MARMARIS, Turkey (AP) — Environmental groups and opposition lawmakers in Turkey are worried that fire-damaged forests could lose their protected status, a claim the government strongly rejected as wildfires burned for an eighth day in the country’s Mediterranean region.
Environmental groups have pleaded on social media for Turkey to get assistance in containing the fires that have consumed some of the forests they protect. But critics are also warning 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, leading with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have firmly rejected the speculation and said the burned forests were absolutely protected by the constitution and would be reforested. While the exact acreage burned in the past week remains unclear, officials have promised the affected areas would not be transformed for other purposes and villagers would be able to return to their land.
The government’s assurance, however, has not eased worries. Critics pointed to before and after pictures of a forest burned more than a decade ago that was turned into a hotel. They have blamed a string of recent environmental disasters in Turkey, including a slimy sea snot outbreak in the Marmara Sea, deadly floods and severe drought on megaprojects, industrial sites and rampant construction propelling climate change.
While the Turkish Constitution mandates the reforestation of woodlands where wildfires have swept through, experts warned the new law that became official with Erdogan’s approval last week could further open up healthy forests to tourism and therefore, construction.
Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Bekir Pakdemirli said last week that development fears arise during wildfire season but that the constitution was clear. He said there were certain exceptions for state institutions and tourism that have been regulated for the past four decades.
“For that, the forests do not need to be burned,” he said.
The amendments to a law on incentivizing tourism grants the tourism ministry to manage all aspects of new tourism centers, approved by the president, including in forests and on treasury lands, taking away responsibilities from the ministries of environment and forestry. The law says these locations would be identified according to their tourism potential, considering the country’s natural, historic and cultural values.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition, tweeted the new law gave the Ministry of Culture and Tourism “construction” authority in forests. Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party submitted a draft amendment Tuesday, saying it aimed to ensure burned forests would not be opened up to construction.
“All the places have burned and turned to ash, but his concern is to turn rock and mountain into concrete,” Kilicdaroglu said, referring to Erdogan. The opposition politician said he would stand in front of excavators if “a single brick” were placed in a protected forest.
The ruling party hit back, saying that many opposition lawmakers did not even attend the parliament session during which the law was voted on.
Environmentalists were already protesting mining licenses 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 Wednesday.
A 2020 report by the Turkish Foundation for Combating Soil Erosion showed that 58% of Turkey’s forests have been licensed to mines. About 59% of Mugla, where the fires have been raging, has been sectioned for mines, according to the foundation.
The debate comes as Erdogan’s government is under criticism for its allegedly poor response and inadequate preparedness for large-scale wildfires, especially for a lack of capacity in aerial firefighting. Officials have said they were working strategically and with full force to fight the fires which erupted in 34 provinces over the past week.
Scorching heat, low humidity and strong winds have fed the fires, which so far have killed eight people and countless animals and destroyed forests. Villagers have had to evacuate their homes and livestock, while tourists have fled in boats and cars. In the seaside town province of Mugla, where tourist favorite Bodrum is located, seven fires continued. In Antalya, at least two fires raged on and two neighborhoods had to be evacuated.
Flames gathered force with strong, changing winds at the Kemerkoy thermal power station in Mugla’s Milas district, where reporters at the scene said the fire was as close as half a kilometer to the plant. Authorities said safety precautions were taken at the plant.
An earlier crisis was averted after flames got close to the plant late Tuesday. Firefighters and police water cannons, usually used during political protests, fought back the flames overnight other rescue officials dug ditches around the plant.
Videos from an adjacent neighborhood in Milas showed charred, decimated trees while firefighters continued dousing the area with water hoping to prevent another spark from reigniting the fire.
Officials say 167 fires had been brought under control as 16 continued in five provinces. Thousands of firefighters and civilians were working to douse the flames. Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said late Tuesday that Turkey had hired four new helicopters that were equipped to keep fighting the fires after dark. They would be arriving from Ukraine. Planes sent from Spain and Croatia joined aircraft from Russia, Iran, Ukraine and Azerbaijan on Tuesday.
Authorities have launched 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.
“I won’t be able to see the forests that will be replanted. Maybe my kids won’t even see them,” Resit Yavuz, a Marmaris resident, said. “There are no trees left. There’s nowhere left for fires to erupt.”
A heat wave across southern Europe, fed by hot air from North Africa, has led to wildfires across the Mediterranean, including in Italy and Greece. Temperatures in Marmaris, in Mugla, reached an all-time high of 45.5 C (114 F) on Tuesday.
The Turkish meteorology authority warned that temperatures would rise between 4 and 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 first light to tackle a major forest fire on the northern outskirts of Athens that forced thousands to flee their homes the previous day amid the country’s worst heat wave in decades.
The fire in two suburbs of the Greek capital was the worst of 81 wildfires that broke out around the country in 24 hours from late Monday to late Tuesday. There were no reports of deaths or serious injuries. The fire burned homes, businesses and vehicles, and sent a large cloud of smoke over Athens on Tuesday night.
Two more major forest fires were still burning on the Greek island of Evia and one in the southwestern Peloponnese.
The heatwave is forecast to continue in Turkey and Greece until the end of the week.