Who is killing our environmentalists?

281 killings of environmentalists in 2016 are proof that environmental activism is becoming a bloody battleground.
Photo by Kari Sullivan/ CC BY 2.0/ Source: Flickr

In 2015, reported killings of environmentalists globally reached a record high. By then, the figure was 185 killings across 16 selected countries in total.

Nevertheless, 2016 claimed more lives traded-off for environmental justice than ever. With each headline attracting international attention, the scope of research broadened, covering 25 countries where 281 killings of environmentalists were documented.

Victims are targeted irrespective of their profile, ranging from activists to indigenous families and leaders, such as Berta Cáceres from Honduras. What they have in common is their struggle against infringements of statutory rights, be it human rights, indigenous rights or environmental rights.

The rising tide of violence even spread to government officials; such as Brazilian Luiz Araújo. The environmental secretary to the city of Altamira in the northern Amazon, was murdered after exposing a massive fish slaughter and illegal logging related to the company Norte Energia (aka the Belo Monte project-runner), which was then fined $11 million for its environmental catastrophe.

A vicious assault by the quarry

Amidst such conflicts, another case has recently occurred in southern Turkey, where a couple, Ali and Aysin Buyuknohutcu, were cruelly shot dead in their countryside house. The couple was well known for their environmental and consumer rights activism.

For the past 6 years, they were leading both a civil campaign and a lawsuit against destructive stone and marble quarries in Antalya, a Mediterranean city in southern Turkey. The adverse environmental impact of open pit mining on the surrounding pasture and particularly of those in Antalya was exposed thanks to the campaign.

Additionally, over the course of the campaign they managed to categorically shut down the operations of a marble quarry, owned by a local mining company called “Bartu Mermer”. Their open pit mining is destroying the groves and surrounding pasture. Their mode d’emploi is to deforest the surrounding to build some mining related infrastructure. Additionally, the dust and sand generated through regular operations are harmful to the agricultural fields around.

In fact, the struggle had escalated to the final stage in 2016, when Ali Buyuknohutcu shared pictures and videos on social media depicting the deforestation of highly-valued endemic Calabrian pine and cedar tree groves around the open pits, publicly denouncing the Bartu Mermer Company.

In return, the company sued Ali, accusing him for defamation. In the end, Ali was acquitted in court, and on top of that the judge cancelled the company’s operating license in the area.

The verdict

The final verdict on 15 March by the state council in response to the company’s appeal also approved the decision of the regional court, securing an absolute win for the environmentalist couple.

During the press conference following the lawsuit, Ali gave the following speech:
“I am fulfilling my duty to protect nature according to the 56th article of constitution. It reads: ‘Protecting nature is the duty of all citizens’ …. [The companies] threatened and daunted the local supporters to stop our campaign …. Yet the final situation became not only a landmark to Antalya but to all country. Before, citizens were scared to sue companies alike, now the decision will move all environmentalists”

Taking a deeper look into the verdict, operations of the said company were unlawful with regards to the environmental regulations since it was exempt from a necessary environmental impact assessment (EIA) report due to a special exception permit of the city governorship. Such a permit would only apply if the operation area were smaller than 25 ha or the company had consulted the local community and gets consent.

In this case however, none of these things were done.

The way this permit was obtained is unclear, but after reviewing the expert report on the unique natural heritage of the site, the state council obliged any future operation in the area to go through a detailed environmental impact assessment.

Coupled with Ali’s statements, the verdict severely restricts potential mining projects but more importantly, it gives way to further proceedings against the remaining 13 stone quarries operating in the field, since they are also suspected to lack thorough EIA reports.

Environmental victory paid with lives 

All achievements put aside, within a month following the court decision, the couple’s dogs were poisoned and they survived a forest fire near their home Two weeks later, on 10 May, they were found brutally shot down in their countryside house.

Soon after, a suspect was arrested and he confessed to being the person behind the previous incidents and murdering the couple upon the promise of 50,000 Turkish liras (13,000 Euros) by an anonymous quarry owner.

The opposition party has recently raised questions about the case during regular parliamentary meetings, requesting a special investigation to expose all stakeholders involved in the case. A member of parliament asked the Minister of Justice:

“Are you going to investigate the connection between the murder of Ali Buyuknohutcu and his environmentalist struggle – legal victory?”

As of today, the criminal investigation is ongoing amid a breakdown of the rule of law in Turkey. Even opposition party members, who usually do not step out of their Mercedes, have shown support. The 69-year-old opposition party leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu has been marching for ‘Justice’ from the capital Ankara to Istanbul for the last 3 weeks, accompanied by thousands of Turks, several MEPs and a horde of police officers.

 

Protesters are walking 15-20 kilometres a day with a single motto: Justice. The Justice March also points a shift of opposition party’s rhetoric from ‘secularism’ to ‘justice’, which is in a way alarming considering the increasing number of environmental conflicts in Turkey as well as the increasing need for justice.

A bloody battleground

The case of Ali and Aysin Buyuknohutcu is a single piece of a bigger picture, where environmental activism is emerging as a bloody battleground for communities and activists.

It is clear where industries are pushing deeper into new territories, an increasing number of communities take a stand against infringers – as illustrated in the Atlas of Environmental Justice through 2100+ documented cases.

Nonetheless, we are also witnessing the very same people getting rapidly surrounded by state forces, private securities and shockingly, by contract killers at times.

The calamity destroying the Buyuknohutcu family proved the vulnerability of environmentalists and environmentalism one more time.

Indeed, a large environmental civil society organization, ‘A Platform’ has already issued a press release in Turkey, calling on the government official for quick action to maintain justice and leave no space for justice gap over the couple’s assassination:

“Any judicial inertia or impunity at this point would put many lives at stake in future.”

Despite a cost of two invaluable lives, the verdict on the marble quarry stands as a great precedent for successors of the environmentalist couple.

Who is killing our environmentalists?
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Environment
Burag Gürden

Burag Gurden is a masters student at Lund University's International Development Programme. Before moving to Sweden, he obtained a BA degree in economics and got experience by working for a multinational bank in Turkey. He is a WWF volunteer and has a great interest in environmental conservation and preservation. His other enthusiasms are for consumer behavior and consumption patterns.
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