Saturday, May 9, 2015

Life amid the olive groves -- and the energy industry

"Welcome to Akhisar, realm of the olive," proclaims a sign arching over the entry to the bus station in this small Western Turkish town. Inside the station, bottles of olive oil are nestled in a display of fake flowers decorating one of the seating areas. The even smaller towns ringing Akhisar have tractors parked on their dusty streets and olive groves just outside the residential center; one town has olive-branch designs emblazoned on its town gate; another is named "40 trees."

Local pride aside, and in spite of the handful of wind turbines scattered on the ridges of nearby hills, what this region has become best known for, in the most tragic of ways, is coal. In May of last year, at least 301 people were killed in a coal mine in Soma, about 20 miles from Akhisar. Turkey's worst-ever industrial accident, it prompted outrage and mass mourning, but little in the way of accountability.

Just a few months later, as if to add insult to injury, an energy firm came into a Soma village called Yırca and bulldozed 6,000 olive trees out of the ground overnight -- disregarding a pending legal case, in which a court ruled just hours later that the company's expropriation of the land to build a coal-fired power plant was illegal.

I traveled to Yırca this week to see how the villagers were faring following the loss of their olive trees, and to investigate the larger battle between energy-industry interests and small farmers and rural residents that is playing out across much of Turkey. I spent the day with local muhtar (a kind of village headman) Mustafa Akın, his wife, and their neighbors as they tended some of the village's remaining olive trees, a difficult livelihood that they nevertheless say they do not want to give up.

My story about Yırca and Turkey's energy battles will be published later this year in Sierra magazine; until then, this slideshow of photos provides a glimpse of how the energy industry is already encroaching on Yırca, and at the traditional rural way of life that's at stake.