ISTANBUL—When a pine tree burns, according to the people of Mazikoy, a village on Turkey’s Aegean coast, it screams. Olive trees, too. As their insides burn, they let out a cry. At that point, it’s almost impossible to put the fire out.
This year, the smoke appeared above the ridges around Mazikoy on July 31. When the residents of the cove—many of them employees and owners of small hotels—saw it, they knew how quickly the dried-out pine trees buffeting the cove, baked by a record-breaking heat wave, would burn. They evacuated all their guests in the middle of the night.
“No one had any idea what was going to happen,” Cagri Tas, whose family owns the Incekum guest house in Mazikoy, told me when I visited.
Summer vacationers lined up on the cove’s only dock, waiting for rescue boats sent by the coast guard. Around 3 a.m., they piled onto these boats with their luggage and pets—“Like Noah’s ark,” Tas said—and were taken to the nearby city of Bodrum. Locals stayed behind.
Helicopters momentarily brought the fires under control around dawn. But 9 a.m. on Aug. 1, the blaze surrounded the town on all sides.
As flames swept across the single road leading to the cove, firefighters were unable to reach the restaurants and hotels lining the beach. With electricity and water shut off, hotel owners and their families shuttled water from the sea to the flames in buckets. With the exception of eight men, who stayed behind to fight the fire, the people of Mazikoy boarded boats at 11 a.m. and headed out into the bay. Behind them, they watched flames encroach on their homes and livelihoods, the sky burnt orange and choked with smoke.
When the Tas family returned to Mazikoy on Aug. 2, the hills behind their hotel were black. So was the sea, the beach lined with ashes. The family’s property was intact, but other hotels in the cove were not so lucky.
While the local government came to clean up the remains of the burned buildings later that week, the villagers heard little from the national government beyond a condolence visit from the interior minister, Suleyman Soylu. They were left to wonder: Where had help been when they needed it? And how had these fires been allowed to cause such devastation in the first place?
The Turkish government’s relief efforts for this summer’s forest fires in the country’s southern regions have been widely condemned as insufficient. Without an immediate, aggressive statewide response—and with temperatures climbing over 104 degrees Fahrenheit—the fires were able to burn more than 150,000 hectares of forest over the course of just two weeks, killing eight people.
Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have attempted to politicize the disaster, blaming the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey and the United States consider a terrorist group, for sabotage and local municipalities for their lack of response. The government also criminalized a social media campaign—#HelpTurkey—that aimed to raise money for the areas affected, with prosecutors investigating posts using the hashtag. Erdogan and his supporters argued that the campaign aimed to make the government look weak, and they started a rival campaign—#StrongTurkey—that lauded the federal response to the fires.
Turkey’s coastal regions primarily vote for the opposition Republican People’s Party. In the four weeks since the fires there, floods in the Black Sea region, in the country’s north, have killed at least 82 people and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. In contrast, that area—which is Erdogan’s ancestral home turf and resoundingly supported the People’s Alliance between the AKP and the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party in the 2019 local elections—earned immediate pledges of support from government agencies, with Erdogan even announcing a fundraising campaign. The divergent responses to these two crises have only emphasized the political and strategic nature of the AKP’s relationship to environmental disaster.
Over the course of its tenure at Turkey’s helm, the AKP has prioritized development, urbanization, and capital gain over environmental conservation. Since Turkey’s founding in 1923, successive governments have positioned development and industrialization as state-building, but the trend that has only accelerated since Erdogan took power nearly two decades ago.
Since the 2013 Gezi Park protests, the AKP has treated environmental activism as inherently anti-government. The protests, which were sparked by government plans to transform a green space in Istanbul’s center into a shopping mall, ballooned into large-scale anti-government demonstrations when demonstrators were met with extreme police violence. The Gezi Park protests, which lasted over a month, are seen as an inflection point in the AKP’s anti-democratic turn. Now, despite the stringent protections for forests and natural areas enshrined in Turkish law, the ethos of economic development and the politicization of environmental issues mean Turkey is unable to effectively combat environmental degradation and climate change.
When the religious-conservative AKP came to power in 2002, it did so on a platform that emphasized development and industrialization. For the first decade of the party’s tenure, this strategy worked. Turkey’s GDP per capita skyrocketed from just over $3,600 in 2002 to a peak of over $12,600 in 2013, though it has fallen steadily since. Many of the government’s flagship development projects, however, have come at an enormous environmental cost.
The Ilisu Dam project, for example, has submerged the ancient city of Hasankeyf, near the Syrian border. The transformation of Lake Salda, once a protected habitat, into a public recreation area has led to its rapid degradation. Urbanization in Istanbul and its environs, combined with poor enforcement of regulations of industrial waste, has caused the Sea of Marmara to be choked with sea snot. The government’s proposed Kanal Istanbul project could, according to experts, lead to the devastation of natural habitats on its planned path, destroying ecosystems in both the Marmara and Black seas. And the Kemerkoy Thermal Power Plant, which has been allowed to operate for nearly 30 years despite local court orders and widespread protest, has wreaked havoc on Gokova Bay, a protected habitat. On Jan. 1, 2020, the plant was ordered to close as a result of new environmental regulations passed in parliament. But shortly thereafter, the Ministry of Environment and Urbanization granted it a “temporary operation document” that allowed the plant to continue operations despite its noncompliance.
