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An Economic Marvel for Some, an Ecological Catastrophe for Others

Istanbul’s new airport was officially opened by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this past fall, but environmentalists continue to cry foul over the impact of the project. by Firat Fistik 7 January 2019

As our regular readers know, TOL normally does not cover Turkey, unless an issue concerns one of the countries we do cover in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. However, through the fall and perhaps beyond, we are making an exception because of the dire situation faced by many journalists in Turkey since the attempted coup in 2016. After that dramatic event, almost 200 media outlets were closed down and scores of critically minded journalists lost their jobs and now struggle to eke out an existence. We are proud to provide some international exposure to many of these Turkish reporters and expand, at least for now, our mission of supporting independent journalism and the freedom of the media to this fascinating and important part of the world.



The opening of Istanbul’s new airport on the 95th anniversary of Turkey's establishment as a republic seemed to confirm President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's portrayal of the project as a symbol of Turkish resurgence, and a colossal achievement at a time when Turkey faces so many domestic and international challenges.


Speaking at the opening ceremony, on 29 October, Erdogan said, “We did not build [this] airport for our country. It is a great service we are offering to the region and the whole world.”


When the airport is complete in 2028, it will handle flights to more than 300 destinations and an eventual capacity of 150-200 million passengers per year. It will also employ some 100,000 people. However, not everyone shares the president's pride in the 10 billion euro ($11.40 billion) project.


Construction site at the Agacli village near the new Istanbul airport. Photo by Firat Fistik.


Environmentalists warn that construction work has already wreaked devastation on the area along the Black Sea coast, an environment of woods, lakes, and coastal sand dunes. Local residents also complain that they are being forced to sell and leave their land.


“The northern forests provide oxygen to large parts of Istanbul, as well as fresh water to the whole Marmara region,” warned Basar Toros, an activist with the Northern Forests Defense (NFD), a conservation movement focused on Turkey’s Black Sea region. In 2015, the group issued a report predicting that an ecosystem of some 70 species would be destroyed by excavation work for the airport.


“But the government believes that this area has the potential to become a huge revenue source for them,” Toros continued. “Destroying public spaces and cutting forests down for money cannot be the source of economic growth.”


Roads being built at the site of the new airport. Photo by Firat Fistik.


Detractors have long cautioned that mega-projects, beloved by Erdogan during his 15-year rule, risk having disastrous environmental effects.


These include the 2016 third bridge between Istanbul’s Asian and European shores, and a planned 30-mile (48 kilometer) shipping canal parallel to the Bosphorus.


Will Istanbul’s Air Suffer?


The new airport, argue critics, is another prime example. Not only has construction been rushed, it has also been beset with health and safety problems, they say.  According to official figures, at least 27 workers have died so far – although there are claims that the real figure is much higher – and the long-term impact has not been considered.


Forests cover about 80 percent of the land where the airport, which will cover 76.5 square kilometers (19,000 acres), is being built. The destruction of these wooded areas, environmentalists say, will have an irreversible effect on Istanbul’s climate and fresh water supply.


Protests held in December 2014 against the construction of the new airport. Photo from the Northern Forests Defense.


According to the official Environmental Impact Assessment Report (EIA) published in March 2013, by the time construction is complete, up to 657,000 trees will have been cut down and more than 1.8 million removed and replanted.


Around 50 kilometers to the north of Istanbul, the new airport is being built to be energy efficient. It will replace Ataturk, the city’s current hub, which will eventually close to commercial air traffic.


However, critics say that this does not go far enough to offset the negative effects, adding that a lack of regulation makes the project even riskier.


Nuray Colak, a city planner from Istanbul, pointed to the stone quarries routinely created near large building sites to reduce construction costs.


Nuray Colak, a city planner from Istanbul. Photo by Firat Fistik.


“Construction companies can easily get a license from the Regional Forest Directorate [to build a quarry] in any region they want,” she said. “Nobody knows how many licenses have been issued, or how much of the forest has been destroyed. Stone quarries are dangerous because of the dynamite they are using, and because of the dust, which contains chemicals.”


On the ground, the consequence is already being felt. In the village of Agacli, close to the construction site, public access to the coastline has been closed since July 2014, when the first quarry was built in the area.


Sabahattin Calisir, 76, said his ancestors had settled in Agacli in the 19th century and had been involved in agriculture ever since.


He fears that will all change with the construction of the new airport, particularly due to the devastation of the coastline.


Sabahattin Calisir, 76. Photo by Firat Fistik.


 “What kind of municipality fills the sea with concrete? Is this normal?” he asked. “Until 10 years ago, people from Istanbul used to come here on weekends to swim in the sea. Now, the only things we get from Istanbul are excavation works and dirt.”


The villagers face a more direct threat, too. Land in the area around the new airport is likely to be expropriated by the Ministry of Environment and Urbanization. Under Article 46 of the Turkish Constitution, the state is entitled to acquire private lands for public benefit if the owners are compensated. 


“They keep telling us: ‘You need to leave this area.’ But we don’t want to leave,” Calisir said.


Taking the State to Court


The villagers are also unhappy with the prices the government has offered them for their land.


Although prices have dramatically increased since the plans for the new airport were announced, locals say the government refuses to pay market rates.


The first, court-assigned expert valued a square meter of the land at 3,400 Turkish liras ($640), a huge rise from the previous price of 50-250 liras. The Housing Development Administration of Turkey (HDAT) objected, offering 2,400 liras instead.


Like almost all his fellow villagers, Calisir – who owns around 400,000 square meters of land in the area – is engaged in a lawsuit against the HDAT.


“Our family has three lawyers. We first went to the Constitutional Court, and then to the European Court of Human Rights [ECHR],” he said.


Nail Bostanci, whose family migrated from Bulgaria to the north of Istanbul in the 1860s, is also incensed by the government’s offer.


Nail Bostanci, whose family migrated from Bulgaria to the north of Istanbul in the 1860s. Photo by Firat Fistik.


“If there were a free market, the price for a square meter of our fields would be 4,000-5,000 liras,” Bostanci said. “They [the government] just want to confiscate the land by kicking us out. They never ask what Agacli villagers want and keep saying: ‘Give us your land and take your money.’ ”


There have been some attempts to stop the project. In 2016, for instance, a coalition including the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects (UCTEA), and the Istanbul branches of the Chambers of Architects, City Planners, and Civil Engineers all demanded its cancellation, on the grounds that it would harm the local ecosystem.


However, construction has continued as planned. According to Istanbul Electricity, Tramway, and Tunnel General Management (IETT), the airport will be connected to Istanbul by a network of 150 buses and 660 taxis, with a new subway due to be built within the next few years.


The EIA contains plans for the next three phases of the airport’s construction, including a further urban complex, with sports facilities, a museum, and exhibition hall, as well as conference and business centers, places of worship, a hospital, shopping malls, and hotels.


“The government has chosen the northern forests as the new area of expansion for Istanbul,” said Colak, the city planner. “The purpose of this whole project is not to alleviate the air transportation problem in this city, but to make money by exploiting nature.”

Firat Fistik is an Istanbul-based journalist. He studied philosophy at Istanbul University and is currently doing a master's degree in journalism at Marmara University. He has worked for the Yurt and Cumhuriyet newspapers, and for the digital news platform Bianet, and also reports for Medyascope TV.

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