Turkey's Alevi minority threatened by dam-building plans

Turkey is ramping up its dam construction despite opposition from locals. Some dams are being built on sacred Alevi ground, jeopardizing their cultural heritage and damaging the natural environment. 

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/ File
A bridge awaits the rising waters of the Tigris River behind Ilisu Dam in Hasankeyf, Turkey, in June 2007. Dam construction faces opposition from locals who are concerned about the environmental and cultural impact of the dams.

Baris Yildirim, a lawyer and activist, strolled across a manicured park on the edge of the Munzur River that runs through Tunceli, a small city in eastern Turkey.

On the other side of a fence is the Uzuncayir hydropower dam that was completed in 2010 and flooded a site sacred to Alevis, the country's largest religious minority.

Mr. Yildirim, an Alevi living in the home of his ancestors – who revere nature – has been on a mission since 2008 to stop the government from building more dams in the province.

"This park was built to appease us by the company who built that dam," Yildirim said bitterly. "But now we have to pray through a fence."

Yildirum has filed lawsuits and won some cases over the years. His latest battle is to prevent the government seizing land for the Konaktepe dam, which would be located inside a nearby nature reserve.

Winning, he said, could mean saving the Alevi's cultural heritage.

The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, saw dams as a way forward for the developing nation, and many of those now being built were planned decades ago.

Locals who oppose the dams have become victims of the country's energy politics, said Ozer Meral Uc, an ecologist and member of the Munzur Flows Freely movement, a coalition of 40 civil society groups in Tunceli.

Officials have publicly said hydroelectric dams are needed to meet Turkey's energy and water needs and reduce its dependency on countries that sell energy.

"The state wants to reduce its dependence on energy from foreign countries," Mr. Uc said. "But the Konaktepe will flood people's homes."

Moreoever, water stored in dams could prevent drought for several years if needed, the government has said. Last year, water levels were at their lowest in nearly half a century.

Legal race

Making up about 15-20 percent of Turkey's 79 million people, Alevis draw from Shiite, Sufi, and Anatolian folk traditions, practicing distinct rituals which can put them at odds with their Sunni Muslim counterparts, many of whom accuse them of heresy.

"The government is trying to assimilate us into Sunni Islam. There's a project to kill our culture and heritage," said Yildirim.

The government, which has held a series of workshops for Alevis to allow them to voice their concerns in an effort to reconcile tense relations, was unavailable for comment despite numerous emails and calls.

Four years ago, Yildirim won a lawsuit at the country's highest court halting construction of the Konaktepe dam.

The court ruled the dam was illegal as it would cut through the Munzur National Park, an area rich in biodiversity, where 1,600 types of flora and fauna thrive.

Despite the ruling, the government has continued to push forward with the project by buying and seizing land, Yildirim said.

Hydro-push

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has ramped up building dams – 111 in 2017 alone, local media said – despite an international outcry from environmentalists and local people.

When the government seizes land to build infrastructure deemed in the national interest, it is legally obliged to compensate landowners. When they refuse to sell, cases end up in court.

Despite the court ruling four years ago, the Resmi Gazete – which publishes laws and official announcements – said in 2016 the government would expropriate land in the mountains where the Konaktepe dam was going to be built.

Once completed, the dam would produce 1.2 percent of the country's energy, worth $80 million annually, according to a 2009 report from the Istanbul Water Tribunal, an international body that resolves water conflicts.

Some people have already sold their land.

"Many of the people who sell their land don't understand the consequences," Yildirim said.

Back in 1985, Celal Kara's father sold his land when one of the first Tunceli dams – the Mercan – was being built. Ms. Kara said he was duped.

"My father was convinced, because the government then told us that our village will look like Paris. But the trees were cut down. Nature was destroyed and we lost our village," she said.

Complicated history 

The Konaktepe dam was one of a number of projects planned in 1998 in a deal between Turkey and the United States' Department of Commerce.

The plan originally envisioned the involvement of Export-Import Bank, which underwrites risk for US companies abroad, though the bank told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email it was involved only in the pre-project phase.

Opaqueness around the project means it is unclear which foreign or local companies are involved, or even at what stage the process is at, activists said.

Sarah Bardeen, a spokeswoman for International Rivers, a US-based advocacy group, said Tunceli locals were in a difficult position.

"Governments need to abide by their judiciary – and Turkey's judiciary decisively halted the Konaktepe Dam in 2014. But the project is rearing its ugly head again," Ms. Bardeen said.

"If the government won't abide by the rules, locals and their allies will have to target the financiers and the construction companies that are moving forward with an illegal project against the wishes of the local people."

Yildirim and other activists in the Munzur Flows Freely movement said solar power would prove much less damaging to their sacred environment and could meet their energy needs.

Protests against dam-building projects fizzled out after the government fined protesters in Tunceli and elsewhere following the attempted coup in 2016 when rogue elements in the military tried to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkey has been in a state of emergency since then.

In the Ovacik district of Tunceli, snow-capped mountains loom over an Alevi holy site, where young men and women in jeans and sweaters light candles and place them in the crevices of soot-filled steps on the edge of the Munzur River.

Nearby, Yurdanur Toprak, a mother of two college-aged daughters, cooks gozleme – a vegetable-filled dough. Her cheeks red from the heat, Ms. Toprak said they did not need dams.

"The fish will die, our nature will be damaged."

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

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