Welfare and Social Issues

Reawakening the Spirit of Gezi: Popular Resistance to Istanbul’s ‘Pharaonic’ Projects

On May 28, 2013, one of the first days of the Gezi Park protests, a surreal scene took place in the centre of Istanbul. A member of the Turkish Parliament, S?rr? Süreyya Önder, stood in front of a bulldozer that was attempting to plough through the trees, lawns and flowerbeds which formed part of one of central Istanbul’s few remaining green spaces. In the days and weeks which followed, protesters kept up their defence of the park, which was the scene of rallies, celebrations, as well as deadly confrontations with the police forces. Faced with the determination of the protesters, as well as growing international attention, the bulldozers retreated. Gezi Park escaped the fate of being concreted over and remains – for now – a small but treasured oasis of nature in central Istanbul. Yet elsewhere, on the outskirts of the city, the bulldozers are hard at work razing forested areas to the ground, this time not to make way for an artillery barracks, but for construction works likely to have a far more serious and far-reaching impact on the city and its inhabitants.

Pharaonic projects

In response to these alarming developments, Greens, civil society activists, journalists, students and others gathered at a conference organized by the Green Thought Foundation (Ye?il Dü?ünce Derne?i) in Istanbul.[1] The title and topic of the conference, “Pharaonic Projects,” was a term chosen to convey the imposing scale of the plans, as well as to connote the element of megalomania inherent in their conception and implementation. The plans for a third airport and a third bridge in Istanbul are two of the most consequential and controversial projects, due to the severe environmental impact – further eating into the rapidly retreating forested areas on Istanbul’s European shore – as well as the exorbitant costs and the potential long-term consequences involved.

Clarifying the nature of these projects and their common characteristics, Cihan Uzunçar??l? Baysal of the civil society coalition Kent Hareketleri (Istanbul Urban Movements) said, “By ‘Pharaonic’ projects, we mean projects which transform the landscape and local environment.” As they are driven by the construction and services sectors, “they primarily serve the interests of finance capital and the business world.”[2]

These ambitious projects aspire to and become symbols for power, added Baysal. They are part of an ultra-nationalistic and revisionist discourse about “giving Istanbul back its glorious past,” which was also evident during the city’s failed bid for the 2020 Olympic Games. “The aim is for these projects to set records in order to put Istanbul on the map,” she said.

Korhan Gümü? of the Taksim Solidarity Platform, one of the key civil society actors during the Gezi Park protests, pointed out that it is not just the projects themselves but the way they are handled which warrants criticism as “there is a fundamental democratic deficit in terms of how the public is informed about these projects.”[3]

Paolo Prieri, representing the Forum against Unnecessary Imposed Mega Projects, echoed these concerns, arguing that citizens are generally excluded from the entire process; they are not consulted or given recourse to express opposition or intervene.[4] In addition they are kept uninformed, particularly about the real costs of the projects, which generally “do not meet the real needs of the populations but instead divert vital public funds to mega schemes that are first and foremost about generating private profits.”

The construction of a third bridge across the Bosphorus Strait, already underway, is a good illustration of a project that many believe will only aggravate current problems rather than alleviating them. Çare Olgun Çal??kan of the Kuzey Ormanlar? Savunma Platformu (Northern Forest Defence Platform) began by explaining the significant development trends in Istanbul, in terms of demographics and urban planning: “Istanbul has seen huge increases in population in certain areas – increasing 12% per year.”[5] There are more vehicles on the roads, particularly crossing the bridges, and the rise in cars has even outstripped the rise in population, which are not correlative. With Istanbul’s traffic already at chronic levels and among the worst in the world, “new roads cannot be the solution.” With the third bridge plan, Çal??kan predicted that “the population would simply expand to the North” with new areas becoming urbanized and leading to further rises in the population and construction in areas with are currently forest spaces.

Istanbul’s public transport network is nowhere near sufficient, taking into account its population, transportation by metro accounts for only 12% of journeys made in the city. “We can say that Istanbul is around 100 years behind other megacities in terms of public transport,” stated Çal??kan. In addition, cars also bring about other effects, such as air pollution, and Istanbul is in the process of becoming a “heat island,” he pointed out.

These projects, argued Prieri, tend to be “rooted in the affirmations of neo-liberal globalization and new prevailing conceptions of development,” as well as “bound up with notions of the supremacy of growth above all else.” Their justification relies on a rhetorical discourse of progress and modernity, which is largely mythical and deceptive.

More concretely, however, “they entail serious consequences for the surrounding ecosystems and destroy fauna and flora,” explained Baysal, who summed up the general features of these projects as “eye-catching, socially unjust and harmful to the environment.”

