With the eyes of the world on a small park in Istanbul, a new banner message of global solidarity in defense of our fragile planet has been born: ‘I am in Gezi!’. Gezi Park is a tipping point, an awakening to years of environmental abuse in Turkey and the erosion of democratic participation that has put private profit before the environment and public wishes.
For many people in Turkey, what is happening in Gezi has been happening all over the country. Protests against ill-considered and unwanted developments have been met with police brutality, tear gas and mass arrests, but the country’s media have barely reported them.
Despite Turkey’s abundant sources of renewable energy (solar, wind and geothermal), Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan is pushing ahead with unhealthy or dangerous plans such as massive coal fired power station expansion and plans to build two nuclear power stations.
His government is entering into international agreements committing it to new coal plants, bypassing domestic regulations.
For the past two years, in the Black Sea town of Gerze, local opposition to a coal plan has been met with the standard police response of tear gas and mass arrests.
Turkey’s planning regulations have been bulldozed to exempt the nuclear industry from the burden of producing environmental impact assessments. This makes it easier for the government to ignore the two thirds of the Turkish people opposed to nuclear power and push ahead instead with the construction of the planned Sinop and Akkuyu nuclear power stations.
While just 5% of Turkey has ‘protected area’ status, offering some freedom from the bulldozer, even this, is not sacred.
New legislation being promoted by the government – the Nature and Biodiversity Protection Law, which was to be voted on by the parliament this week – would allow it to remove ‘protected status’ at will; without excuse, rationale or public debate.
That vote has been postponed in the wake of the Gezi protests. While the legislation languishes in limbo, there is still time for it to be fixed. It is a perfect time for the government to take heed of the demands of those who want to protect Gezi Park and the whole country.
If not, the parliament should reject it in its current form and demand a redraft. The parliament has the chance to show it is listening to the will of the people and has its interests at heart.
It is also the perfect time for the government to sign the Aarhus Convention which grants people access to information, the right to participation in the decision-making processes and the right to litigation on environmental issues. The European Union is among its 46 signatories and all countries seeking EU membership are expected to sign.
Prime Minister Erdogan and his government can show the people of Turkey that they have been heard and that their rights are being respected. He can tell them that Turkish democracy is a daily activity and not something to be reserved for the ballot box once every five years. He can recognise that civil society is the beating heart of a healthy democracy. He can sign the Aarhus Convention and fix the Nature and Biodiversity Protection Law before returning it to parliament for a vote.
As many commentators have said, the situation in Turkey is no longer about ‘just a handful of trees in a park’. But make no mistake, the importance people attach to this precious green space is important. It is about whether or not Turkey will continue its economic development and embrace the understanding that it is nature that nourishes us and provides us with the basic human needs such as fresh air to breathe and clean food to eat. Nature also feeds our souls and access to it is a human right.
The extension of the movement that gained focus in Gezi shows that the protection being demanded for Gezi Park is demanded across the entire country: ‘I am in Turkey!’
Laetitia Liebert is Executive Director of Greenpeace Mediterranean