Efforts to protect biodiversity in Turkey still insufficient: NGO official

Efforts to protect biodiversity in Turkey still insufficient: NGO official

BARÇIN YİNANÇ- Istanbul
Efforts to protect biodiversity in Turkey still insufficient: NGO official

Turkey has a lot to do if it wants to preserve its wide-range of biodiversity, according to an expert.

“We need to adopt environmentally friendly sustainable agricultural practices,” said Hikmet Öztürk of the Turkish Foundation for Combatting Soil Erosion, for Reforestation and the Protection of Natural Habitats (TEMA).

“We have to stop wild mining. There are mining activities, like in the Black Sea, one of the regions richest in biodiversity. The widespread construction of hydro electrical power plants affects the fishes’ reproduction mechanisms. We need to change our energy policies.”

What should we understand from biodiversity?

It is the diversity of living organisms of life on Earth which we call biosphere. There is diversity in the ecosystem, diversity among the species and genetic diversity within the species. There is also diversity of interaction within the ecosystem and among the species. We are talking about the source of life. Plants produce oxygen, but this is not enough; plants also need other living groups like bacteria for instance. We, therefore, have plants doing the primary production as well as microorganisms that support them; then we have the consumer groups. And we also have decomposers. The ecosystem is based on the interaction of these three groups.

In our cities, the balance between these three groups has been disrupted. There are big waste productions; we need waste treatment facilities. You cannot see such things in the nature. The system is self-functioning. And within this system, every single piece has a special function.

Today the fundamental source of life which we call biodiversity is in jeopardy; because human population is on the rise, and, with it, the need for food. We turn natural land habitats into agricultural lands. Cities are getting bigger and then agricultural lands are turned into concrete. Currently 75 percent of the Earth’s soil is used by humans. This means the living space of other living creatures is shrinking.

Where does Turkey stand in terms of biodiversity?

Turkey is very rich in terms of biodiversity. There is a classification called biogeographical regions; three of them are in Turkey. To my knowledge, there is no other country harboring these three regions together. Turkey’s land territory makes up 5 per 1,000 of the Earth, but when you compare the number of species, it has 2.5 percent of the world’s species. Its richness in biodiversity is five times bigger than its lands.

In addition, it is a country with a high rate of endemism; species unique to Turkey. For instance, one third of the plants in Turkey are endemic. There are nine biodiversity hotspots in Turkey. These are regions which make at least 40 percent of biodiversity.

The reason we are so rich in biodiversity is due to different climates. The trees you see in Finland, up north; you can see the same tree in the northeast of Turkey. Banana is a tropical fruit; you can grow bananas in Turkey’s Mediterranean region. And in terms of food safety, Turkey is also rich in terms of genetic diversity. It is a center of the origins of several food sources, like wheat, onions, lentils and almonds. There are 138 fruits, and of that 80 can be produced in Turkey.

What is the dimension of the risk in Turkey?

Even one species under threat is very crucial because each has a function. But to give you a number, there are around 37,000 species in Turkey and 1,423 are under risk. Those which are under the highest risk are the endemic ones. According to the U.N. convention on biological diversity, the goal is to protect at least 17 percent terrestrial lands. In our case, we are around 10 percent.

What are the primary factors that endanger biodiversity in Turkey?

Land degradation comes first. Turkey’s agricultural lands shrunk by 2.4 million hectares. Next comes the use of pesticides. Their use in agriculture is widespread and on the rise. We use too many fertilizers. Pollution is a big risk; our waters are becoming polluted.

Another factor is our consumption habits. There is tremendous food waste. One third of our food goes to waste. If we could change our habits, we can ease the rising population’s pressure on agricultural lands.

Climate change is another factor increasing the risk, because the Mediterranean is one of the regions where drought will increase the most and rainfall will be in decline. Living organisms have already been affected; there are disruptions in their reproduction habits.

We need to adopt environmentally-friendly sustainable agricultural practices. We have to stop wild mining. There are mining activities, like in the Black Sea, one of the region’s richest in biodiversity.

The widespread construction of hydro-electrical power plants affects the fishes’ reproduction mechanisms. We need to change our energy policies. Coal mines are still present in our energy planning.

What is the level of awareness in terms of risks at the state level?

The administration is aware, but the work being done is insufficient. There are still many other works that could be done for the protection of species and genetic sources.

On a positive note, while each year the world loses 8 million hectares of forest, Turkey is one of the countries where the number of forests are on the rise. In the 1970’s Turkey had 20.7 million hectares of forest. Now this figure is around 22,3 million hectares. This is because as villages are no longer habited, they have been forested. In the past, for instance, forests were cut down to open space for agricultural fields by villagers. But people are now getting away from agriculture.

But there are still losses as well, 400,000 hectares each year due to especially an article in our Constitution that opens forests with certain criteria for use.

How about the awareness in society?

I cannot say our awareness in high as a society. Otherwise, we would have behaved differently. We think of the short term; we care about our short-term interests. We don’t have a long-term vision and don’t think our grandchildren will suffer from the consequences. This is due to the lack of education. If society is given this information, they would understand and change their behavior.

That’s why we, as TEMA, in cooperation with the Education Ministry, provide education on nature. Our children are raised away from nature. They are frightened of bugs. In observation boxes that we sent, children are able to observe insects and they realize that they need them for their lives.

But there is more and more improvement at the awareness level. Now there are several environmental NGOs and especially they are active at local levels as well. We see awareness rising among locals, especially in regions where there are plans for mining or for power plants for instance. They resist to these plans.

Can you tell me one of the best practices of TEMA?

The protection of large lands that are habitats of species, as well as the protection of endangered species, are crucial. The mastic trees in the Aegean district of Çeşme were endangered due to tourism pressure. We created a clone garden, and their genes are under protection. This was a cooperation between the state, the private sector, and an NGO. Bees are very, very important; and the population of bees is shrinking. One of our important projects is on bee protection.

Turkey, TEMA, environmental, agriculture