Friday, February 26, 2016

Uncertain future for one of world's oldest urban farms

Driving into Istanbul from Atatürk Airport, the crumbling fortifications along the Marmara Sea demarcate where the historic, pre-sprawl city begins. But though they may evoke oohs and ahhs out the window, few visitors venture back to explore the 1,500-year-old city walls on foot.

My first time walking the 6.5-kilometer length of the walls was full of surprises: homing pigeons for sale in a parking lot, spectacular (if precarious) views, a livestock market for Kurban Bayramı (Eid al-Adha) sacrifice animals. Most striking of all were the gardens: lush plots of fruits and vegetables squeezed between the walls and the modern highway that now loops outside it. Years later, urban redevelopment has transformed or rendered inaccessible many areas along the walls, but some of the market gardens (called bostan in Turkish) remain, a last vestige of an ancient urban agricultural tradition.

I've written previously about the Yedikule bostan by the city walls for The Atlantic's City Lab, and about other examples of urban agriculture in Istanbul for Culinary Backstreets and Zester Daily. A new threat to the Yedikule bostan early this year prompted me to take a deeper look at the gardens' past, present, and future.

Read my new article, "In Istanbul's Ancient Gardens, A Battle for Future Harvests," in Yale Environment 360

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Solidarity amid strife in Turkey

It wasn’t long after the blasts tore through the crowd that the urgent cries began going out on Twitter and Facebook: “O-, O+ and A- blood needed at Numune, Hacettepe and İbni Sina hospitals!”

Next came the photographs of papers tacked to walls: lists of the names of the injured, shared online to get the word out to their family and friends.

As night fell after Turkey’s deadliest-ever terrorist attack, a dual suicide bombing targeting a peace rally organised by trade unions in the capital city of Ankara, the calls for help continued...

The killing of 103 people in the Ankara bombings of 10 October sent many in Turkey, myself included, into deep mourning. One of the few things bringing some comfort was seeing the solidarity and resilience of people coming together to protest the deaths and help those wounded in the attack and the families of those who perished.

This is a difficult moment, however, for Turkey's grassroots, which while revitalized in some ways by the Gezi Park protests of 2013 and subsequent civic organizing, is also under an increasing amount of pressure from the country's government and security forces. I wrote about some of these tensions for Equal Times, a Brussels-based news site that also published the story in Spanish and French.

Read the rest of my article, "The Renewal and Repression of Turkey's Civil Society Grassroots," on Equal Times.

Monday, November 16, 2015

From tourism to turmoil

Early November is typically a tranquil time on Lesbos, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea with some 80,000 year-round inhabitants. Residents shut the doors of their hotels, restaurants, and other businesses that predominantly serve the summer tourism market and head out to their olive groves for the annual harvest.

This year, though, there are “no vacancy” signs in English and Arabic posted on hotel doors in the main port of Mytilene and lines snaking outside travel agencies. The latter are doing a brisk business not in holiday excursions, but in ferry tickets to Athens, the next stop for the tens of thousands of refugees and migrants who have landed on the island this year en route to mainland Europe.

“It’s usually very quiet in winter, but a lot of businesses are still working even now, restaurants, mini-markets, car-rental agencies, so there’s a bit more life in the villages,” says Lesbos resident Aphrodite Vati Mariola. The beachfront hotel her family has operated since 1989 is not among them, however – they closed two weeks early after bookings went stagnant in early September, when both refugee arrivals and media coverage of the crisis increased....

Conflict in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other country is taking a devastating toll on human life and driving millions of people to leave their homes. This refugee flow is also having an impact economically and socially as in nearby countries such as Greece and Turkey as they struggle to cope with the influx. Late last month, I traveled to Lesbos to volunteer and bring back information about the conditions for refugees on this "hotspot" Greek island. I was also asked by the travel website Skift to write about how the refugee crisis is impacting the economy of this once-popular tourism destination.

Read the rest of my article, "Greek Islands Known for Tourism Continue to Feel Impact of Refugee Crisis," on Skift's website.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

A city's buried secrets

Ufuk Kocabaş spent his summers swimming, snorkeling and eventually diving around nearby Marmara Island, where his grandfather and other forebears plied the sea as sailors. At age 14, he stumbled upon his first shipwreck, littered with pieces of amphora — an ancient type of storage and transport container — and got an early lesson in proper archaeological practice.

“I took some amphora fragments [from the ship] to my sister who was studying at university,” recalls Kocabaş, now head of the Istanbul University Conservation Department. “She told me I shouldn’t have taken them from the site, that I should have left them where they were. At the time, I thought this was stupid. It’s my amphora!”

After chiding him, Kocabaş’s sister helped him identify the type of amphora he found. It dated to the seventh century, and they passed the information they’d ascertained about the shipwreck to a museum. “It was an amazing experience,” Kocabaş says. “I started to read about shipwrecks then, and haven’t stopped since.” ...

Last summer, I had the privilege to peek into Istanbul's far-distant past with Kocabaş, who helped lead the archaeological excavation that uncovered perhaps the world’s largest collection of Byzantine shipwrecks, and evidence that the city's history dates back nearly 6,000 years farther than previously believed.