The “crazy project”: Kanal Istanbul

Another project certain to have serious consequences for the environment, many of which it is feared would be unforeseen and irreversible, is Kanal Istanbul. This plan essentially involves the digging of an artificial canal running parallel to the Bosphorus and linking the Mediterranean and Black Seas, effectively creating a new island. The plan is so radical and ambitious that it has been dubbed the flagship “crazy project” by the government itself, which has already given a green light for the project to go ahead.[6]

Professor Cemal Saydam from Hacettepe University’s Environmental Engineering Department gave his predictions about the likely scenario should the new canal become a reality, as a chemist and a marine scientist.[7]

Anatolia, the part of Turkey situated on the Asian continent which accounts for the large majority of its land mass, is remarkable for being surrounded by the “most contrasted” sea conditions on earth, explained Saydam. This is essentially because the two bodies of water which surround it, the Mediterranean to the west and Black sea to the North, are of incredibly varying compositions. While the Med contains high levels of oxygen and few nutrients, and therefore relatively little marine life, the Black Sea is at the other end of the spectrum, characterised by a fertile surface and oxygen at lower levels, making it more suited to economic fishing.

This is why the Sea of Marmara is so special, indeed “unique, no sea is comparable.” It encapsulates the delicate balance between the two bodies of water it joins yet at the same time, Saydam pointed out, it has to cope with the effects of proximity to a megacity, in terms of the density of population in Istanbul and the massive amounts of waste generated.

Given these contrasting conditions, and the movements and jet streams created as a result, if Kanal Istanbul were to be built the consequences would be dramatic. “At first we would witness an increase in nutrients and fish,” predicted Saydam, “Then there would be a breakdown, after which there would be no going back, oxygen levels would be irreversibly altered.”  The end result is likely to be the termination of all marine life, he warns.

In light of these potentially devastating results, it seems madness for such a project to be going ahead without detailed oceanography studies being carried out. Yet that is what is happening, said Saydam.

Civil resistance: solidarity in the struggle ahead

Although protests have taken place in the areas where the third airport and bridge are in the process of being built, these areas nowhere near as accessible as Gezi Park, Çal??kan pointed out. This means that it is much more difficult for protesters to reach the site, and also means the largely pro-government national media are more easily able to ignore the protests, as they first attempted to do during the Gezi Park protests, while the international media is likely to view them as less significant due to their more remote location. Yet despite being outside the centre of Istanbul, and being completely removed from any areas frequented by political figures or tourists – scenes similar to those witnessed in Gezi have been quietly playing out in these forested areas where construction has been ongoing, with police using the now familiar tools of tear gas and water cannon to quell the protesters and drive them away from the site.

In such a climate where dissent becomes criminalized, the difficulty is stimulating public awareness and keeping up the momentum of the protest movement. These tasks are made even more difficult by the nature of the Turkish media, whose ownership structures present a serious challenge to a free and independent press which would hold politicians and private sector bosses accountable in their dealings. Since many media owners are also involved in construction and other sectors, this leads to a clear conflict of interest. Some have suggested that social media could be a way around this. However, while it may be helpful in allowing activists to liaise with each other, and civil society actors to reach their followers, it remains unclear whether it can be used to have a real impact among the general public.

The recent corruption investigation which led to the resignation of several cabinet members, including the environment minister, also demonstrates the extent to which these projects are likely to have been permeated by favouritism, tender-rigging, and graft, with allegations that construction permits and public tenders were allocated in return for bribes.[8]

Although the full scale of the corruption between construction companies and politicians is only now beginning to emerge, the concrete results can already be easily seen throughout the city, where it is plain to see that the rapid urbanization has been taking place with little regard for planning or the welfare of communities.

Looking ahead, Baysal felt that one way to strengthen the civil movement could be through events that promote dialogue and a sense of community, such as city forums or open meetings as were held in parks around the city in the aftermath of the Gezi Park protests. She added, however, that the struggle needs to have an international dimension. “We need to organize, get together, go to international conferences…”

Prieri is also a strong advocate of cooperation and mobilization across borders, highlighting the international scope of this phenomenon. “In many parts of the planet, citizens are rebelling against the grand projects that have been imposed on their lives,” he said, adding that this was at the root of the establishment, in 2011, of the Forum against Unnecessary Imposed Mega Projects, an international network of communities facing similar issues across Europe and beyond. Its aim is “to mount a united front in the fight back against the imposition of massive infrastructure projects” such as airports, high-speed train networks, and other ambitious projects likely to cause large-scale disruption to environment and communities. The organization holds meetings to facilitate the exchange of experiences on the forms of struggle implemented in various locations.

“We have found that the problems that we face are not unique to each different situation but all have common features,” Prieri asserted. “We have to make links between the struggles to create solidarity and increase our chances of success.”

 

References


[1] Conference on Pharaonic Projects held 26-27th October 2013, Taxim Hill Hotel, Istanbul
[2] Speech delivered Saturday October 26th in Istanbul
[3] Speech delivered Saturday October 26th in Istanbul
[4] Speech delivered Saturday October 26th in Istanbul (Transcript of talk also available online )
[5] Speech delivered Saturday October 26th in Istanbul
[6]Gov’t gives green light to ‘crazy’ Canal Istanbul project. Daily News
[7] Presentation given Saturday October 26th in Istanbul
[8]Turkey ministers Caglayan, Guler and Bayraktar resign amid scandal. BBC

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