New parks threat looms as Istanbul protests continue

Demonstrators in Gezi Park on Monday night.
CC BY 2.0 Demonstrators in Gezi Park on Monday night./ Jennifer Hattam

With the nation's prime minister traveling outside of the country, top Turkish officials took a conciliatory tone Tuesday toward ongoing protests that began early last week with a sit-in to protect an urban park and spread across Turkey over the weekend. But at the same time, the country's lawmakers appeared to be preparing to pass a controversial "nature" law that critics say would pose a sweeping threat to Turkey's environment.

Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, standing in for absent Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said he would meet Wednesday morning with organizers of the Gezi Park protests, apologizing for injuries incurred as a result of the harsh police crackdown last week on their peaceful demonstration and calling their fight to defend the park "legitimate and patriotic."

A tree sculpture created by university students on a construction site just outside Gezi Park. The sign reads "For nature."/CC BY 2.0

'Protection of Nature' Law Would Prioritize Development Instead

Though the unrest roiling Turkey began as an environmental protest, the police brutality in response and the prime minister's imperious reaction have brought hundreds of thousands out into the streets to protest the government's social policies, urban-planning agenda, assaults on press freedom, and heavy-handed approach to its critics -- to name just a few of the grievances. What unites these disparate issues has been oft-described in recent days as Erdoğan's increasingly authoritarian approach. Despite his promise following his re-election in 2011 to govern in a "humble" and consensus-seeking way, many believe the political process has instead become less transparent and more top-down since his party first came to power in 2002.

The "Draft Law on the Protection of Nature and Biological Diversity" that parliament was set to begin debating Wednesday is a prime example. Initially drafted in 2003 with the support and input of NGOs, the bill had been changed so much by the time it first arrived in parliament in 2010 that 73 leading civil-society organizations said it would "open the door for irreversible destructions [of] the country’s nature" by allowing land uses such as mining, urbanization, tourism facilities, dam construction, and other forms of energy development to have priority over protection.

Respected columnist Cengiz Aktar wrote earlier this year that "all progress made with respect to the preservation of nature in Turkey since 1958 could be reversed with this law that [would make] it possible to change or remove the boundaries of the protected zones... [that] currently constitute only 4 percent of the land in Turkey, whereas the common standard is 15 percent." The independent bodies currently overseeing Turkey's parks, protection areas, wetlands, and woodlands would be replaced by boards with members appointed by the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning -- itself led by a former general contractor and head of the mass housing authority.

The "health team" in Gezi Park./ Jennifer Hattam/CC BY 2.0

An Alternative Vision in Gezi Park

The Turkish press reported this week that passage of the bill could further endanger Istanbul's Belgrade Forest, a popular recreation area in the north of the city that represents its last large tract of undeveloped land. The forest is already under threat from many of the development plans that Prime Minister Erdoğan is pushing for Istanbul, including a third bridge over the Bosphorus Strait and a massive manmade canal project, as well as the new roads and urbanization that would accompany them.

Following outcry about the bill, a late report Tuesday suggested that debate on it in parliament might be postponed, though activists remained wary. With the still-looming draft law threatening Turkey's open spaces with the intended fate of Gezi Park -- conversion into a shopping mall -- writ large, the initial flash point of the ongoing protests continues to be peacefully occupied. Demonstrators have turned Gezi Park into a real public space, complete with free concerts and yoga sessions, public art, hammocks, and a community library. If this is the work of "extremist elements," as Erdoğan characterized protesters earlier this week, perhaps Turkey could use a few more extremists.

Jennifer Hattam is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. Follow her on Twitter @TheTurkishLife for more updates on the situation in Turkey.

Tags: Activism | Turkey