North Africa, West Asia

Turkey’s Mount Ida: who thought this would be a good idea?

Erdogan's quest for development, with its numerous high profile projects aiming for completion by the centenary of the Turkish Republic in 2023 comes with potential liabilities.

John Lubbock
19 September 2019
"Do the dead wear gold?" Sign at a protest in mount Ida on August 18, 2019.
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source: Twitter @michabl

Mount Ida (Kaz Dağları) in North-Western Turkey is near to the historical site of Troy. Currently only 2.4 km² of Mount Ida are protected by Kaz Dağı National Park. Turkish authorities have allowed the Canadian company Alamos Gold to prospect for gold in the area, which has resulted in the removal of up to 195,000 trees, four times more than the limit specified. Alamos Gold has claimed that ‘politically-motivated misinformation’ is behind the environmental protests against the project which began in July against the deforestation and the use of cyanide, which protesters claim could contaminate the nearby water supply.

Mount Ida is known in Greek mythology as ‘Mountain of the Goddess’, and both the Cretan and Anatolian Mount Ida are associated with a mother goddess predating the Greek pantheon. The Anatolian Ida is associated with the Phrygian goddess Cybele, and is mentioned in Homer’s Iliad. This cultural pedigree may provide some background to understand why the destruction of the mountain’s ecosystem has provoked so much protest.

Alamos’ Chief Executive John McCluskey has claimed that his company has already paid for the reforestation of the area, and blamed the deforestation on government authorities. "It is a very cynical thing to say”, McCluskey reportedly said, “but I believe that this whole attack is essentially just an environmental cloak that is being put over what is really a deep political agenda". Without specifying what political ends the environmental protesters hope to achieve, this statement does indeed sound not just cynical but conspiratorial.

Ekrem Akgül, the chairperson of the Ida Solidarity Association told Bianet that as well as Alamos’ Kirazlı project and another nearby mining project already initiated, 29 more mining projects were under consideration which could result in the destruction of 4 million trees. Akgül also noted that the gold content of the area was said to be quite low compared to the volume of gold usually necessary to make a gold mining project viable. This would seem at odds with Alamos’ statement on their own website that,

“Our Kirazlı Gold Project in Turkey represents a significant near term source of low cost production growth. With its low capital and operating costs, Kirazli is one of the highest return, undeveloped gold projects in any gold price environment.”

However, it seems that Alamos may not have factored in the costs of the terrible PR they have attracted for the way they have gone about the project. Public anger at the company rose when images were released showing the extent of the destruction of trees on the mountain in July. In August, thousands of people came to the nearby town of Kirazli to protest

If it is true that that the responsibility for cutting down so many trees lies with the Turkish authorities rather than Alamos, then this raises further questions that should be answered by the General Directorate of Forestry, part of the Turkish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, who said that only 13,400 trees were cut down. BBC Turkish reported that the environmental evaluation report, which is a requirement for the company to operate the mine, said that the number of trees cut down was around 45,000.

Although it was the visual destruction of the forest that first prompted a public outcry, an official of Çanakkale municipality told BBC Turkish that the main concern was for the water supply. Although Alamos Gold CEO McCluskey told press that a cyanide spill in Kirazli was not possible due to the way the company operates, Alamos Gold has a poor track record in this respect, with their two mines in Mexico reportedly causing both cyanide contamination and a preventable landslide which saw the company reported to Mexico’s Human Rights Commission.

Alamos Gold’s Turkish subsidiary, Doğu Biga, seems to have previously been a Turkish company, but is now foreign-owned. The company employs contractors who have worked in mining projects in Turkey which have been criticised for causing deaths linked to arsenic poisoning. After the coup attempt in 2016, President Erdogan’s AKP government pushed laws designed to help mining companies like Doğu Biga, and it seems that the company received funding as part of the government’s promotion of the mining sector.

In particular, the government has supported the use of cyanide to process and separate gold from ore in Turkey. According to some reports, cyanide spills have already taken place at other mining sites in Turkey, where local municipalities have attempted to cover up the fact that people were poisoned by drinking cyanide-contaminated drinking water. It’s no secret that the AKP government has long been heavily involved in construction and industrial sectors, and that their goal of developing the Turkish economy has often come at the cost of environmental and human resources. This can be seen in the long running Ilisu Dam project, which aroused protests in the UK in the early 2000s for the involvement of British construction company Balfour Beatty, and is still controversial today, as it will eventually result in the flooding of the town of Hasankeyf.

The protests against Alamos and Dogu Biga certainly seem to have disturbed some government officials, like the AKP’s Sevda Güner who described the protesters as ‘supporters of a foreign power’, a favourite and clichéd accusation of disloyalty often aimed at those who criticise the actions of the government.

Considering that Turkey suffered its worst ever mining disaster in 2014 at Soma, which is just 120km away from Mount Ida and resulted in the deaths of 301 people, it’s understandable that opposition politicians and environmental groups in Turkey should be so concerned about the potential for disaster at Mount Ida. The Turkish state has made it clear over the last few decades that its goal of economic development takes precedence over other concerns. When a metro line under the Bosphorus was completed in 2013, Erdogan expressed frustration that construction was delayed due to archaeological finds: “First [they said] there was archaeological stuff, then it was clay pots, then this, then that. Is any of this stuff more important than people?”

This quest for development, with its numerous high profile projects aiming for completion by the centenary of the Turkish Republic in 2023 comes with potential liabilities. The newly opened Istanbul airport is the biggest hub in Europe, but comes at a time when the Turkish economy has been suffering currency depreciation and inflation, making it more expensive for Turks to go on holiday abroad. The over-reliance on big construction projects as a marker of progress comes at the cost of good municipal design, the environment, historical sites like Hasankeyf, and the safety of citizens and workers.

The Turkish government will be well aware that protests over particular issues, such as the attempt to remove the public Gezi Park in Istanbul, have led to more widespread demonstrations against the government before. By the start of September, the media outrage about Mount Ida seems to have died down, with government supporters accusing those who amplified the protests of manufacturing outrage for political purposes.

On August 18th, Turkish pianist Fazil Say played a concert at Kaz Dagi, and even Johnny Depp raised the issue of the destruction of Mount Ida on his Instagram in August. However, it’s uncertain now where the protests are going. There is not much that local opposition politicians can do about the continued exploitation of the mountain, and protesters will have to be inventive to dominate the news again in the way in which the story broke in July and August. "Why did you come this late?” a local man demanded of a reporter from Ahval news, “The mountains were sold off 25 years ago!"

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