The Quest to Save the Gediz Delta in Western Turkey
Just on the outskirts of Izmir, along the shore of the Aegean Sea, lies the Gediz Delta. It's a designated wetland of national importance as well as a Ramsar Site of international importance. Thousands of Flamingos live and breed here, as well as the endangered Dalmation Pelican. An experienced birder can spot at least 50 different species from the shore and within the marsh. But this natural treasure is under threat. The city of Izmir is a popular place for living, especially as it's considered as the most liberal place in Turkey. New houses and roads are sprouting up like mushrooms out of the ground. And every year the construction is getting closer to the Gediz Delta.
On a windy but sunny Sunday morning I meet with the group of Doga, who have organized a protest excursion this day to sensitize the public about the newest infrastructure project: a large bridge directly through the protected area. A Turkish magazine is also present and taking notes for an article on the matter. Doga is a relatively small organization, with only 200 members, but as it is linked to BirdLife International, they are one of the biggest in Turkey and are able to employ 22 full time employees. It's this international support that has saved the organization from being shut down, as has happened with many other environmental NGO's in Turkey after the political coup in 2016.
As we start walking, a few wader birds fly up from the shore. With our binoculars we look out over the flamingos feeding grounds and immediately spot a small group of Great Flamingos. 20'000 breeding pairs were counted here last year, that's almost 10% of the global Flamingo population. The bridge would destroy these feeding and breeding grounds as it would lead right through the site. In order to stop this detrimental project, Doga has filed two court cases, one against the bridge itself and another against the downgrading of the sites protection status. But in a country where the government acts above the law and construction is seen as a valuable branch for pushing the economy, is there a chance of winning these court cases? "We have been successful in the past!" states one of the Doga employees as he points to two unfinished buildings, "those buildings were being constructed within the protected perimeter. We have filed for the immediate building stop and won." The further construction has now been abandoned, but the skeleton of the unfinished buildings remain. Maybe as a signal of hope to those fighting so save this wonderful delta.
After two hours of walking and observing, we take a last group photo before everyone files out in different directions. On this Sunday afternoon, many residents from Izmir have passed us, but I had the feeling like very few actually realize the importance of this area. In fact, there's not a single sign to inform passerby's and residents about the protected area. "We have tried to put up signs once," I'm being told, "but the government took them back down stating that the signs are not conform with national regulations and that only the government is eligible to put up signs. We are still waiting for this to ever happen." As I walk back and gaze over the delta, I'm filled with anger and sadness. It seems the Gediz Delta is once more an example where nature's survival depends on the outcome of a David vs Goliath battle. Does David even stand a chance this time?
Turkey has designated almost 300 areas to the protection of flora and fauna, of which 40 are national parks. That's about 2,5% of the country and a valuable contribution to protect Turkey's unique flora and fauna. However, current politics might bring a halt to the establishment of new protected areas and put existing sites in jeopardy. Infrastructure development and a government favored construction regime are eager to build new houses, hotels and roads in areas where the human impact is supposed to be kept minimal. A new version of the Law on Nature and Biodiversity Conservation would exasperate the problem - if it gets passed that is. The law would make any kind of construction in protected areas possible (for more info, click here). Instead of being a frame for protecting nature it would lead to a legal way of its destruction. Fortunately public pressure has saved many regions from this fate and the new version of the Law on Nature and Biodiversity Conservation is still pending to be passed. Nevertheless, protected areas may seize to be a safe haven for flora and fauna in the future in Turkey. We visited a specific case in Western Turkey, close to the city of Izmir, where we met with employees of the organization Doga (BirdLife Turkey).
Nature Protection in Precarious Times
We passed through Turkey quite quickly in the middle of winter as temperatures were often below zero during the night and slightly above during the day. Therefore we didn't get the chance to meet with rangers or even visit a national park. However, we gained very valuable insights into nature protection and NGO work by meeting with BirdLife Turkey. Thank you to the whole team for taking us along to the Gediz Delta and sharing your inspiring stories with us!
More information and links:
A group of Flamingos in the Gediz Delta
The two buildings were illegally constructed within the protected area.