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Bring Human Rights Home: A Story from Turkey

08 June 2021

Accidental environmental activists stop destruction of natural reserve

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing… – Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25

A big city can offer many comforts; shops with nice clothes, medical services and financial security. Yet Birhan Erkutlu and Tuğba Günal felt uncomfortable, associating their lifestyle in Istanbul with too much exploitation of humans and animals. They decided to cut themselves off from urban life, and left for the mountains of Alakir Valley.

Now, sixteen years later, Birhan and Tuğba emerge from their humble mountain cottage, perfectly blended with its environment. They explain how their newfound equilibrium was initially short lived. One day, just five years after they had left Istanbul, they were brutally disturbed by bulldozers and chainsaws.

Back to the city
It turned out a hydroelectric power company was building eight large dams in the Valley. The couple’s reflex was to stand in front of the machines to stop the destruction. Police came and convinced them to leave, encouraging them to find out whether it was indeed illegal, as Birhan and Tuğba believed.

By reconnecting to nature, the couple had learned how people all over Turkey are trying to save their livelihoods by stopping such destructive projects. Families harvesting olives or keeping cattle for example, see their income and their culture increasingly being eradicated.

To prove the damage these dams would cause, the couple needed legal and scientific expertise, as well as societal support. Once again, they radically turned their lives around; they started visiting the city regularly, meeting with active citizens, experts and human rights lawyers.

A sisterhood for action
They focused on stopping six of the eight dams, as these would be particularly damaging to the only water resource around. They made inventories to measure the ecological value of Alakir Valley. They organised film events, conferences, street performances, and art exhibitions. Their message hit home with many. Before they knew it, they had thousands of social media followers, both in Turkey and abroad. It developed into what they call a ‘Sisterhood’ of people supporting nature. Together with the Sisterhood, they raised enough money and were able to start a legal process against the hydroelectric power company.

Tuğba and Birhan campaigned for five years. While the case was in court, the company cut down trees in front of their eyes, and kept the couple awake by using excavators at nights. People even approached the couple with guns, telling them they would break their arms and legs. But the two refused to give in to fear. Their courage grew stronger.

Saving nature is saving people
After eight years of legal struggle and enduring threats, the court ruled in their favour. They managed to stop three of the six dams. And not only that; the Alakir Valley is now legally protected, 9.2 million hectares in total. No other construction can be carried out there.

Birhan and Tuğba remain active conservationists. They explain that the trees, the birds and the squirrels are like family to them. And protecting them has nothing to do with politics, religion, gender or ethnicity. People can simply not live without nature; violating its rights, is violating human rights.

Watch the story here.

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