As it happens, the plant is located in Turkevleri, another Aegean locality that suffered during this summer’s blaze. Firefighters were able to bring the fire under control just before it reached the silo, from which plant workers had removed all flammable material. Had they not, a bomb of noxious gases would have been waiting to explode.
According to Global Forest Watch, Turkey’s tree cover shrunk by 545,000 hectares from 2001 to 2020, a 5.4 percent decrease since 2000. So far this year, approximately 175,000 hectares of forest have burned, according to the European Forest Fire Information system, more than eight times the amount of land that has usually burned by this point in the year. The forces meant to protect these forests have also been hobbled. At the height of the fires, Turkey’s fleet of approximately 12 firefighting planes was grounded due lack of maintenance. Many firefighting pilots have been fired in recent years, and the Turkish Aeronautical Association, which should have overseen the air response, is led by an AKP appointee who was unreachable when the fires were at their worst. (He later said in an interview that he was at a wedding.)
Article 169 of the Turkish Constitution states that in the case of forest fire, “Burnt forest areas shall be reafforested” and “other agricultural and stockbreeding activities shall not be allowed in such areas.” Forest protection has long been codified in Turkish law: The first forest protection legislation was passed in 1839, as part of the Ottoman Tanzimat reforms. After the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the first Forest Law was passed in 1937, and its modern manifestation was passed in 1956. In 1982, forestry laws were incorporated into the post-military-coup constitution, which is still in force today. In all of these laws, a healthy forest is defined by the number of trees and replanting efforts it houses—not its biodiversity. In the aftermath of the most recent fires, Erdogan himself stated that trees would be replanted in devastated areas.
“According to the constitution, burned areas cannot be used for other purposes, they are reforested,” he said on July 31. “As a government that has increased the presence of Turkey’s forests, it is our foremost duty to reforest everywhere that has burned.”
The problem is that, once those trees are planted, there is very little regulation or willingness to curb development in affected areas. The government can grant permission for formerly burned land to be developed for a variety of sanctioned purposes, including tourism. This ability was strengthened by a law passed by the Turkish parliament as fires were burning—on July 28—that signed over control of forested areas and coastlines to the tourism ministry. Many fear that the government and the state-controlled housing authority, known as TOKI—the mechanism behind much of Turkey’s rapid development—will use the land already cleared by the fires for large-scale projects, such as luxury hotels and resorts.
The burned ruins of the Kale Pansiyon restaurant in Mazikoy on Aug. 7.
The ruins of Rota Pansiyon in Mazikoy on Aug. 7. Erin O’Brien for Foreign Policy
This fear is borne out by history. In July 2007, a forest fire broke out in the region of Guvercinlik, near the resort city of Bodrum. By the time the fire was brought under control, over 250 hectares of forest and over 20 hectares of fields and olive groves were burned. After the fire, the head of forestry in the surrounding province of Mugla, former AKP federal legislator Ibrahim Aydin, insisted that despite popular claims, the burned area would not be developed.
But construction of three luxury hotels in the region began soon thereafter. La Blanche Island hotel opened in 2012, five years after the fire, followed by Titanic Deluxe Bodrum and Lujo Bodrum Hotel in 2016 and 2018, respectively.
On July 29, a wildfire in the Guvercinlik district of Bodrum once again threatened the area where the three hotels now stand, and over 3,000 tourists were evacuated to the sea. Though the hotels did not sustain significant damage, according to the manager of Titanic Hotels group, the hills behind the three resorts were again reduced to ash.
Two days later, TOKI shared a 3D model of a home on social media. The administration, TOKI wrote, had “mobilized to wipe out the effects of the fire” and would rehouse “our citizens” in their “new homes,” designed to evoke traditional regional architecture, within one year.
There is one catch, though: Residents will have to pay off the cost of these homes to TOKI over 20 years. The economy in the region—especially in smaller towns like Mazikoy—is largely dependent on tourism and the production of olives and honey. Regional tourism took an enormous hit during the coronavirus pandemic and has been all but destroyed by the fires. Some of the hotel owners I spoke to in Mazikoy have seen all their bookings through September canceled. With no promise of tourism revenue, and with olive trees and beehives burned, there is no assurance that families who have lost their homes will actually have the means to pay to replace them.
AKP representatives, however, have hailed the coming TOKI projects as a success. On Aug. 2, Mehmet Ozeren, the AKP mayor of Gundogmus, in Antalya province, said in an interview that citizens should be pleased. His response encapsulates the AKP’s general attitude toward the environment: a focus on reconstructing and developing after environmental disaster rather than addressing its root causes.
“Our citizens whose houses have become unstable will have houses built by TOKI to their preferences, paid over 20 years with low interest rates,” Ozeren said, “I think that citizens with very old houses will say, ‘I wish that our house had burned down too.’”