Tree-huggers

Pretty much every day we see a news report about an environmental disaster in another country. Since most politicians can’t admit the world we live in is on the verge of an irreversible environmental catastrophe, we’re going see more news like this rather than less.

Whenever I see the beauty of nature destroyed by human hands, the thing that pops into my mind is DC’s famous hero, Swamp Thing. In that story, scientist Alec Holand is working in a lab in Louisiana on a top-secret formula that will end world hunger; when terrorists attack the facility, Alec is exposed to the formula and he falls into the swamp. He emerges as Swamp Thing and has the ability to communicate with plants.

Swamp Thing quickly came to symbolise environmental balance, and he is the first to notice when something unnatural is happening.

For years, I viewed Swamp Thing as a protector of the natural world; he was the hero I looked for after every environmental disaster. I waited with childish naïveté for him to appear and put an end to everything bad. But there’s no such thing as Swamp Thing or even anything like him, not even someone in a position of power who values nature.

One reason Swamp Thing has a special place in my heart is that in Turkey, especially in Istanbul, they have been cutting down most of the trees since I was a child. Since I was a teenager, I’ve had to watch Turkey’s many beautiful green spaces turned into concrete buildings.

Turkey began to witness real environmental destruction in the years following the 1980s coup when there were a lot of changes in the country’s social and economic structure. People who had moved from the villages to the cities seemed to put up their houses overnight, which is why these structures are known as gecekondu, or “night-dwellings.”

Istanbul took in the most migrants and has the most gecekondu. Built on public lands, these houses on the edge of the city started turning into little neighbourhoods within a short time. Politicians in that period traded deeds for votes from gecekondu owners, thus absolving them with an official stamp.

Of course, the gecekondu weren’t the only things pillaging the land. Especially after 1980, those who got rich quickly started building villas in places that were said to be attractive. Both sides of Istanbul’s Bosporus coastline, among the most scenic places in the world, were paved over in those years and their beauty is now lost.

Until the 2000s, almost no one was talking about what was happening to the environment. Although there was illegal clearcutting outside of Istanbul, the media rarely mentioned the dwellings built over the razed forest lands. Perhaps they would report on forest fires, but they never talked about the housing projects that went up to where the forest had burned.

Awareness of environmental issues increased, and as technology developed and people started noticing the disappearance of green spaces, a lot of small-scale movements started up around the country. Unfortunately, most of these were unsuccessful because the government and the companies in their pockets came out against the environmental groups.

Starting around 2010, many people around the country were becoming more aware of the environmental slaughter and started paying attention. First, there was Fatih Akın’s documentary Cennetteki Çöplük (Polluting Paradise). The film is about a village in the Black Sea region of Trabzon and draws attention to the trash facilities there, where the Justice and Development Party (AKP) built a landfill in one of the region’s most pristine areas and ruined it. Although the documentary drew worldwide attention, nothing was done to stop this, and landfills continue to pollute the Black Sea even today.

Cennetteki Çöplük-Polluting Paradise

After that, in 2013, the famous Gezi Park protests began. In Taksim, one of three of Istanbul’s city centres, young environmentalists came out to protest the planned cutting of trees in Gezi Park, the only remaining green space in the area, because the government wanted to build an artillery barracks and shopping mall there. The protests grew and spread across the country after the harsh treatment of these young people and when people saw images on social media of municipal workers coming to the park where the protestors were spending the night and burning their tents.

Gezi Park Protests

In any case, instead of trying to understand what the young people were saying, the AKP and then-Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan chose to view the protests as an uprising to topple the government. In the years following the police violence against the protestors, all of Taksim’s old charm was lost, and the AKP opened cases against the opposition groups that organised the protest, accusing them of trying to start a coup. These cases are still ongoing.

As for the most recent incident, it took place in Ankara at Turkey’s top university, Middle East Technical University (METU), where student protestors have been trying to stop a dormitory from being built in the middle of the campus’s forests. I’m a METU alumnus myself, and because I worked on a documentary about METU’s history, I’m very familiar with the university’s founding and the efforts undertaken to plant trees on what was previously steppe terrain. After all those efforts across generations to create a forest, people who believe planting buildings will save the economy are now trying to cut it down.

Despite the student protests, and although some of the trees were cut down with help from the police, the Ankara Municipality intervened and a total massacre has been prevented, for now. Students were seen hugging the trees with joy. Still, we know from past events that however much public resistance there is, the government will not step back and the environmental devastation will continue.

These are just three examples of many other, widely known incidents. In recent years, similar things are happening all over the country, especially in the Black Sea region. Moreover, these crimes against nature aren’t just limited to Turkey. One of the most obvious of these is the increased razing of the Amazon rainforest with the support of President Jair Bolsonaro. This diverse landscape, the lungs of the planet, is disappearing.

One thing I know for sure is that the annihilation of nature in Turkey will not change, regardless of who’s in charge. On top of that, however large and effective the protests appear to be, the leaders will try to make everyone forget, and most projects will be completed quickly. During the time it takes the courts to rule against new construction, trees will have already been cut down and buildings will already be going up.

Until Turkey’s idea of the enemy of nature changes, and until a hero like Swamp Thing emerges, we will continue to witness people lining their pockets by destroying the environment. It will be too late for us to restore nature’s balance. When that day comes, everyone will better understand the kids who came out to protect the trees and who hugged them to show their love.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.