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How a Turkish Grandmother Turned Green Ambassador

Unlikely activist does her own research into the effects of coal-fired power plants and ends up informing the nation.

by Uygar Gultekin 1 August 2018

Fevziye Buga looks like a typical 70-year-old retiree from rural Turkey, someone who spends her days working in the garden and baking cakes for her grandchildren.  

 

But Buga’s appearance is deceiving – she is also a fierce and effective environmental activist, whose efforts to prevent a power station from being built near her village of Pinarca have made her well-known across the country.

 

In 2016, when the Turkish government decided to build a coal-fired plant in  Buga’s municipality of Cerkezkoy in north-western Turkey, she was horrified at the prospect of pollution destroying the local countryside.

 

“We inherited a clean world from our ancestors and we should leave it to our grandchildren in the same condition,” Buga said. “When I look at this place, I want to see green forests and to breathe clean air. But if they build a coal-fired power plant here, all that will change.”

 

Villagers from Pinarca gather at the location where a coal plant was supposed to be built. Credit via Greenpeace Akdeniz (Greenpeace Mediterranean).

 

To find out about the possible consequences of a coal-fired plant, Buga and some other Pinarca residents travelled to villages in the vicinity of Zonguldak Catalagzi, a mining city in northern Turkey, which had been affected by a local power station.

 

The burning of coal releases pollutants, such as oxides of nitrogen and sulfur. Other emissions, such as carbon dioxide and methane, are known greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change.

 

Power plants use large quantities of water to remove impurities from the fuel, in a process known as coal washing. Local flora and fauna can be seriously affected by this demand for water, while discharge of dirty water after coal washing can also harm wildlife, and pollute both water sources and the soil. 

 

The Pinarca delegation heard from villagers from the Zonguldak Catalagzi region who said they no longer kept their windows open at home, and described how children seemed to get sick more frequently.

 

Collecting and selling wild chestnuts had been a thriving local industry, but since the quality had deteriorated, no one wanted to buy them anymore.

 

A United Front

 

The group from Pinarca returned home to tell their fellow villagers about the threats such coal plants posed. Almost everyone united to oppose construction, recruiting the local authorities to support their initiative. The environmental charity Greenpeace and the Cerkezkoy municipality even filed a joint lawsuit to try to prevent construction of the plant.

 

The campaigners stressed that Cerkezkoy is one of Turkey’s most important agricultural areas: according to the Thracian Development Agency, it produces 46 percent of the entire country’s rice harvest as well as 46 percent of sunflower production and 12 percent of wheat.

 

Buga began liaising with the environmental groups that came to the region, and starred in a Greenpeace video that was widely circulated in Turkey. She spoke at local protests and became a regular fixture in Turkish and international media.  Buga even wrote a letter to the first lady, Emine Erdogan, appealing for her to support their protest against the power plant.

 

In September 2017, the local activists won a significant victory when Turkey’s High Court ruled that plans for construction must be suspended.

 

The project cannot proceed without the permission of the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning, an edict Buga hopes will never be issued.

 

But the battle is not over yet. Following the ruling, some changes were made to the original project. The plant is now set to be located in a nearby area, forested with thousands of oak trees.

 

However, locals there are also protesting against the construction in this new location, and the environmental authorities have not yet given their approval either.

 

A legal adviser for Greenpeace Mediterranean Campaigns, Deniz Bayram, stressed that a positive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report was needed before construction could proceed.

 

“The power plant project is threatening the last remaining [area of] environmental value in the region. The project will not merely destroy the forest of oak trees but also cause the extensive consumption of underground water resources,” he said. “If permission is given for the construction of this power plant, the health of all residents will be endangered.”

 

Quenching a Thirst for Greater Energy

 

Turkey has signed the Paris Climate Treaty and is thus committed to decreasing its emissions of greenhouse gases by 2030. However, it is yet to implement any part of the agreement.  

 

Environmental activists say that the government is putting insufficient efforts into the development of renewable energy sources, and still relies heavily on old-fashioned power plants.

 

At the same time, as a developing economy, Turkey’s energy requirements are constantly increasing. In November 2017, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey’s need for energy had doubled since 2002.

 

According to the Ministry of Energy, a further increase of 2 to 4 percent each year is anticipated.

 

The Ministry of Energy has made clear that coal is an important factor and is both constructing new mines and improving existing ones. The ministry’s data shows that electricity production from coal in Turkey rose from 27 percent in 2015 to 33 percent in 2017.

 

Climate change researcher Onder Algedik, a founder of the Consumer and Climate Foundation and the 350 Ankara Climate Activism Group, has studied Turkey’s coal policies.

 

A report he produced last year posited a direct link between the rising amount of natural disasters in Turkey and an increase in the number of power plants.

 

Algedik noted that between 1990 and 1999, 67 natural disasters – such as droughts, floods, and hurricanes – were recorded in Turkey. However, in 2016 alone there were 752 such incidents. Many cities across the country also experienced record high temperatures.

 

“The high level of carbon produced by Turkey is going to cause irreversible harm,” Algedik wrote.

 

Back in Pinarca, Buga is determined to continue campaigning until the threat of a coal power station in the area is gone. Local and international journalists continue to visit her house to hear about her battle to protect the beautiful, unspoiled nature around her village. She makes pastries and cooks for them, presenting her case to everyone who will listen.

 

Buga is proud of the fact that she never buys any fruits or vegetables at the local market, growing everything she needs in her own garden. But she is convinced that the construction of a new power plant would change that.

 

“When they build a coal-fired power plant, they will use our rivers for coal-washing. They will poison our waters, and I will not be able to grow vegetables in my garden anymore,” Buga said. “It would be such a shame.”

Uygar Gultekin is a journalist at Agos, an Istanbul-based. bilingual Armenian weekly newspaper. He mostly writes about politics, human rights, minority rights, and Kurdish issues. Uygar won the Musa Anter Journalism Award in 2008 in the best news piece category.
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