My story about the work of Kocabaş' Yenikapı Shipwrecks Project, and other fascinating urban archaeological digs from Rio to Rome, was published as the September 2015 cover story of Discover, my first piece for the renowned science magazine.

Read my article, "Underground Transit Projects Reveal Secrets Buried Beneath Cities," in Discover.

My story featured on Discover's Facebook page

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

(Olive) oil vs. coal

For seven weeks in the fall of 2014, the villagers of Yirca kept watch over their olive groves day and night, warming themselves around a fire and taking turns sleeping in a small shelter. Sentinels with binoculars were stationed under the pines on a nearby hill with a sweeping view across the broad, flat valley. They were scanning for any sign of movement by the Kolin Group, the company that was seeking to expropriate this land to build and operate a 510-megawatt, coal-fired power plant.

"If the scouts saw anything, they'd get on their phones and call down, 'The bulldozers are coming!' and the people would rush to block the road leading to the groves," says Mustafa Akin. The avuncular former teacher now serves as muhtar—the elected village head—of Yirca, a tiny settlement of 400 in western Turkey, 50 miles inland from the Aegean Sea.

For a time, despite several confrontations with Kolin Group workers, the villagers' vigil was largely successful. But one night in early November, the bulldozers came back, this time accompanied by two busloads of private security guards and a "rapid expropriation" order from the government. Arguments broke out, and then scuffles. Four people were hauled off in handcuffs; others say they were beaten by the guards. Before the sun rose, 6,000 olive trees had been ripped out of the ground....

What happened that night in Yırca shocked people around Turkey, especially coming as it did just a few months after an appalling industrial disaster killed 301 coal miners in nearby Soma. But it is hardly the only place in the country where corporate interests -- particularly those related to the energy and construction sectors -- are running roughshod over nature and rural communities. Earlier this year, I traveled to Yırca to see how the villagers were faring following the loss of their olive trees, and to try and put their story into the context of the larger battles playing out across Turkey.

This reporting appeared as a feature piece in the September/October 2015 issue of Sierra magazine. For a visual snapshot of life in Yırca, visit my personal blog, where I've posted some photos from my trip.

Read my article, "The Olive and the Power Plant," online, or see it as it appeared in Sierra's September/October 2015 issue (pdf).

Monday, August 3, 2015

Renewed worries about human rights in Turkey

HDP supporters celebrate in Istanbul in
June. The mood is much different now.
Photo: Jennifer Hattam
Still reeling from a deadly terror attack in a majority Kurdish town near the Syrian border, Turkey’s Kurds say they are targeted once again – this time by the counterterrorism measures their own government has taken in response.

Since the 20 July killing of 31 Kurdish and Turkish activists in the town of Suruç by a suicide bomber linked to Islamic State, Turkey has rounded up hundreds of people and blocked dozens of websites and Twitter accounts.

“More than 1,300 people have been detained and almost 900 of them are our members and activists; it is a kind of psychological war on us,” says Nazmı Gür, a former deputy from the eastern city of Van for the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)....

The jubilation among members of Turkey's Kurdish minority following the HDP's historic election victory in June quickly turned to fear, anger, and worry for the future as reinvigorated anti-terror efforts not even two months later appeared to many to be aimed less at defeating ISIS than at putting the Kurds back in their place.

I wrote about the current climate in Turkey, and what it might mean from a human-rights perspective, for Equal Times, a Brussels-based news site that also published the story in Spanish and and French.

Read my article, "Rights at Risk in Turkey's Anti-Terror Crackdown," on Equal Times.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Environmental battles along Turkey's Black Sea coast

The mountain town of Yusufeli, slated
to be flooded by the reservoir of a dam
Turkey's little-visited Black Sea coast has become a hotbed of resistance to dams and other environmentally damaging hydropower projects, part of an ambitious national development and privatization agenda that includes the building of coal plants, nuclear plants, and nearly 2,000 new dams, as well as many new mining and other industrial operations.

The Black Sea region’s lush forests and small mountain villages provide a striking backdrop for the fierce battle being waged there, a fight pitting farmers, fishermen, and beekeepers against the powerful government and corporate interests seemingly intent on bulldozing the landscape and damming its life-giving waterways in the name of “progress” and profit.

“We were born hearing the voice of this river and we will die with it” is a commonly expressed sentiment among Black Sea villagers, whose honey harvests, hazelnut crops, and vegetable gardens all depend upon the region’s rivers. Though the threat of dams looms the largest, gold mining and other extractive industries also put people’s health, homes, and livelihoods at risk.

A copper mine and its tailings ponds
loom above the town of Murgul
Local activists who have rallied against such threats often end up facing new ones: lawsuits filed against them by hydropower companies, many with close ties to Turkey's ruling political party; intimidation and even violence from police and other security forces seeking to break up protests; vilification as traitors, communists, or even terrorists by government authorities; and pressure from local officials and religious leaders not to speak out against such projects, and to take below-market buyouts for homes in the path of construction.

With a grant from Mongabay's Special Reporting Initiatives, I traveled this spring across the eastern Black Sea, from the port city of Trabzon to the mountain towns of Artvin, Murgul, and Yusufeli, taking in the gorgeous -- but in many cases already blighted -- scenery and talking to local residents and activists about the threats they and their homes face.

Read my first two articles from this reporting trip on the Mongabay website: