A combination of scorching heat, greed and a warmongering government has resulted in widespread fires. Esen Uslu reports from Turkey
In the olden days summer months were the time to set alight a nice bit of forest or shrubland to open up an agricultural plot. In more recent times the practice of setting forests alight has become a largely accepted way of clearing coastal forests to make space for buildings in resorts, thus bypassing the laws prohibiting such construction within the forest land.
Of course, both practices were conducted under the watchful eyes of the local and central authorities. They were not interested in protecting the forests or the natural habitat, and many were prepared to accept bribes - although, of course, once new holiday resorts were constructed, protecting any encroaching forest land from fires became an essential task. However, ‘burn and build’ has still not fully ended. In 2007 a coastal beauty spot in the Güvercinlik district of Bodrum was burnt and, although the authorities promised that no construction would be allowed, in 2014 a hotel was built there and now there are three.
During the Kurdish uprising, a ‘scorched earth’ policy was implemented, and many forests in south-eastern Turkey, which contained some villages, were cleared by deliberate fires to deny any possible cover to Kurdish freedom fighters. This policy is still being implemented, albeit on a lesser scale, in certain areas. When such forest or shrubland fires are started by the security forces, the local people and local authorities are not allowed to intervene. Mountains and forests are often no-go areas for ordinary folk in that region.
The unintentional forest fires along the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts have been well covered in the western media, but very few will be aware that at the same time a forest was deliberately set alight in Dersim, and attempts to extinguish it were not permitted. And it is not the only one. There have been several fires this year in the forests of Kurdistan that were left to run their course. In short, forest fires in Turkey may constitute a weapon employed by the authorities.
This summer the coastal forest fires started, like many similar ones in other Mediterranean countries, almost simultaneously as a result of a scorching heat wave, which created conducive conditions, such as low humidity and strong winds. But apparently impending atmospheric conditions and their relation to climate change are beyond the comprehension of the state bureaucracy.
Turkey has several lignite-burning power stations operating to full capacity without proper filters attached to their smokestacks, and new ones are still being built. Two such power stations are situated within areas affected by forest fire and, while they are endangered, they are also part of the problem. Power transmission lines are of poor quality and improperly maintained, and sparks, shorts and damaged power lines have caused several fires. This has resulted from privatisation Turkish-style, where the most profitable parts of networks are snapped up, while costly sections such as grid maintenance are left in the hands of the public sector. It is called ‘public-private partnership’. Sounds familiar?
Crony capitalism and ‘jobs for votes’ have created many state institutions unfit for purpose, and forestry administration is one of them. A strategy to combat forest fires now seems beyond the capabilities of the authorities. On top of that, the over-centralised bureaucracy has denied the possibility of initiatives to local managers.
Of course, the unfortunate behaviour of ordinary folk often exacerbates the risk of fires. Barbecues may not be properly extinguished, while discarded rubbish, as well as cigarette butts that are still alight are also well-known causes. Of course, there are ample numbers of pyromaniacs about in a country where mental wellbeing is not considered an important social health issue and the government is happy to place all the blame on such people.
In the meantime, president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his cronies have used the fires to create an atmosphere of suspicion and hatred against the Kurds. Every official announcement ends with the statement that the security forces are checking every lead to ascertain the culprits. Local rightwing groups took up the cue and have formed posses armed with shotguns who patrol forest areas and check the ID of those driving on rural roads.
Many Kurdish seasonal workers have been dismissed from their jobs and made homeless, while several have been severely beaten. People from outside the affected region who have attempted to bring in supplies for them have been threatened with violence and turned back. Social-media trolls have distributed fake news about arrested arsonists to inflame the situation further.
The state is happy to allow all this as a means of disguising its own ineptitude. Several government ministers appeared on TV every day with videos of fires shown in the background, to persuade us just how tirelessly they are working to remedy the situation. However, as the fires were not brought under control for seven days, they became tragic and comical figures.
Despite urging tourists from western countries and from Russia to continue coming despite Covid restrictions, neither the tourism industry nor the state itself has made any preparations for fire prevention and fire-fighting. The safe evacuation of visitors in case of a major disaster has not been planned. The employment of low-paid workers untrained for such an eventuality has added to the risk of calamity.
A simple comparison of the forest-fire-fighting capabilities of most Mediterranean countries reveals the abject unpreparedness of Turkey. There are, for example, only a few serviceable fire-fighting planes and helicopters in operation. There are two reasons for that. One of them is the dogmatic ‘anti-Kemalism’ of Islamist politicians, who have deliberately run down institutions such as the Turkish Aeronautical Association (THK). Since the early years of the republican era, the THK has been tasked with developing the necessary civil aviation. In order to raise its finances, THK was designated by law as one of the authorised collecting agents of the skins and offal of animals sacrificed during the Islamic Eid al-Adha holiday. Such remains are considered part of the ‘national wealth’, to the chagrin of religious bodies.
Islamist politicians have seen it as their task to stop the THK and today, apart from die-hard Kemalists, nobody gives the skins and offal of sacrificed animals to it any more. Consequently, the finances of the THK are in very poor shape and the Erdoğan regime has appointed a team with the apparent intention of running down the institution to near extinction.
Secondly, the THK provided aerial firefighting planes to the forestry department until very recently, but in 2013 the Erdoğan government part-privatised forest fire-fighting by hiring helicopters from Ukraine and Russia in addition to the THK planes, and started to open public tenders where the THK was also bidding. Today the THK has just three planes available, but they have not been called into service.
The irony is that the Erdoğan government has repeatedly rejected calls to bring THK planes into service, saying they are antiquated and unfit to fly. Meanwhile, seaplanes and helicopters were chartered from Russia, but the public tender process delayed the whole thing and the contract was only signed in late June. Three aircraft arrived in Turkey only during the crisis and two of them developed mechanical faults.
In short, an ideological fixation with privatisation - not to mention the provision of hefty profit margins to cronies acting as middlemen - has crippled preparedness for firefighting.
Previously the military has been used to combat firefighting emergencies as well as other natural disasters, but this year it has been curiously lacking. Even helicopters with special aerial firefighting kits that can be fitted and removed quickly were brought in reluctantly and very late.
While one of the largest military helicopter bases is in the vicinity of the fires, none of its helicopters has been used. At the same time, airforce jets have been continuing their bombing campaign deep into Iraqi Kurdistan.
As a result of all this, local people, as well as wider sections of society, have realised that the state will do nothing and have started to organise self-help groups. Apart from ad hoc organisations of local people in areas under threat, nationwide organising efforts have started to develop. The normal response of the state is to suppress such developments (although for the moment this is limited to the setting up of road blocks by local gendarmerie and police). The state is well aware that such self-organised groups might eventually end up providing serious opposition to the government.
The rightwing vigilante efforts also aim to stop such an eventuality. This means that the left must increase its presence within such self-organising groups, with the aim of developing an action coordination plan to fight off the vigilantes. There are widespread indications that people in the affected areas have lost all illusions in the inept, bureaucratic state and the current regime: they trust nobody but themselves.
That is the only positive thing to have emerged out of this calamity and it is something that the left must build upon.