Last Sunday I was invited to do iftar (the Ramazan evening breakfast) with a very special community – part of a solidarity event being held for the farmers of Gümüşdere in their village on the Black Sea (beyond Sarıyer, on the European side of the Bosphorus, at the northernmost point of Istanbul).
You see, the village’s agricultural livelihood is under threat. ISKI, the city’s water supply and sanitation administrator, plans to pass a water pipeline through their land, something which Cihan Baysal, spokesperson for the Istanbul Urban Movements group, describes as ‘indirect land-grabbing’.
ISKI plans to build yet another water-treatment plant (there are already 33 in Istanbul) which could potentially wipe out the village. On my way there on the bus, I got a glimpse of the sweeping farmlands and the surrounding villages just on the periphery of the Belgrade Forest – which will also possibly face extinction if the PM’s plan for a third airport comes to pass – green lands where the air is cleaner and the smells are unique. Lands that should be not only preserved but treasured.
A group of local farmers, their families and friends, the event’s organisers and environmental activists gathered in the village’s bahçeler (gardens) to enjoy a lovely vegetarian meal prepared using the village’s crops. The overflowing baskets of tomatoes and cucumbers are a reminder of just what they stand to lose. The main meal, of beans, tomatoes and other vegetables, was truly delicious. You cannot find produce like this just anywhere in the city.
The ancestors of the current population were settled in the region during the 1920s, most having come from the Balkans and mainly Muslims from Albania and Macedonians. More recently Bulgarians, fleeing Communism, started arriving.
Agriculture has always been their main livelihood, as the lands of the village are some of the most fertile in the countr, due to the high rainfall in these parts. From the very beginning, selling their crops to surrounding villages was how the local population made a living. Today an area encompassing 89,650 square metres of indoor greenhouses, 205, 277 square metres of fields growing various vegetables, plants, flowers and 13,069 different fruit trees meet the needs not only of the local community but of the whole Sarıyer district. And ISKI’s project will not only hit farmers. Manufacturers of dairy and meat products, landscapers, greengrocers who supply wholesalers – all will be severely affected. In fact, that is an understatement: their whole lives will more or less collapse if the farmlands are gone. As for the area's wildlife (snakes, types of foxes, ferrets and turtles), well, these will be wiped out as well.
After the meal and a short prayer the event’s boisterous organiser (Cihan’s sister-in-law), Beyhan Uzunçarşılı, showed a PowerPoint presentation outlining the riches of the village and summarised what exactly was under threat. The overall message was simple: Yok edelim mi? Koruyalım mı? (Should we get rid of it? Should we protect it?).
Another water plant...
The saddest thing is that all the locals want is to be consulted. They want the state’s bodies, such as ISKI, to ask them questions – to find out what they think, to plan how to proceed with these projects with everyone's needs accounted for. But as we have seen and documented on the Cornucopia Blog in recent months, the government is desperate to press the construction button wherever possible, without realising (or even caring about) the repercussions. The third bridge, the project to build a third airport and, more recently, the destruction of Yedikule's 1600-year old bostans (community vegetable gardens) which line the city’s ancient walls for a new development, all have catastrophic environmental, social and economic consequences. Thankfully the Turkish Chamber of Environmental Engineers has taken the airport project tender to court on the grounds that it violates existing legislation for the preparation of the environmental-impact-assessment report. And the Yedikule Bostans group has been very active in campaigning for the preservation of the gardens.
After Beyhan’s presentation, she invited local farmers to speak. Although unfortunately my Turkish isn't yet up to understanding all the words being spoken, I understood exactly what was being communicated. One woman especially resonated with me. She had come to Gümüşdere as a young bride from Macedonia 40 or 50 years ago and has known nothing beyond her life in the village. Her eyes were teary and her voice shook, and not only her emotion, but that of the entire community regarding their land became clear.
The village women dancing
The evening wrapped up with dessert of baklava and cake. Children were running around and playing. People were drinking tea on large cushions placed on the fertile ground and chatting. The local farmer women danced and sung. I had a few words with Cihan Baysal, whose Istanbul Urban Movements group is committed to stopping urban planning that might have negative environmental and other impacts – the airport, the bridge and the Yedikule bostans being their major concerns at the moment. 'Once it [gentrification] starts in one part of the city,' Cihan told me, ‘other parts follow.’ Wise words. Action – such as the work of groups like Cihan’s and the Yedikule Bostans, along with events like Sunday evening's – must be taken whenever possible to stop this domino effect.