Monthly Archives: February 2011

Drowning history and biodiversity



Some of the last stones of Allianoi- soon to be submerged beneath the rising reservoir of the Yortanli Dam

I’m writing a lot at the moment about the huge threat posed to Turkey’s cultural and natural heritage by a massive government dam-building programme.

Last week I went to Bergama, where an ancient Roman spa complex called Allianoi has just been submerged beneath the new reservoir of the Yortanli Dam. The baths were only discovered little more than a decade ago and were of huge archaeological and historical significance.

But despite a tireless battle by activists and academics to prevent the dam project, they have nonetheless been lost with only 20 per cent of the site explored and catalogued.

This is one striking variation of a story unfolding across Turkey. It is an issue I care about passionately, especially as regards the threat to the country’s extraordinary biodiversity. Of particular concern is the draft nature protection law currently being considered by the Turkish parliament (see previous post).

I had a report in the Times on Saturday on Allianoi and Turkey’s dam-building programme. I also wrote an op-ed that accompanied the report, which I’m reprinting here:

In Turkey, it sometimes seems as if you cannot put a spade in the ground without unearthing an historic treasure. The sight of toppled Roman columns peeking through grass verges is so commonplace it hardly elicits a second glance.

So it is easy to see that the country’s archaeology must seem like a curse to a Government that is struggling just to keep the lights on amid surging energy demand.

Far less acknowledged is the country’s wealth of wilderness and vast biodiversity. It has more endemic species than all of Europe combined: 3,600 of its plants and animals are found nowhere else in the world. Its rare birds include the northern bald ibis.

While few could doubt the international importance of its historical wealth — the Greeks, Trojans, Romans and Ottomans have all left their mark on Anatolia — this natural diversity is also of international importance.

It is not only a vital hub for bird migration between Europe, Africa and Asia, but it also lies at the junction of several ecosystems and geographical regions. It is the point at which the distinct flora and fauna of the Mediterranean, Middle East and Euro-Siberian regions come together, and many scientists believe that this could make it a vital corridor through which species migrate during periods of climate change.

By passing a law to facilitate its own economic development, Turkey’s Government could destroy a bridge that many species will need as global warming accelerates.

As one of the cradles of agriculture, it is also home to the wild forbears of many domesticated crop plants, among them wheat, oats, barley, rye, chickpeas and lentils. This makes it a vast natural genetic database of food plants on which we may one day draw to feed our own hungry species.

The Government is in a difficult position. It has to balance conservation needs with its own breakneck economic development. Pursued intelligently and with properly enforced legal safeguards, this is achievable, but the current Nature Protection Bill simply tears apart what safeguards exist.

The situation is not hopeless. The Government has made impressive progress in other areas. It is democratically accountable and cares deeply about its popular perception, at home and in Europe.

Turkey’s civil society organisations are battling determinedly to save the country’s natural and historical wealth. It is a fight in which we all have an interest.

Close to deadline, the pictures desk asked me if I could suggest some dynamic Turkish endemic creatures that they could use for images. I was slightly stumped, which I guess reflects the problem with Turkey’s wildlife- it lacks a big charismatic animal for conservationists to rally round.

In the end I suggested the Northern Bald Ibis, which though not endemic to Turkey, occurs here and is critically endangered, and also looks pretty weird.

I have a piece appearing in the Christian Science Monitor soon that takes a more detailed look at Turkey’s hydroelectric and irrigation dam programme, and the reasons behind it, as well as a report for Eurasianet more tightly focused on Allianoi.

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Recent work…

The cast of ‘Valley of the Wolves: Palestine’ pose for the press at the film’s premiere

Sorry for yet another hiatus. I have just got back from an extremely productive trip to Izmir, writing about the submergence of the Allianoi Roman baths beneath the reservoir of the new Yortanli Dam, and the draft nature law- of which more later.

I’ve been busy with a few other things recently. I had a piece in the Times late January about the debate over the new drinking regulations in Turkey, which you can read here.

From my story:

At the Cumhuriyet tavern in Istanbul the clock is frozen at 9.05am, the time that its most famous patron died.

It was here that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the revered founder of modern Turkey, would drop in to indulge in a glass of raki, the aniseed-flavoured spirit that many consider the country’s national drink.

The clock may stay the same, but the drinking habits of Cumhuriyet’s customers are changing radically because of regulations and taxes introduced by the country’s Islamic-leaning Government.

A new round of stricter alcohol regulations, brought in last week, has ignited a dispute over whether the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has governed Turkey for eight years, is seeking to erase the European-style social freedoms that Atatürk bequeathed to his nation. “In two or three years, alcohol consumption here has fallen by 50 per cent,” said Metin Danisman, who has been Cumhuriyet’s manager for 20 years. “It’s become a luxury item. People used to buy a big bottle of raki, now they only buy a small one.”

I also did pieces for the Times and SETimes about the controversial new movie, ‘Valley of the Wolves: Palestine’, in which Turkey’s favourite action hero takes vengeance on Israel for the raid on the Gaza aid flotilla last summer.

If you’re not sick of camel wrestling, you can also see my photostory on the festival for Eurasianet, here.