Loud music forbidden but blowing up mountains allowed
İSPİR, ERZURUM – Hürriyet Daily News | 11/1/2009 12:00:00 AM | ASLI SAĞLAM
Designated as an area for the protection of wildlife, a village along a Çoruh River tributary in Erzurum province is being destroyed by the construction of hydroelectric power plants. Local residents have established organizations to save the area and asked for professional help from the Nature Association
One morning 15 months ago, the residents of Aksu Valley in Erzurum province awoke to the sound of construction vehicles rumbling past their homes.
The vehicles were driving through the historic Black Sea village to start construction of a hydroelectric power plant on a crystal-clear tributary for the Çoruh River, which runs through eight villages in the region.
The villagers were surprised because the Cabinet, responding to a request from the Environment Ministry in 2005, had designated the valley as important for the protection of wildlife, and one of only 305 such areas worldwide. But as time passed, instead of stopping the first hydroelectric power plant in the area, the ministry even allowed construction for a second one as well.
Residents of the 500-year-old settlement, in which 1,000 people live today, earn their living from agriculture and a little bit of tourism. The valley is famous for its Mediterranean-like climate, which is unique in the Black Sea region, as well as its endangered red-dotted salmon, grizzly bears and many types of plants, nearly 100 endemic species in all – a natural balance disturbed, even ruined, by the construction of hydroelectric power plants. Inhabitants say the work was done without giving notice or holding a public meeting.
Local resident Erdoğan Aksu appealed to the environmental nongovernmental organization Doğa Derneği (Nature Association), which agreed to help the townspeople make their voices heard.
“The color of the water changed not long after construction started, bringing an end to many life-sustaining activities. And that was when we first found out the water that runs through our village had been leased for 30 years,” Aksu said. “Because this area is for the protection of wildlife, construction projects should be carried out under the regulation of an environmental impact assessment, but the ministry has eliminated this factor.”
A press officer at the Environment Ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the type of hydroelectric power plant and the location are top priorities when the ministry is determining where to allow construction. “Before a project is permitted there has to be research done on the area,” he said, adding that water needs for streambeds is also a high priority. “In most cases, if a project plans to leave at least 10 percent of the water but that is not enough for the nature around the stream to survive, then it is the State Waterworks Authority, or DSİ’s, responsibility to rearrange the plan.”
Village residents, however, said in addition to an environmental impact assessment, the ministry is also supposed to have at least three scientists write a report establishing conformity with the regulations. In this case, the ministry only provided the report – which, villagers say, consists of paragraphs and numbers copy-and-pasted from other sources. “No one came for an examination,” said village headman Mehmet Kısı.
The Aksu Valley contains 1.3 million square meters of agriculture fields, many of which have become unusable due to the heavy rocks removed to build tunnels being discarded on the valley floor. The villagers’ cars used to brush up against densely growing trees; now much of the valley looks full of dull cliffs.
“We tried to contact politicians, but no one returned our calls, so we opened a case against the ministry in 2008,” Aksu said. The villagers are also preparing to file a criminal complaint against the professors who signed the report.
After Doğa Derneği managers visited the area, they decided to support the Aksu villagers in their fight to save their hometown. “The same ministry that forbids listening to loud music, hunting and construction so as not to scare away animals is also allowing international and national companies such as Borusan, a Turkish company with interests in the auto and energy industries, to build hydroelectric power plants there,” said Doğa Derneği Executive Director Güven Eken.
According to Eken, once the water is used up by the hydroelectric power plant, the villagers will have to migrate and animals will be unable to find anything to drink. Moreover, he said, if the ministry continues to allow more power plant construction, companies will soon start asking for mining permits because the area is rich in gold and copper.
In July, residents also founded the Protection of Natural Life Association of Aksu Valley and Villages. “We were sure we could fight for our village if we unite. It was the government that pushed us to do so,” said association director Yakup Kaplan. Three other local groups have also joined their efforts.
According to local residents, the project reports said there are no traces of human settlement within 2.5 kilometers of the valley, nor evidence of wildlife within 10 kilometers. “But the nearest neighborhood is settled just 500 meters from the water,” said Kısı.
Though local women have been timid about voicing their thoughts, the men of the village have rebelled, saying their water will be carried to other places through kilometers of tunnels if construction continues without anyone calling for a halt. They have taken the first step to claim their rights in a struggle that will continue.