Welfare and Social Issues

The Children of Gezi: Defending the Northern Forests in Istanbul

After the euphoria of its occupation faded, a park which had come to symbolise solidarity and peaceful resistance appeared to turn back into just a park like any other. Those who had taken to the streets, to collectively express the idea that another world was possible and to assert that they would not merely be passive and docile consumers, appeared to simply go back to work, and back to life as usual. Upon closer inspection, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

In the bustling neighbourhood of Beyoğlu, just a short walk from Taksim Square and Gezi Park, high up in one of the old buildings, which seems like every other from the outside, something is happening. These are the headquarters – a grand term for such a modest space – of the Northern Forests Defence (NFD). A small but buzzing hive of activity, this is where the activists gather each week to plan, strategise, discuss and socialise. In these unassuming but welcoming rooms, full of laughter, energy and optimism, the ‘spirit of Gezi’ is alive and well.

‘Mega-Projects’: A Third Bridge and Third Airport for Istanbul

Efe Baysal and Onur Akgül are two of the activists behind the movement that was formed after the Gezi protests. Describing how the movement came about, Akgül explains that Gezi was about much more than simply preventing a small park in the heart of Istanbul from being concreted over. “The Gezi movement involved several demands towards the government and decision-makers – including the cancellation of mega-projects. This was a key point in the protests.”

These demands were the basis for the foundation of NFD, which has as its key aim the prevention of the destruction of the remaining forest areas and ecosystem to the north of the city. The Northern Forests cover a vast area, stretching between the Sea of Marmara and the black sea coast. The expanse provides a much needed lung for a megacity with a population estimated at over 15 million, yet it has been dwindling at an alarming rate in recent years, due to rampant construction fuelled primarily by the city’s growing population and the accompanying demand for housing. An estimated 30,000 hectares of forest have been razed since the 1970s.

Now, two massive projects – dubbed ‘pharaonic mega-projects’ by ecologists – are further eating into this green land. The construction of a third airport for the city, and a third bridge across the Bosphorus, entail a drastic reduction in the forested area.

After its initial formation, the movement began to gain support through the park forums which were set up in the wake of the Gezi protests.

Construction of the third airport has been driving forwards, despite a suspension order being issued by an Istanbul administrative court in February 2014, after the Environmental Impact Assessment that was carried out for the project was deemed to be invalid. Several of the executives of the companies which won the bid to build the airport, were among those implicated in a large-scale corruption investigation.

The third bridge, now almost completed, is also a project which concerns environmentalists, for example as it threatens surrounding wildlife, particularly migrating birds. Hundreds of people in the surrounding area are also threatened by eviction. Yet despite these grave concerns, ecological risks and court decisions for the projects to be halted, construction has continued apace, and with it the destruction of the forests.

How It All Started

After its initial formation, the movement began to gain support through the park forums which were set up in the wake of the Gezi protests. These forums provided citizens with a platform to gather, debate and share their ideas out in the open. It was a way to sustain the momentum built up in Gezi, and also a much needed outlet for expressing the strong feelings, both positive and negative, that had built up during those turbulent weeks.

The forums took place regularly in parks across the city, pervaded by a spirit of community and direct democracy. Although they eventually ceased as interest and attendance waned with the onset of winter, they gave rise to a number of new movements infused with the Gezi ideals of environmental and social justice, and the determination to drive the movement forward. “Gezi was an important turning point for the environmentalist movement in Turkey,” explains Baysal. “NFD was established through the park forums so it was somehow our mission to carry the Gezi spirit through it.”

One of the characteristics of the Gezi protests which NFD has inherited is the casting aside of any explicit affiliation with a particular political party or organisation.

Building Bridges of Another Kind

Now, NFD has become a forum in itself. “We started by holding protests and demonstrations against the third bridge,” says Akgül. These protests took various forms – “We wrote press releases, organised marches on Istiklal Street in the heart of the city, and some protestors went to the areas where trees were being cut for the building of the bridge.” They have recently launched a renewed campaign to raise awareness about the mega-projects, based around a detailed report on the third airport building processes.

The NFD activists are far from being alone in their struggle. “Through our protests we have made some alliances with groups with similar demands, and we’re fighting together to make our struggle bigger and our voices louder,” says Akgül. Other movements focused on ecological struggles have reached out to them, and this has helped NFD activists to make links with local activists in the areas directly affected by the mega-projects.

