Four months ago demonstrations about trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park grew into mass protests against the rule of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Now trees – or, put another way, the polarised politics of big development projects – have sprouted up once again on Turkey’s agenda. Here are five reasons why.
1- Mr Erdogan has brought religion into the equation – but not in the way you might expect
The prime minister has built his career around the Islamist-rooted politics of his AK party. So it’s particularly striking that in a speech to his MPs this week he declared on Tuesday that roads are such an important part of civilisation that not just trees, but even places of worship should make way for them.
“Even if there is a mosque in front of a road, we would demolish that mosque and rebuild it somewhere else,” he told them.
2- Smaller scale protests are still going on – and they are rooted in environmental concerns
Mr Erdogan was partly referring to demonstrations in Ankara over the municipality’s plans to build a road through a forested university campus. But not everyone shares the prime minister’s view of environmental protesters as “bandits”.
Jean-Maurice Ripert, the EU’s departing ambassador to Turkey, suggested that the way that hundreds of trees were felled or moved in Ankara in recent days, even as discussions continued about the road project, shows that “some people have not learned their lessons” from the confrontations over Gezi, in which the Turkish government was widely criticised for its crackdown.
3- The future of Gezi itself is still far from certain
The prime minister’s plans to reconstruct an Ottoman-era barracks on the site of Gezi Park, which adjoins Istanbul’s central Taksim square, are now on hold, pending a court case. He has also offered a referendum on the park’s eventual fate. In the meantime, Gezi itself has more trees than ever, due to a planting spree by the municipality.
But other parts of Mr Erdogan’s plans for the Taksim area did go ahead, notably the concreting over of part of the street that used to run just beside Gezi. Just months after being laid, the surface appears to be cracked, pitted and, sometimes, waterlogged.
4- Much bigger projects are now the focus of controversy
Today’s Zaman, an English language Turkish newspaper, has published photos it says shows the extent of deforestation near Istanbul due to construction work on a new bridge across the Bosphorus – one of Mr Erdogan’s favoured projects (he inaugurated construction the day before the Gezi protests erupted).
The same paper has suggested that deforestation is so great it has sent wild boars into the strait in a bid to find refuge on the Asian side.
The Turkish ministry of forestry itself has estimated that yet another big Istanbul project – a giant airport – will involve a further 2.5m trees being moved or cut down.
5- Still, someone in government is talking green
When agonising about the sheer scale of the pending infrastructure projects, environmentalists are apt to become distraught. But perhaps there is someone who talks their language in Ankara – it’s either a case of chutzpah or a sign that, at some level, this person shares greens’ concerns.
At a UN Forum on Forests in Istanbul in April, this figure talked of 2bn saplings planted by Turkey and warned of the destructive aspects of development, reportedly quoting an old Native American saying: “When all the trees have been cut, all the animals hunted, all the waters polluted and the air cannot be inhaled, then you will realize that money is not edible.”
The name of the leader in question? Recep Tayyip Erdogan.