A two-year-long protest held by villagers in Turkey’s southwest, aimed at preventing the destruction of a forest comprised of olive and pine trees, faced harsh intervention on Monday. As logging operations began, Turkish law enforcement conducted a dawn raid on the sitting vigil, taking eight protesters into custody.
The Akbelen forest, located in Muğla’s Milas district, has been at the centre of a long dispute with local communities and environmentalists vehemently opposing planned deforestation involved in the construction of a lignite coal mine. Campaigning began four years ago, while a camp-out has been maintained in the forest for the last two years.
At dawn on Monday, a large contingent of gendarmerie forces, along with several anti-riot water cannon vehicles, arrived at the vigil site. Villagers and activists standing against the tree felling were subjected to tear gas, causing one woman to collapse. She was later hospitalised.
Restrictions were imposed by the gendarmerie following the onset of logging operations and the ensuing dawn raid, prohibiting entry into the forest and blocking all access roads to the logging area. However, the environmental resistance continues unabated with around 100 protesters remaining encamped in the area.
Environmental organisations from nearby provinces came to show solidarity and support for the demonstrators throughout the day, joined by representatives of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the pro-Kurdish Green Left Party.
On Tuesday, the villagers issued a nationwide call to halt the logging, vowing to protect the 200-year-old forest at all costs. Meanwhile, the eight detained individuals were released after giving statements, promptly returning to the vigil.
The controversy surrounding the 740-acre Akbelen forest erupted when the Turkish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry sold the area to a company with close ties to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). YK Energy sought to expand mining operations by opening a lignite coal mine in the forest. Permission to open the mine was granted by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in 2019.
Despite ongoing legal battles initiated by residents of İkizköy, the village leading the four-year environmental resistance, efforts to halt the project through lawsuits have been unsuccessful. However, a collective lawsuit involving İkizköy and two other neighbouring villages is in progress.
The camp-out began in July 2021 as a response to the felling of approximately 100 trees, resulting in the cessation of logging operations at the time.
Two participants of the 2021 protests, an İkizköy resident and an environmental activist, were later tried for resisting a public official and handed a sentence of six months and 20 days in jail. However, the court later converted the prison terms into fines.
The villagers have pledged to continue the round-the-clock protest and submitted over 117,000 signatures to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in opposition to the proposed deforestation.
Legal experts argue that the selling of the forest by the General Directorate of Forestry and the granting of a lignite mining permit by the Ministry of Agriculture violate the Turkish constitution through the prioritising of commercial interest over environmental protection.