As for the links with movements outside of Turkey, this is something which the activists regard as important. “We are in contact with friends in Germany who are protecting forests by occupying them and also in France with some of the ZAD movements, who are facing some police brutality. We are also in contact with GAMM (Global Anti-Aerotropolis Movement),” says Akgül, “It is mostly symbolic – we keep in contact and send each other messages of support and share reports and developments with them.”

NFD employ a variety of tools to sensitise the population and stimulate opposition to the mega-projects. These include taking to the streets and the forests to protest, issuing statements to the press, posting on social media, reporting to inform people… yet it has resisted becoming institutionalised or politicised. NFD is a street movement,” stresses Akgül, “but as it expanded there was a need for more tools, so we began to produce our own media, through our website and social media.”

Keeping Politics at Arm’s Length

One of the characteristics of the Gezi protests which NFD has inherited is the casting aside of any explicit affiliation with a particular political party or organisation. “In the NFD there are people from all different political movements, but they are not present with this political identity or as representatives of it, they are just here as activists, as volunteers – as themselves.” explains Akgül. “Whether you are or aren’t in a political party you have a place here – we don’t have a hierarchy, we don’t even have a board – just a coordination team who take some responsibilities when it’s necessary.”

Gezi taught us that we had lots of anger but we had also hope. But it also taught us that you have to channel your anger and hope and that was the resistance.

Asked to shed some insight on why it is so important for the movement to remain impartial and non-partisan, Akgül explains that the importance of uniting opposition forces in Turkey became clear after Gezi: “At the time, you could see people from different political movements in the same squares, the same photos, when normally you couldn’t imagine them coming together – this was what we called the ‘Gezi spirit’ and this is what we started from… We saw that this independence is what makes people come to our protests and meetings and makes them able to identify with it.”

Although NFD easily managed to recruit members among the ecologically-sensitive citizens who supported the Gezi protests, expanding their support base further remains a challenge in Turkey, where those who criticise the government and it’s mantra of growth through construction are often viewed with suspicion, even if their opposition is rooted in concerns for welfare and social justice. “Because of the tense political atmosphere in Turkey, there is a strong polarisation in the society which makes it difficult to recruit new members. Because when you begin to criticise the ‘economic growth’ of Turkey the other side quickly labels you as someone who is trying to prevent the development of Turkey,” says Baysal, “So this can make it difficult to gain public support.”

Between Visibility and Fabrication

Although they initially struggled to gain domestic media coverage, the Gezi park protests rapidly attracted attention from media around the world, in light of the dramatic scenes of confrontations occurring in the very heart of the city. NFD’s protests, however, have largely taken place far from the urban centre, in the construction zones on the outskirts of the city. It was only after releasing the report on the third airport, announced through public press conferences, that NFD began to receive recognition in the mainstream media beyond their own networks, thanks to the hard evidence and credibility which the report provided.

Yet this increased attention comes with some disadvantages, with NFD also becoming the subject of wild rumours and fabrications, as Baysal explains, “Some pro-government newspapers and media started saying that we had gone to the forests and set up a camp to make war plans. It seems funny to us now but some people believed this.”

Where Anger Meets Hope

Looking back now, two years on, how do the activists regard the legacy and impact of Gezi?  For Baysal, the answer is categorical: “we are the legacy of Gezi. In fact we call ourselves the children of Gezi.” Akgül is more nuanced, in his estimation, “It lit a torch across all of turkey. It gave hope to people, both at the local level and countrywide, that when people resist, when people get together and stand up, they can change. That is the most important legacy.

For Baysal, the roots of the uprising can be traced back to Turkey’s tumultuous political history, “Especially after the 1980 military coup, the idea was really to pacify the society. The regime strongly discouraged any type of organisation and directly targeted leftist movements. Gezi taught us that we had lots of anger but we had also hope. But it also taught us that you have to channel your anger and hope and that was the resistance.”

Another important consequence was that it showed protesters that their actions could result in tangible effects, adds Akgül, “Not just in Gezi but also in the Aegean region, and in the black sea region, there is resistance that we can observe is growing and gaining more strength and confidence, and beginning to exert more pressure for laws to be respected and implemented. And we’re beginning to see the results.” Indeed, there have been a number of successful campaigns to block environmentally damaging projects, in which local communities and activists have played a key role, such as a coal plant in Yirca and hydroelectrical power plants on the Black Sea coast.

“I don’t think we will stop talking about Gezi anytime soon,” reflects one of the activists present as they prepare to begin their weekly meeting, “We still don’t really know what it was – it remains a big unknown, in that everyone has different memories of it. It’s like when you fall in love – when it happens, you don’t wonder what it will lead to…”

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