Posted on Wednesday August 4, 2021 | 8:06
Updated 1 hour and 11 minutes ago
MARMARIS, Turkey (AP) – Environmental groups and opposition lawmakers in Turkey fear that fire-damaged forests may lose their protective status, a claim the government has firmly rejected as wildfires burned for an eighth day in the Mediterranean region of the country.
Environmental groups have pleaded on social media for Turkey to get help containing the fires that have consumed some of the forests they protect. But critics also warn of another threat to forests after Turkey’s parliament passed a law in mid-July that allows the president to change the status of forests into tourism developments for the “public good”.
Turkish officials, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, strongly rejected speculation and said the burnt forests were absolutely constitutionally protected and would be reforested. Although the exact area burned over the past week remains uncertain, authorities have promised that the affected areas will not be transformed for other purposes and that villagers could return to their land.
Government insurance, however, did not allay concerns. Critics have pointed to the before and after photos of a burnt forest over a decade ago that has been turned into a hotel. They blamed a series of recent environmental disasters in Turkey, including an epidemic of slimy sea glanders in the Sea of ââMarmara, deadly floods and severe drought on megaprojects, industrial sites and creeping construction propelling climate change.
While Turkey’s constitution demands reforestation of forests where wildfires have swept away, experts have warned that the new law which became official with Erdogan’s approval last week could further open healthy forests to tourism and therefore to construction.
Agriculture and Forestry Minister Bekir Pakdemirli said last week that development fears arise during the wildfire season, but the constitution is clear. He said there were some exceptions for state institutions and tourism which have been regulated over the past four decades.
“For this, forests do not need to be burned,” he said.
Amendments to a Tourism Incentive Law give the Ministry of Tourism the management of all aspects of new tourist centers, approved by the President, including in forests and treasury lands, removing responsibilities from ministries of tourism. environment and forests. The law stipulates that these locations would be identified according to their tourist potential, taking into account the natural, historical and cultural values ââof the country.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition, tweeted that the new law gave the Ministry of Culture and Tourism the power to âbuildâ forests. The Kilicdaroglu Republican People’s Party on Tuesday submitted a draft amendment, saying it was intended to ensure that burnt forests are not open for construction.
“All the places have burned down and turned to ashes, but his concern is to turn the rock and the mountain into concrete,” Kilicdaroglu said, referring to Erdogan. The opposition politician said he would stand in front of the excavators if “a single brick” was placed in a protected forest.
The ruling party fired back, saying many opposition lawmakers did not even attend the parliamentary session in which the law was passed.
Environmentalists were already protesting against mining permits issued for parts of some forests and trying to stop companies from cutting down trees. They staged sit-ins across Turkey, most recently in Mugla province, where wildfires continued on Wednesday.
A 2020 report from the Turkish Soil Erosion Control Foundation showed that 58% of Turkey’s forests have been allowed to mine. About 59% of Mugla, where the fires are raging, has been cut off for mines, according to the foundation.
The debate comes as Erdogan’s government comes under criticism for its allegedly poor response and inadequate preparedness for large-scale forest fires, especially a lack of aerial firefighting capability. Officials said they were working strategically and with all force to tackle the fires that broke out in 34 provinces over the past week.
Scorching heat, low humidity and strong winds fueled the fires, which have so far killed eight people and countless animals and destroyed forests. Villagers had to evacuate their homes and livestock, while tourists fled in boats and cars. In the seaside province of Mugla, home to tourist favorite Bodrum, seven fires continued. In Antalya, at least two fires raged and two neighborhoods had to be evacuated.
The flames gathered with strong and changing winds at the Kemerkoy thermal power plant in the Milas district of Mugla, where journalists at the scene said the blaze was less than half a kilometer from the plant. Authorities said security measures had been taken at the plant.
An earlier crisis was averted after flames approached the plant on Tuesday evening. Police firefighters and water cannons, typically used in political protests, battled the flames overnight, other relief workers dug ditches around the plant.
Videos from an adjacent neighborhood in Milas showed charred and decimated trees as firefighters continued to spray the area with water in hopes of preventing another spark from reigniting the fire.
Authorities say 167 fires were brought under control while 16 continued in five provinces. Thousands of firefighters and civilians were working to put out the flames. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday evening that Turkey had rented four new helicopters equipped to continue fighting the fires after dark. They would come from Ukraine. Planes sent from Spain and Croatia joined planes from Russia, Iran, Ukraine and Azerbaijan on Tuesday.
Authorities have opened investigations into the cause of the fires, including possible sabotage by Kurdish militants. Experts, however, mostly point to climate change as the culprit, along with accidents caused by people.
âI will not be able to see the forests that will be replanted. Maybe my kids won’t even see them, âsaid Resit Yavuz, a resident of Marmaris. âThere are no more trees. There is no longer anywhere where fires can break out.
A heat wave in southern Europe, fueled by warm air from North Africa, has caused forest fires in the Mediterranean, especially in Italy and Greece. Temperatures in Marmaris, Mugla, hit a record high of 45.5 C (114 F) on Tuesday.
The Turkish meteorological authority has warned that temperatures will rise 4 to 8 degrees Celsius above seasonal norms around the country’s Aegean and Mediterranean coasts.
Across the sea in neighboring Greece, firefighting planes resumed operations at dawn to tackle a major forest fire in the northern suburbs of Athens that forced thousands of people fleeing their homes the night before amid the country’s worst heat wave in decades.
The fire in two suburbs of the Greek capital was the worst of 81 forest fires that broke out in the country in 24 hours, from Monday evening to Tuesday evening. There were no reports of fatalities or serious injuries. The blaze burned down homes, businesses and vehicles and sent a large cloud of smoke over Athens on Tuesday evening.
Two other large forest fires were still burning on the Greek island of Euboea and one in the southwestern Peloponnese.
The heatwave is expected to continue in Turkey and Greece until the end of the week.
Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul. Derek Gatopoulos in Athens contributed.