians”. 

A short-lived victory

Unfortunately, the national government did not respect this court decision for too long and changed laws to issue a new mining licence for Cerattepe in 2012, this time to a Turkish company. This was done despite many safety and environmental concerns including risks of deadly landslides. Authorities even changed the borders of the local Hatila Valley National Park because the mining site was originally within its borders. This exemplifies the environmental disdain of this project. 

Landslides are already common in Artvin.

In the following years, Green Artvin increased its work. Hundreds of civilians filed new lawsuits, the association organised protests and acts of civil disobedience that prevented several legal and illegal steps to establish the mine. This culminated in a 245-day watch in the year 2015 that prevented any illegal activities to establish the mine and another court verdict halting construction. Nevertheless, the mining company still tried to continue their work, which led to a massive organised road block and protests with thousands of people. The tension erupted when the police showed up in large numbers to enforce access to Cerattepe. They violently removed protestors using tear gas and rubber bullets. This resulted in national attention, another lawsuit for the use of excessive force and the commitment of the Turkish prime minister to cease mining activities until all legal issues are resolved.

Photos from the protests against mining in Cerattepe. Photos by Yeşil Artvin Derneği.

“We requested to see the prime minister and he received us. It was very positive. It was constructive. We think he has been misinformed. We told him this. We explained that such mining activity would damage the region. We told him that this was a vital struggle for the people of Artvin. But the meeting alone does not mean they have finally given up on building this mine. We want the total abandonment of the project and we will resist until we achieve this,”

Neşe Karahan

Green Artvin will not stop fighting

The resistance prevented the above ground mining of gold to this day, but unfortunately was still not enough to prevent underground mining of copper and zinc which was eventually started against all resistance. But Green Artvin is not giving up. They have a current court case running against changing the borders of the national park. Their work as a watchdog also continues and they successfully stopped the drainage of waste water from the mine into the national park.

In addition, they continue to organise resistance and public awareness raising. Unfortunately, many Artvin residents were discouraged by the decade-long struggle that could still not prevent mining. Hence, Green Artvin has also expanded its activities and tries to help local communities by promoting cooperatives for local products, giving workshops, visiting schools and hosting information events. 

Neşe explains us the current development plans for the region and accompanies us to the mountains to see the mining areas with our own eyes. Unfortunately, several roads to the mine were blocked by construction, so we could not go there.

The Green Artvin Association and its president Neşe Karahan have earned recognition and awards across Turkey for their relentless struggle despite all odds. Since its establishment, the association stood up firmly for the people it represents and was careful to never be compromised by money. It is mostly crowdfunded and rejects any money from dubious sources or connected to any commitments.

Victory or defeat?

This case exemplifies a common problem in nature conservation. Green Artvin fought for decades to prevent mining in Cerattepe and protect the nature of Artvin. Nevertheless, the mine was built just like many dams and there are official plans to massively expand on both in the future. It is hard to see success and keep fighting when faced with these perspectives. Both Neşe and Mehmet complain that the willingness to fight has decreased after the national government has proven time and time again that they care little about the local people. But this must not overshadow all the things that Green Artvin has achieved. In a world where the state of nature is deteriorating in most places, every small win must be celebrated.

Green Artvin and the people of Artvin successfully prevented above ground gold mining, monitor the companies that exploit resources in Artvin and hold them accountable. They continue to do so, making sure that mining, construction and power companies cannot just do whatever they want. 

An inspiration for many

And they inspired and informed people. In Artvin, Turkey and many other places. They brought together locals, politicians from all sides and academicians to fight the destruction of their home. This put the topic into the spotlight in Artvin and all of Turkey leading to endorsement and support by celebrities, politicians and much bigger NGOs. Hence, Neşe is hopeful looking forward:

“This is a fight for our lives, in which good people have to be as brave and bold as bad ones. I am hopeful that the young generation is aware of and involved in these topics.”

Neşe Karahan