Just a few trees…

By John Scott | August 3, 2013

… is how Turkey's government brushes off criticism of its plans to ravage the untouched Belgrade Forest. This amateur video (unfortunately the calm narration is without subtitles) illustrates both what an incredible area it is that the PM is determined to destroy, and the scale of felling he has already ordered.

Bear in mind that a mere 20 minutes' drive away is a city with a population of over 17 million people desperately in need of greenery, fresh air, fresh water and fresh food. These trees are that city's lungs.


The video begins with a view over the threatened Black Sea village of Gümüşdere, home of some of the most fertile market gardens in Turkey. The population includes hundreds of Bulgarian Turks who fled oppression under Communism and have a passion for the land. They supply weekly markets – incidentally also threatened with closure by municipalities – across the city.

The video closes with a shot of neat stacks of 'just a few trees'. Mile after mile. Nothing spared.

Rainfall is exceptionally high in this part of Istanbul province, as the clouds sweep off the Black Sea and brush against the low hills. A point well taken both by the Ottomans in the 15th century and by Istanbul's city fathers in the 20th. These forests were sacrosanct before the current regime came to absolute power. 

The seven magnificent reservoirs built and maintained in these forests by the Ottomans to collect rainwater still supply the city with 25 million cubic metres of silky-soft water, and they still make wonderful lakeside walks (take the No 45 from Taksim Square). Some of the dams and aqueducts date back to Sinan's time – he spent more time and money struggling, not always successfully, to build reliable aqueducts than he did mosques. The most recent dam is 18th century, built at a time when historians like to talk about the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Interestingly it was linked directly to Taksim Square (hence the name of the square: Taksim means water-distribution point) – the Gezi Park protests were about more than just a few trees. 

These forests were sacrosanct before the current regime came to power. But for Turkey's new rulers and their partners in business, development is the be-all and end-all of their responsibility to the electorate – analysts blame the system of political patronage. Looking at this film you begin to understand why the province's flora still exceeds in variety the flora of the entire British Isles. But for how long? As for the market gardens, the slow-food movement in Turkey is about to die a very non-slow death.

Which is why anyone with an interest in the long-term future of Istanbul will be anxiously watching events in Silivri today. The fate of dozens of opponents of the government, held in custody for almost five years on a confusing cloud of amorphous charges, will be decided. For many observers it is not a question of politics, but of whether this madness, this unfathomable greed, can be democratically restrained before the damage done is irreparable. The tipping point is very close.

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