Interview originally published by Today’s Zaman 28/02/16.
Oğuz Kurdoğlu: Defender of the Cerattepe
This week’s guest for Monday Talk has said that fighting against a mine operation in forested Cerattepe in the northeast of Turkey means fighting for survival because the planned mine in the region will have devastating effects for the people of Artvin.
“When sampling probes were done on the mining ground, the people of Cerattepe felt the change in the taste of their water. Can you imagine what will happen to the water there when the real mining starts? People of Artvin are against mining because they are fighting for their lifestyle,” said Oğuz Kurdoğlu, a professor at the Black Sea Technical University (KTÜ) and a volunteer scientific adviser to the Green Artvin Association (Yeşil Artvin Derneği) composed of locals.
Kurdoğlu, who was at the recent meeting of the Green Artvin Association with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, said they want to be hopeful that the government will reevaluate the project, which will certainly harm both people and the environment.
Davutoğlu, who met with representatives from Artvin in Ankara on Feb. 24 for the mine project that was to get under way in Cerattepe, stopped the construction firm’s operations in Cerattepe until an ongoing judicial process has been completed.
However, the prime minister also underlined that the construction of the mine will be done in accordance with conditions to protect the environment.
An administrative court ruling in 2014 put a halt to Cengiz Holding’s efforts on the project, while a 2015 decision rejected the environmental impact analysis (EIA) report for the mine. However, when the company appealed the decision to the Council of State, which is the highest court for cases related to administrative law, a new report was subsequently approved by the Ministry of Forestry and Water Affairs last June.
Since June 21 of last year, locals have set up camp in opposition to the company’s mining efforts.
Meanwhile, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan slammed on Feb. 27 the protests in Cerattepe as a “junior Gezi,” referring to the protests that first began in 2013 as an environmentalist sit-in against plans to demolish İstanbul’s Gezi Park to build a shopping mall complex and turned into a nationwide protest against the government.
Answering our questions, Kurdoğlu elaborated on the issue and their meeting with Prime Minister Davutoğlu.
After your meeting with Prime Minister Davutoğlu, some commentators said this is a victory for Cerattepe. Is there a victory yet?
It is important to note that the prime minister listened to us. Maybe it was the first time in Turkey that a prime minister received the civil society, listened to them and took notes for two hours at a time both domestic and international issues were keeping the government quite busy.
I always see the empty part of the glass and my view is that you would have to be very naïve to say that mine operations ended once and for all in Cerattepe after this meeting and after the prime minister gave orders to halt the mining operation until the ongoing court process ends. It is also important to note that we told Prime Minister Davutoğlu that Artvin has been well represented in this civil society initiative with its political and civil society representatives collaborating for a common interest, and that we have had no flags, except the Turkish flag, no colors, just our opinions presented; the initiative has not been against the current government or mining in any other appropriate setting, it’s been against a certain project in Cerattepe.
After meeting with the civil society in Ankara, Prime Minister Davutoğlu said in his statements that there will not be about 50,000 trees felled for the mine project in Cerattepe, and the number of trees that will be cut down will not be more than 3,500. If this is the case, would the mine project be acceptable for the people?
The corporation’s own Environmental Impact Analysis [EIA] report says there will be more than 50,000 trees felled in Cerattepe as a result of the mining project. This number comes from their EIA report, not from us. We do not understand how the number of trees that will be cut down comes down to 3,500. What operations of the mining firm have been cancelled so that the number of trees that would have been felled comes down; we really have not been informed about this.
One tree aged 1,000 years can tell you so much about the climate, humans and their habits, past and future of the region. The information that you can gather from an old tree is priceless. We need to treasure it.
Moreover, even if the number of trees that would have been cut down is reduced, that would not be satisfactory. We are talking about a forest in Cerattepe, and forests have their own ecosystems. If you cut down trees in forests, that ecosystem’s balance can change, and we don’t want that.
There is also an argument about replacing the trees cut in the forest with new trees. There is no way to replace trees in forests if they are cut. There are monumental trees in the forests of Cerattepe, and there is no way to replace them, no matter how many more new trees you plant. For example, one tree aged 1,000 years can tell you so much about the climate, humans and their habits, past and future of the region. The information that you can gather from an old tree is priceless. We need to treasure it. You might plant trees in an area of 1,000 hectares, but 100 hectares of forestry might be more valuable than that considering both the benefits of a forest in an ecosystem and importance of the information you can gather from a forest.
We have become a society in which we know the price of everything well but do not know anything about its value. Forests are so important for a country that they need to be treasured. I wish our forestry and water affairs minister [Veysel Eroğlu] had a background in forestry so we would have an educated discussion with him about this but he is unfortunately a constructing engineer.
‘What is the public interest here?’
Prime Minister Davutoğlu also gave some details regarding operations of the mine and how it will not be harmful to the environment because precautions will be taken. And at the same time, he gave orders to stop operations at the site until the court process ends. This seems contradictory, doesn’t it? There is even risk of the prime minister influencing the court?
I would not like to comment on this and I hope you are not angry at me. I would not like to hurt our dialogue process with the prime minister at this point. He also had a meeting with the owners of the company a day before he received us. I would like to say that start of the mining operations was not legal but it had started. I hope there is good will and there will be a decision based on facts.
You know the prime minister insists that Turkey’s underground treasures should be unearthed and used, and the government would not like ideas which are against such activities as mining.
