Goat herder Meryem Demircan. Her shirt says 'Don't touch my valley.'
Goat herder Meryem Demircan's house in Turkey's Kotaflar highlands appears to float above a sea of clouds, the mist-shrouded hills all around rugged and green. The setting and way of life there drew the former Istanbul dweller to the area, part of the İkizdere Valley -- its name means "twin streams" -- in the Black Sea region. Now both are threatened by the government's plans to build hundreds of dams. To do so, though, it will have to get past Demircan and others like her: "Our rivers, streams, stones, and land are not for sale; nor are we," she says.
The fight by residents of İkizdere and other Black Sea valleys to protect their homes from dam development is the subject of a moving new Turkish documentary, "A Few Brave People" (Bir Avuç Cesur İnsan) that premiered last week in Istanbul at the !f Film Festival. With its tumbling waterfalls and small houses tucked amid wooded stands, the appeal of the area is obvious, but life there is not easy.
Tea, Trout, Hazelnuts, And Bees
Villagers make their living working on tea plantations, fishing for trout in the area's rivers, growing hazelnuts, or raising bees in hollowed-out logs perched high in trees, which they climb by hand to harvest the honey. "All of our drink and food comes from the water. Allah made it for us, for the future generations," one local woman says. Others say protecting the river is a "matter of honor" and compare the sound of its flow to "the lullabies our mothers sing to us as children."
"A town needs a river just like it needs a mosque or a school," villager Süleyman Bilgi says in the film.
All this is threatened by the heavy machinery being brought into the area to build at least 464 hydroelectric power stations planned for the region -- 10 to 20 per river valley. They gouge the land, rip out trees, send mudslides running down denuded hills, turning the water -- what's not being diverted through pipes -- brown.
Outraged by the damage thus far, villagers have organized themselves into local associations, filed lawsuits, shut down forestry meetings, confronted officials brought in to assess the dam plans, and marched in the streets -- an effort in which women seem to be leading the charge. In one scene of the film, Demircan and other women storm into the local men-only coffee shops to try and shame the customers into joining a "yes to tourism, no to power plants" protest.
Women Take The Lead In Protests
"In the eastern Black Sea, most of the men have gone to cities to work; the women are left to raise the children and grow their tea on their own. They are living in the heart of nature and they are not afraid of anything; it teaches them they have to be strong to survive," says director Rüya Köksal. "Home is not only a house for them, it's the whole environment. They are a part of that chain, they take what they need without destroying."
Dam construction in the Black Sea area. The sign says 'Entering into the river is dangerous and prohibited.'
Government and energy-company officials interviewed in the film express disdain for the protesters, calling them "looters" and "marginal groups." One says dam opponents "prefer living in the stone ages," and cheerily touts the fact that more dams mean more lakes and recreational areas. "This creates a new kind of beauty," he says.
They just look at the numbers, not the life in these places -- like being a villager is something to be ashamed of," Köksal says.
"People don't know their democratic rights, but the Constitution encourages people to defend their environment," she adds. The film quotes Article 56 of the Turkish Constitution: "Everyone has the right to live in a healthy, balanced environment. It is the duty of the state and citizens to improve the natural environment, and to prevent environmental pollution."
Heavy Electricity Transmission Losses
Officials' arguments that the dams are needed to improve living standards and meet energy demands around the country are rebutted by lawyer Yakup Okumuşoğlu, who points out that all the dams planned for the Black Sea region would produce only 2 to 3 percent of the electricity needed in a country with an 18 percent loss rate in electricity transmission.
"The valleys are being destroyed just for 2 percent," he says. "If money were invested in controlling losses, Turkey wouldn't need the dams. We need to use rivers, but not exploit them. Put 20 power plants on a river and you destroy it."
Director Köksal admits that the activists profiled in "A Few Brave People" and her previous film, "An Argonaut in Ordu," are exceptions -- "people who feel responsible and conscious... who have the courage to make the first statement" -- but she believes the struggle against not only dams but other kinds of destructive energy development will increase their numbers.
"The country is a different Turkey from when I was young," she says. "I have nothing to stop [the change] with except my camera."
"A Few Brave People" will screen again this weekend in Istanbul at the Mountain Film Festival, with showings at 5:30 p.m. Friday, March 4, and 2 p.m. Saturday, March 5. Köksal's previous film, "An Argonaut in Ordu" screens at 3 p.m. Thursday, March 3.
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