FEATURE STORY — The Battle for Gerze: A Tale of Coal and Controversy

Along Turkey’s Black Sea coastline, a small town’s three-year long fight against the construction of a coal-fired power plant, and the billionaire multinational corporation behind it

At three o’clock in the afternoon, the protesters finally got a break. The police had completely run out of pepper spray, having already thrown everything they had at the townspeople since the standoff began at 8:30 that morning. Tears lined the faces of those who had been in the direct line of fire. While a few demonstrators used cheesecloth to shield themselves from the gas, most had no means of protection. Weary but undeterred, the recovering demonstrators brought in boxes of lemons to clean out their eyes, and looked after the older participants – some of them over 80 years old– who had been on the frontline. Their relief did not last long. An armored vehicle belonging to the national guard advanced upon the fledgling crowd, and directed its high-pressure water cannon upon them. The protesters regrouped. Their stand, which took place on September 5th last year, would go on for another 5 hours, until 8:30 that evening. But in the end, their defenses held firm. The residents of Gerze had accomplished their one goal: they prevented the Anadolu Group from conducting survey drilling for its proposed coal-fired power plant.

For the people of Gerze, a town nestled along Turkey’s Black Sea coastline, the events of September 5th represent but one battle in a war which has dragged on for years. The turbulence initially began three years ago, in 2009, when a corporation named Anadolu Group first announced its plans to build a state-of-the-art, coal-fired power plant in the area. At 1200 Megawatts, Anadolu’s power station would become one of the five largest coal-powered plants in Turkey – and the second largest to be operated by a private company.

To say that the Anadolu Group is well-financed is an understatement. The company is massive — a multinational conglomerate that employs over 23,000 in 81 separate companies. The corporation, based in Istanbul, has effectively built itself around its Efes Pilsen brand, a beer which enjoys 89% of the market share in Turkey and has since become the 8th largest seller in Europe. It’s also no small fact that Anadolu controls the marketing, bottling, and distribution of Coca Cola in most of Central Asia and parts of the Middle East, including Pakistan. With other notable controlling interests in McDonalds and Honda, Anadolu Group is involved in industries ranging from automobiles, to banking, to health.

The 1200 MW coal power plant represents the company’s bid to enter Turkey’s energy sector. Anadolu is working to raise the 2 billion dollars worth of capital, 35 percent of which comes out of their own pocket.

For the site of the power plant, the Anadolu Group proposed an area just outside the town of Gerze, in a small farming village named Yaykil. The 800,000 hectares of land was selected for a number of reasons. As coal plants require ample access to water for their cooling systems, Gerze represents one of the few regions of the Black Sea Coast with a low population density. Combined, Gerze and the village of Yakil have a population numbering just above 13,000. The site is also situated at the Northern most point of Turkey, making for shorter shipping lines to Russia, which would be among the most important sources of imported, high-yield coal for the plant. This is coupled with a network of existing infrastructure in the area from two already-completed hydroelectric stations, and state highway investments made for a proposed nuclear power plant in nearby Sinop.

With sights set upon Gerze, the Anadolu Group made the first move, wasting little time establishing a presence in the area. In late 2009, they launched a PR campaign worthy of their capital reserves. Baskets of chocolates appeared upon the doorsteps of residents as gestures of goodwill. Brochures detailing promises of new jobs proliferated the town. Fourteen new welding machines were delivered to Gerze’s trade school. And a youth basketball training program — featuring star players from Anadolu’s Efes Pilsen basketball team, and usually reserved for the large cities like Ankara and Istanbul — was brought to Gerze. The Anadolu Group even formed their own NGO — named Gerçek, meaning “real” in Turkish — to coordinate efforts to bus residents to neighboring coal plants, like one in Zonguldak, and alleviate concerns about coal’s environmental impacts.

But not everyone was pleased about the prospects of a coal plant being built in their neighborhood. Opposition started to mobilize. And in Gerze, one group in particular took the mantle of leading the charge.

The organization is known as the Platform for a Green Gerze, or YEGEP for short.

We first caught up with YEGEP at their offices in Gerze. As if to highlight the tension in town, the space was located less than a block away from the Anadolu Group’s NGO, Gerçek.

Inside the YEGEP headquarters, there were about 10 people crowded around a long conference table, talking animatedly and sipping Turkish Chai from miniature, pear-shaped glasses. The walls around them were plastered with propaganda posters, many of them with dark, menacing drawings of nuclear and coal power plants on them. One of the posters featured a little girl crying, clutching a teddy bear which was covered in black ash.

It didn’t take long to figure out who was running the show. After noticing the two of us standing awkwardly in the doorway, the people at the conference table fell silent and turned their heads expectedly towards a middle-aged woman with bleached blonde highlights who was sitting directly in their middle. This was Şengül Şahin, known as the principal architect behind Gerze’s three year-long resistance to the coal plant. She peered at us suspiciously with bright blue eyes. When we started asking questions about her organization, she cut us off quickly. “She wants to know more about you first,” our translator explained. It was only after we passed her interrogation about how we had heard of YEGEP, and who we were writing for, that we were invited to ask our questions at a meeting set for the following day.

Şengül, as we later learned, has been fighting against the Anadolu Group since the beginning. A resident of Gerze, she founded YEGEP as a central platform for community members to voice their concerns against the coal plant. Indeed, while we were in the region, we heard many. At our meeting with Şengül, she summarized what she felt were the most important.

Aside from the aesthetic blight of having a coal-fired power plant along the Sinop coastline, YEGEP and its members are concerned about the pollution the plant would cause for the surrounding environment, and a number of different commercial industries in the area. To begin with, the coal plant would be built right on top of a major source of fresh groundwater for Gerze, which could be contaminated from the plant’s ash deposits. The Anadolu Group contends that the State’s new Erfelek Dam project — scheduled to be completed late this year — will solve the problem by importing fresh water from 20 kilometers away, but Şengül is skeptical.

“Besides, there will be acid rain” she went on. This would have detrimental effects upon local farming, rendering the soil unusable, and damaging the surrounding forest and the Sarkikum Nature Reserve, about 20 miles to the North. In the fishing industry, this is coupled with concerns the plant might raise the sea temperature of the bay directly in front of the site. At a café in Sinop, we met an 85 year old fisherman, Mr. Duran, who echoed the fear that a rise in sea temperature would inhibit fish breeding in the region. This, he told us, is not what he needed when he is already struggling to make a living because of decades of overfishing in the Black Sea.

“Last,” Şengül said, “there are the archeological sites.” She provided us with the name of a California State University researcher, who confirmed that there have been late Roman/early Byzantine pottery discovered in the area.

Whichever one of the grievances they may hold, about 6,000 people in Gerze have signed petitions against the plant, according to Şengül. After she formed YEGEP, her organization started holding regular meetings in town, informing people of the Anadolu Group’s plans. In effect, YEGEP became the central opposition to the Anadolu Group’s better-financed PR campaign.

Protesters guard the site of the proposed coal plant

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