Erdogan defends expansion of controversial coal mine

ANKARA (AFP): President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday dismissed environmental protests over the felling of trees to expand a coal mine in southwest Turkey, saying the campaign was led by “marginals”.

Dramatic scenes have emerged since July 24 when Akbelen forest in the Milas district of the Aegean province of Mugla was occupied by villagers and activists trying to stop the trees from being felled by the mine’s owner, an energy company close to the government.

Mugla is home to three power plants and activists say the coal mines that supply them threaten the region’s centuries-old olive groves, a vital part of the local economy.

“This power plant, which produces almost two-thirds of the electricity consumed in the southern Aegean, contributes around one billion dollars annually to our country’s economy,” Erdogan said in a televised address after the weekly cabinet meeting.

He said the power plant needed to continue production with new coal basins as the existing reserves were close to depletion.

“Coal power plants have become once again a major source of energy in European countries after the crisis that broke out with the Russia-Ukraine war,” he said.

Coal accounts for over a quarter of Turkey’s primary energy and the industry generates over a third of the country’s electricity.

– Protesters are ‘marginals’-

Erdogan called the protesters “marginals” posing as environmental activists.

“We just mind our business,” he said. “It is a fact that we cannot explain the campaigns carried out in our country by the love of trees and environmental sensitivity.”

Tensions erupted last month when logging crews turned up in the forest, leading to violent scuffles between the villagers and the gendarmerie who fired tear gas and water cannon to push back the crowds.

Some activists who managed to get past the security barricades, occupied the forests and hugged trees while several villagers were detained after they refused to heed the call to leave.

Erdogan’s comments come on the eve of a special session in parliament, currently on a summer break, to discuss the situation in Akbelen at the request of the opposition.

YK Energy, a joint affiliate of IC Holding and Limak Holding, which has close ties with the government, obtained permission in 2020 to cut down the trees in a section of the Akbelen forest to expand a mine.

Erdogan compared the latest protests to demonstrations a decade ago over plans to redevelop Gezi park in the heart of Istanbul which snowballed into nationwide rallies that posed one of the biggest challenges to his government.

“Although some are constantly and persistently trying to re-play the same scenarios with different skins, nobody is deceived by this game anymore,” Erdogan said.