In the Karabağlar district of the Aegean Turkish city of Izmir, from the early morning hours until late at night, the residents of Uzundere have kept vigil for a full week to prevent the digging of the wells needed for a proposed geothermal power plant in their neighborhood. This past February, Uzundere residents won a legal battle against a company called Adem Petrol; a court order halted work on the power plant.
The company has a report from the Izmir governorship stating that there is no need to evaluate the environmental effects of the plant. Once again, their machinery has appeared in the neighborhood, this time at a different site, and the drilling has begun. Despite Izmir’s scorching summer heat, the residents have gathered under an umbrella across from the construction site, where the machines are working from morning until night.
Uzundere has a 400-year-old history, and it is home to Takhtadjy Alevis. Takhtadjy Alevis are traditionally nomadic; they are members of Turkey’s largest religious minority, and they historically have acted as stewards of the forest. In this neighborhood, where special fried cakes are still made in the Muslim month of Muharrem, the oldest Alevi religious practices are kept alive. The residents’ only desire is to prevent the poisoning of their land. We arrived as guests of the people of Uzundere at the end of the first week of their protest, and we talked about the past and future of the resistance against the power plant.
Sipping tea amid the noise and dust of the construction, we chat with Uzundere resident Melda Türkeli. She talks about their current case at the Izmir Regional Administrative Court, opened as a result of a petition to stop the construction, which got 271 signatures. Türkeli is hopeful the court will rule in favor of the residents because in February, they won their case at the Izmir First Administrative Court. She talks about a conversation she had with the project’s head engineer: “This engineer, in trying to persuade us that the project is harmless, said one time, ‘I would take my family and move them to this neighborhood.’ They’re very arrogant to talk about moving as though it were so easy. I know that if the land is poisoned, I can just pack up my home and move, but this is our village! We have buried our loved ones, our parents here. How can we just leave them?”
The protest area fills up as evening comes. Passersby offer to bring cold drinks and food to the protesters. “We can bring these ourselves, but food and drink taste different with the feeling of solidarity,” they say from under the umbrella, now opened to create some shade. People are also knitting and reading books.
We continue talking to Melda Türkeli. The presence of the protesters has not stopped the construction, but by being there, they’re saying to Adem Petrol, “We are here and we won’t leave our village.” She explains why she doesn’t want the power plant: “Because if this land is poisoned, if the life here is damaged, I won’t be able to look my children in the eye. I don’t want us to be poisoned.”
These residents aren’t only looking after their own safety. It bothers them that the company’s workers don’t wear helmets, and the work safety standards on the site are insufficient. “They’re also just poor laborers. What is their fault in this?”
Next, we speak with Mehmet Türkeli, who has been closely involved with the progress of the residents’ court case. Mehmet Türkeli, a teacher, is “Mehmet Hodja” to everyone. He first talks to us about the resistance that began in February: “We protested for 15 days,” he says with pride. “Finally, the court gave an order to halt the construction.” The court didn’t only order the construction to stop; in April, they gave the decision to cancel the project. “But the funding for the project continues. In our country, they pillage everything,” he explains.
On June 29th, Adem Petrol received a report from the governorship stating that the power plant was unnecessary, but showing us the areas they’ve continued to pillage, Mehmet Türkeli says, “We went to the Provincial Directorate of Environmental Urbanism and the Deputy Governor’s office, but we couldn’t find a solution, so we opened another case.”
Türkeli shows us the olive grove just below the area that has been torn up by construction machinery and drills. For the people of Uzundere, olive farming is both a major source of income and a tradition that is passed from generation to generation. “According to the Olive Farming Law, construction is not even allowed here,” he says, pointing to the natural gas pipeline and the high voltage power lines that pass right next to the construction; he emphasized the need to stop the work and avert this disaster.
While our conversation continues under the “resistance umbrella,” it is striking that there are no precautions taken with the poisoned soil; it’s simply laid on a tarp to dry. The residents of the neighborhood have decided to keep their vigil until morning because they are suspicious about how this poisoned soil will be removed. Şükrü Bal, a literature teacher, speaks without lowering the Kemal Tahir book he is reading. “My friends, this piece of writing summarizes our situation,” he says, and offers to read a passage. These words from Kemal Tahir echo from under the resistance umbrella.
“The failure to be democratic is a result of banditry and incompetence, or of becoming like animals because we cannot cope with all the bandits and incompetents. And if they try to pressure us without knowing their limits, our nation will never forgive them.”
As we were walking away from the site, Kemal Tahir’s words lingered in our ears and the sight of Uzundere’s persistence and faith remained in our eyes.