After Erdogan Angers a Loyal Province, His Opponents See an Opportunity

IKIZDERE, Turkey — Villagers in the pristine woodlands of Rize Province in northeastern Turkey have always had two natural advantages: a largely unspoiled landscape, rich in wildlife and trout-filled streams, and the protective influence of the region’s most popular and powerful local citizen, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

But now, at a moment when Mr. Erdogan is under political pressure nationally, his home province has become a battleground pitting some of those villagers against the president. For weeks, they have staged protests against Mr. Erdogan’s plans for a quarry that threatens to destroy 220 acres of woods that rise steeply behind a cluster of houses and are an essential resource for the rural district of Ikizdere.

“This is our paradise,” said Gungor Bas, who lives in his grandfather’s house beside a stream already choked with mud deposited by excavators. “We used to drink from the stream. But for the last 10 days, we have to drink bottled water.”

The protests over the quarry last month were notable because they erupted in Rize, the loyal home province of Mr. Erdogan on the Black Sea coast. His political opponents seized on it as an opportunity to undermine the already embattled leader, who is on the defensive over the precarious state of the economy and the fallout from the pandemic.

The continuing demonstrations in Ikizdere began at the end of April and opposition politicians, eager to exploit any cracks in Mr. Erdogan’s grip on power, rushed to the district in support as government officials moved in to suppress the protests.

Mr. Erdogan no longer tolerates protests — except those by his supporters — and the riot police have used a heavy hand to quash the demonstrations in Rize.

The quarry, near the village of Gurdere, is the latest of numerous big projects that Mr. Erdogan has championed to generate growth and employment in the country over the past 19 years. With unemployment and inflation running high, he has promised his supporters even more of them.

But for his opponents, the destruction in Ikizdere goes to the heart of what is wrong with Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian leadership and cronyism after 19 years in power. The president and senior officials have been rocked recently by accusations of corruption and links to organized crime.

Mr. Erdogan’s opponents say that big business takes priority and that the government and law enforcement are in the service of the construction companies rather than the people.

“These are the sorts of projects that are designed to make money,” said Yakup Okumusoglu, an environmental lawyer who is representing some of the villagers. “I do not think this is progress for the people.”

The transportation minister, Adil Karaismailoglu, dismissed criticism of the project as an invention by the political opposition.

“Recently, false rumors about the quarry have been spreading,” he said during a visit to the region.

Rize has been the site of a number of other massive development projects overseen by Mr. Erdogan, including dams, highways, and ports on reclaimed land along the Black Sea coast.

Two of Turkey’s largest construction firms, which have close ties to the government and have built many of the president’s projects, won the tender to build a new port in the town of Iyidere and a license to quarry black basalt for that port in Gurdere — both in Ikizdere district.

The villagers say they were never consulted about the quarry project.

They first heard rumors of plans for a quarry two years ago, Musa Yilmaz, a businessman who returned home to help organize the protest, said recently. Then late last month, the villagers were roused from their beds by the sound of diggers tearing up the forest.

“We don’t want this quarry project, and we will be here until they stop,” Mr. Yilmaz said, standing outside a “resistance tent” where the protesters set up a protest camp below the quarry site. “They do not need to ruin nature for stones.”

The protesters say they do not object to the planned port but insist that the stone for it can be quarried elsewhere rather than sacrificing an area valued for its biodiversity, where farmers grow tea on steep-sided valleys and collect prized honey from bees that thrive on wild rhododendrons and chestnut trees.

The protests heated up amid a recent spike in Covid infections, and villagers defied a strict lockdown to confront riot police.

Some of them climbed up through the forest to block the way of the diggers for several days until the government deployed the paramilitary police to clear them out. The police moved in with pepper spray and detained eight men, prompting two women to scale nearby trees, perching aloft for several hours until a local lawmaker persuaded them to come down.

“The places we thought were ours, the next day we learned were not ours,” said Funda Okyar, one of the tree climbers who said she had grown up roaming those woods.

The villagers were shocked to discover that Mr. Erdogan had signed a decree ordering the expropriation of their lands just days before the diggers arrived. About 15 householders will lose lands used to farm tea and graze cattle, they said.

“He is a son of this region. He should protect us, but he is not,” Ayse Bas said of the president as she tilled the earth behind her house. “This is my home, my land. Where else will I go?”

Within days of the clash in Ikizdere, opposition politicians started arriving to show their support. They were soon followed by Mr. Karaismailoglu, the minister of transport.

He insisted that the port in Iyidere would bring jobs and prosperity to the region, and promised that the quarry would only be active for two years — not the rumored 70 years — and would be replanted afterward.

But the villagers and their supporters were not convinced, saying they had seen destruction caused by construction projects elsewhere.

“This has been happening all around the country. But until it happened to us, we did not understand the pain,” said Mustafa Tatoglu, 75, speaking outside his house in Gurdere.

The project revealed the unhealthy ties between the construction firms and Mr. Erdogan’s government, said Ugur Bayraktutan, a local lawmaker from Turkey’s largest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party.

Both the government and the company in charge of the quarry insisted they had acted lawfully.

“Samples were taken from 10 places, including the existing quarries, to find the required stone reserves that were resistant to seawater, and it was determined by scientific and impartial boards that the appropriate stone was here,” Mr. Karaismailoglu said at a news conference in Ikizdere. “Environmental effects will be controlled continuously.”

An opposition lawmaker, Mehmet Bekaroglu, was hoping to delay the work of the diggers and build support for the protest, but was pessimistic.

“There is little chance we can stop this,” he said.

Mr. Erdogan still commands strong support in Rize Province, where voters have overwhelmingly backed him in the past — 77 percent of the province in the 2018 presidential election.

Some villagers in Gurdere praised him for improvements such as universal health care, support for pensioners and road building that has cut down travel time to cities.

“If someone is sick, they just call an ambulance,” said Cevat Tuncer, 75. “We should be thankful.”

But the loyalty of one of his neighbors was wavering.

Overlooking the valley where the quarry is planned, Cevat Tat has just built a home for his retirement after 17 years working as a construction planner for Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party in Istanbul. Now he is contemplating life with daily explosions shaking his home and thick dust settling on his fruit trees.

When government officials and the construction company promised to restore the land to its original state after extracting hundreds of tons of basalt from the mountainside, he went to have a look at a four-year old quarry in the nearby village of Pazar. He was appalled to see the valley gutted and devoid of vegetation.

“My heart broke,” he said, looking out over the deep green hills. “It was a valley like this one and they ruined that.”

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