Do you mean there should not be a mine operation no matter what — no matter how many trees are cut and how safe the operations that are carried out?
The Green Artvin Association underlined at our meeting with the prime minister that we are not against mining in other areas of Turkey if those areas are appropriate for mining without harming the environment and people.
The Green Artvin Association consists of people who live in the area where the mining is planned. The mining ground poses great risks to people in the Cerattepe area. One of those risks is landslide. People live at the bottom of a basin surrounded by hills, and the planned mining operations are on top of those hills in an area where there are serious landslides. Another danger is pollution of water resources. When sampling probes were done on the mining ground, people of Cerattepe felt the change in the taste of their water. Can you imagine what happens to water there when the real mining starts? People of Artvin are against mining because they are fighting for their lifestyle. Cerattepe is the region’s breathing space. Artvin people are fighting for their way of life.
We know how copper mining in nearby Murgul devastated life there. We really need to question the “public interest” argument done for the mining business in the area. We lost a whole ecosystem in Murgul. We lost fishing. We lost drinking water resources. How much money will you get from mining there? How much of this money will bring back the ecosystem lost? Is this acceptable? What is the public interest here?
‘Environmental impact reports not reliable’
Do you think you convinced the prime minister about the harm of mining in Cerattepe?
I wish I could have sat down and talked one-to-one with the prime minister; I believe I could have convinced him. However, it would have been hard to convince the forestry and water affairs minister perhaps he thinks he knows everything about forestry. It seems like when he looks at forests, he probably doesn’t see trees but concrete columns.
Would you like to have a meeting with the minister to be able to better communicate the issues?
Unfortunately, I don’t think I would be able to convince the minister. When we enter the website of the ministry, there is information that a baby deer was struggling for its life in nature because hunters killed its mother. This is exploitation of the issue because the same ministry ignores the fact that several baby deer have been dying — we have many photographs of this — because they cannot find enough resources for survival. And this is because of the very badly planned hydropower projects which left streams without water.
In 2015, an administrative court in Rize did not approve the EIA report, and that EIA report is currently under consideration at the Council of State. And then, there was a second EIA report which was approved. So what is this about? And if there is an ongoing court process, how has it been possible for the mining firm to start work at Cerattepe?
In Turkey, EIA reports are not prepared in a healthy way. Corporations with projects have the EIA reports prepared for them, and they pay for this. EIA reports need to be prepared by independent organizations. Out of approximately 52,000 EIA reports, only 33 were not approved by the government. This shows us that the process is not healthy.
In addition, the EIA reports do not contain a cumulative effect study which is hard to do. For example, take a hydropower project; a dam takes 90 percent of the water out of a stream and they call the remaining water a “lifeline.” It is not possible for the region’s animals to survive with that little amount of water. Those EIA reports are not reliable at all.
Anything you would like to add?
The eastern Black Sea region is very important for ecotourism. This is how it has been presented in official documents. It could have been declared a scenic reserve area. The region has a very old forest. It hosts several plants and animals. Sixty-eight different types of birds live there. There are several benefits of the forest not only to the ecosystem but also to people. It has positive effects on people’s physical and emotional wellbeing. It is hard to understand why there have been plans to devastate it all by the Green Road [the planned 2,600-kilometer-long highway network throughout the Black Sea region connecting provinces; amid protests of locals a court halted construction of it].
What is the guarantee for people’s safety in Cerattepe? There are so many laws changed to make things work [in some ways that some people want it work] in Turkey. I am ready to celebrate it all if they can also change the law of gravitation so landslides will no longer occur in Cerattepe. A mining operation on top of Cerattepe would have devastating effects.
‘People of Artvin saw a TOMA for the first time’
A pro-government newspaper claimed that the Green Artvin Association has been the puppet of Germany. Your comment?
Those false accusations are incredibly obnoxious. How can people who fight to protect their water, their forests in their country, be accused in such a way? I have difficulty understanding the mentality of the people who make such accusations. Well, why does not anybody talk about the fact that the company which is after mining in Cerattepe has gotten most of its credit from a German bank? There are a lot of accusations against the protesters, like people who protest against mining in Cerattepe also built barricades against the security forces. The fact is that the fire, presented as a barricade in some of the Turkish media, was for heating purposes because people started to wait out there in the cold taking turns not to allow the mining company’s work in their area.
There is a hut built for that, right?
Yes, families took turns waiting there. The wait went on for 250 days. The government should congratulate those people because they came together to protect their country’s treasures. Every political view was represented in their protest.
But protesting locals faced a harsh response from security forces.
There were so many security forces deployed in the area. Artvin residents saw a TOMA [police riot control vehicle] and pepper spray for the first time. In addition, plastic bullets were used against the locals. As you know, Artvin always ranks as the most secure province in Turkey. Locals never allowed any provocations. Unfortunately, during the protests, we have not seen the soft side of the state that Prime Minister Davutoğlu represented at our recent meeting.
Kurdoğlu is a professor at the Black Sea Technical University (KTÜ) forestry engineering department. His projects for the protection of the environment, supported by the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK), have led to the education of hundreds of people who are concerned about the natural environment and its safeguarding. After graduating from İstanbul University, Kurdoğlu received his doctorate from KTÜ. Born in the Arhavi region of Artvin, he now volunteers as a scientific adviser to the Green Artvin Association (Yeşil Artvin Derneği), which is composed of local volunteers.