Forest fires: method of terror and means to combat it

Forest fires: method of terror and means to combat it

3 August 2008

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Turkey — Forest fires in Turkey have been set not only as a means of terror, but also as a way to combat terror, with people, mainly in rural areas of the Southeast, growing increasingly concerned that these intentional fires are damaging the environment in ways that can never be repaired.

During the recent military operations of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in southeastern Anatolia, several fires were set on forested land to eliminate hiding places of the PKK. Some of them were left to burn without interference due to possible land mine explosions in these areas. On its Web site, meanwhile, the PKK threatened to set fire to forests in the Mediterranean and Aegean regions to retaliate against the military.  

The villagers in the Southeast who had fires set near their villages appealed to Parliament’s Human Rights Commission and certain ministries to stop fires from being set by the military, while the newly established Green Party asked for an explanation from the Environment and Forestry for the setting of the recent fires in the region. Setting fires to forests purposefully is not a new phenomenon in southeastern Anatolia, which is the poorest region of Turkey both economically and in terms of forested area. Only 3 percent of the region is forested, and some of this area has fallen victim to terror and the combat of terror.

Approximately 27 percent of Turkey was forested, but according to statistics from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry this number has dropped to 20 percent due to fires over the last 15 years. In the western part of the Turkey, the causes of forest fires are usually human carelessness and land clearance for agricultural purposes. Some of the fires in western Turkey are also deliberately set by the PKK, but in southeastern Anatolia most fires are carried out as part of military operations.

“Everybody knows who is responsible and why the forests of the region are set on fire,” said Mehmet Emin Tekin, representative of the Chamber of Forest Engineers, adding that the main tree species in the forests of the Southeast are oak and juniper.

“Of course it takes many years, but oaks can recover from fires; however, when it comes to junipers, this is almost impossible. Not just the trees but much of the fauna in the forests is destroyed when there is a fire. A scientific study recently pointed out that there are some endemic plants and animals in the region that fires are also threatening,” he noted.

Nafis Koç, the chairman of the Human Rights Association (İHD) Elazığ branch, noted that around 20 years ago forest fires were set by the military much more frequently. “It dropped for a while, but a couple of years ago the number started to increase again,” he said.

“When there are forest fires [in the Southeast], the military does not allow efforts to put them out, claiming that the reason is security. They say there might be PKK hideouts in the area. When we see the forest fires in the western part of Turkey, of course we are concerned. But we also see the planes and helicopters working to put them out. When we compare these two scenarios, we definitely feel discriminated against,” Koç said.

In his petitions to Parliament, the Prime Ministry and other relevant ministries, Koç pointed out that the residents of Doğanlı village of southeastern Bingöl province appealed to the İHD, saying that their village had to be evacuated 15 years ago because of fire but that recently several families returned. The letter noted that the military had asked the villagers who returned to leave but that they refused. On July 15, helicopters flew over the area and set fire to it.

Secret documents obtained by the İHD in 2006 revealed that forests in Bingöl had been felled upon orders of the provincial gendarmerie command. The command, in a secret document dated April 1, 2006, informed the Bingöl Governor’s Office of its evaluation that it would be useful to “clear wooded tracts and foliage 50 meters on either side of the railway and the highway,” basing its evaluation on “highway and railway security.” The fires have affected not only the provinces of Bingöl, Elazığ and Diyarbakır, but since July 1 there have been more than 15 forest fires in other parts of the region, including Hakkari, Siirt, Mardin, Şırnak and Tunceli.

Tunceli Mayor Songül Erol Abdil, along with civil society organizations in the city, protested the fires last week.

“During the summer, when the clashes increase in number, forest fires also increase in number. We are protesting the fact that the fires are being set on purpose. We don’t want to see our natural environment go up in flames. We want peace,” Abdil said.

Turkish Green Party spokesperson Bilge Contepe this week filed a query with the Environment and Forestry Ministry to find out which forests were deliberately set ablaze and for what reason.

“The future, nature and natural life of Turkey are disappearing. There are forest fires everywhere, but there is an important difference in these fires; we know the exact locations and extent of the forest fires in the West, but we cannot get satisfactory answers from officials about the forest fires in the East,” Contepe stated.

“The state is responsible for the continuation of life of every single living creature. An inquiry commission in Parliament should be established to investigate these fires,” she said.

This past Tuesday in the Cizre district of Şırnak province, residents and members of the Democratic Society Party (DTP) headed to Cudi Mountain with buckets of water to try to put out a fire there. They complained that the military was helping to fight fires in the West but that in the East it just allows fires to burn uncontrolled.

Burning forests is one of the military methods that was used frequently in the past in several countries and is not new to Turkey, either. Most of the people from southeastern Anatolia who are over 30 years old remember how forests were set ablaze in their childhood, but the sensitivity to the subject was not as high in those days. Whether the newly emerging sensitivity is a result of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan’s “ecological society” rhetoric is a subject of debate.

But on the other hand, an announcement on the PKK’s Web site threatened that the organization would set fire to forests in western Turkey. The announcement claimed that the setting of forest fires in the East is a fascist act that is disrespectful of nature and that the organization would retaliate by setting fires to forests in Mediterranean and Aegean regions.  

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