In recent years, the rise of climate activism has galvanized global civil society. As the consequences of climate change become more visible, protests have spread to push for immediate climate action. Governments have often responded by adopting harsh measures against climate protests. In some democratic contexts, this has translated into stricter legislation against demonstrations. In authoritarian regimes, climate movements have fallen prey to the systematic reduction of the space for civil society and civic activism.
While creeping authoritarianism makes climate activism harder in many countries, it is authoritarian leaders’ scant concern for the environment that drives citizens to mobilize. In such contexts, local communities might initially rise up to protect their livelihoods, but their protests often become a platform for political contestation. It is therefore instructive to examine how far climate activism can boost democratic dynamics.
Turkey is an important case in this regard. It has suffered one of the severest democratic regressions of all countries; it has witnessed particularly active civic mobilization in response to this regression; and it is a country where ecological problems have become more serious and urgent. Drawing on a series of interviews conducted virtually in March and April 2022 with Turkish climate activists and social movement experts, this case study provides important findings and lessons for the future trajectories of green activism in authoritarian contexts.
Turkey’s green movement has grown and strengthened over time. It is becoming a notable vector of confrontation against authoritarian politics because of the strong link between ecological degradation and the increasingly authoritarian rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). But while green activism has adopted innovative tactics, it suffers from the same repressive attacks by those in power as other areas of civil society do. Direct climate action and organizing is spreading but is not yet strong enough to have a major impact at the political level in Turkey.
Features of the Turkish Green Movement
Green activism is one of the most popular platforms for citizens’ mobilization in Turkey, but it is not the only one. The peace and human rights movements remain relatively active, and the feminist movement is the only one that still manages to gather large crowds. In the last few months, citizens have mobilized to protest the country’s economic crisis and the government’s fiscal policy, which are eroding their salaries.
Three features set the Turkish green movement apart. The first is the nature of the environmental threats that push citizens to mobilize. Pollution, ecological degradation, and climate change threaten the physical environment in which communities have prospered for centuries and are a powerful driver for those communities’ mobilization. Because of this, local groups resisting large infrastructural and environmental extraction projects have always been among the liveliest parts of the Turkish green movement, having emerged in the 1970s and 1980s in reaction to the uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources that successive governments promoted to sustain the country’s accelerated industrialization.
Second, the Turkish green movement is extremely varied. Local resistance movements keep mushrooming across the country. A professionalized environmental civil society emerged in the 1990s, when international organizations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Greenpeace opened Turkish offices and Turkey’s largest domestic environmental group, the Turkish Foundation for Combating Soil Erosion, for Reforestation and for the Protection of Natural Habitats (TEMA), was established.
Over the years, small nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been created in Turkey to conduct local, network-oriented activities. International networks have started to coordinate their climate and environmental advocacy, while national platforms have led the work of campaigning against the use of nuclear power and coal. Student movements have mobilized the youth to call for better climate policies, and a new green party has been established.
In this multiactor context, the term “green activism” is meant in this article as a loose term to include the entirety of Turkey’s green civil society, from local protest movements to professional or community-oriented civil society organizations.
Third, environmental protests stand out because they often relate to more than environmental threats. In a creeping authoritarian system such as that created in Turkey by the AKP, poor environmental policies are functional for maintaining the government’s tight grip on power. This situation provides the green movement with a larger platform around which other social forces can coalesce. Much green activism today relates to the government’s megaprojects: By calling out the government’s rent seeking in its large infrastructure projects, activists point to corruption. By protesting the lawlessness of environmental impact assessments, they highlight the lack of the rule of law. And by denouncing a lack of public consultations, they signal bad governance.
The Shrinking Space for Civil Society
Turkey’s green movement has been extremely diverse since the beginning, but in the last decade, the progressive dismantling of the country’s rule-of-law architecture has accentuated and accelerated its fragmentation. A series of laws have “strengthened the state’s ability to prevent and suppress protests, rallies, and mass movements,” in the words of a joint report by three think tanks. These laws have resulted in a tense and uncertain political atmosphere. Waves of mass detentions and a prolonged state of emergency have considerably shrunk the space for civic activists across the board, forcing them to reduce the size, scope, and ambition of their organizations. For environmental activists, this has meant abandoning large demonstrations and high-visibility protests in favor of smaller-scale, more locally focused initiatives.
The 2013 protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and the 2016 failed military coup mark two turning points in this respect. In 2013, the rise—and repression—of the Gezi Park movement signaled a decisive acceleration of the government’s dismantling of Turkey’s system of checks and balances. Activists took to the streets against the government’s plan to demolish a park and build a shopping mall; their protest soon became one of the largest antigovernment demonstrations in Turkish history. The government resorted to all the tools at its disposal to repress the protests: in the following months, the police, the judiciary, and the public administration were purged, while independent media, civil society organizations, free thinkers, and lawyers started being systematically harassed.
Three years later, the failed military coup in July 2016 was another nail in the coffin for Turkey’s rule-of-law architecture. Having survived the coup, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan kicked off a massive purge that led to the investigation of around 150,000 civil servants; some 70,000 were facing trial as of mid-2019, some without charge. The failed coup was followed by a two-year-long state of emergency that further reduced the space for civil society organizations to come together and demonstrate. Even though the state of emergency ended in 2018, provisions granting extraordinary powers to government authorities remain to this day integrated into Turkish law. Since 2016, more than 1,500 foundations and associations have been shut down in Turkey, and in December 2021, 770 NGOs had their assets frozen on grounds of financing terrorism.
Three Trends Shaping Turkish Green Activism
In this fragmented scenario, empirical observations and interviews with local activists reveal three trends that are shaping Turkish green civil society. First, local resistance and protest movements continue to emerge, sometimes capturing national attention. They have the potential to galvanize coalitions across civil society. Second, actors across the board are recalibrating their operations to survive in a space of reduced civil and political liberties. Third, new organizations and social actors have emerged—mostly in urban settings—in response to the global wave of climate protests that has reinvigorated the international climate movement in the last few years.
Resisting: A Continued Tradition of Local Struggle
Turkish citizens started mobilizing against exploitative infrastructure projects in the 1970s and 1980s. A systematic mapping of these protest movements has never been attempted, but if such a map existed, it would reveal that they punctuate Turkey’s geography and history. From the resistance movement against a planned coal-fired power plant in Gerze on the Black Sea to protests against coal extraction in Soma on the Mediterranean coast to the popular movement opposing the Ilısu Dam and the flooding of the ancient city of Hasankeyf in Turkey’s southeast, local environmental protests are one of the most dynamic forms of social unrest in Turkey. Over time, they have involved citizens in rural and urban areas, of conservative and progressive persuasions, and of all backgrounds, including ethnic and linguistic minorities.
One of the most influential local resistance movements has been that for the protection of the Ida Mountains, located 30 miles to the south of the Dardanelles strait on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. In July 2019, a small group of activists gathered to protest against a gold-mining project that would cause mass deforestation, pollute land and water resources, and devastate the local ecosystem. Coordinated by the platform Kazdağları Kardeşliği (The Brotherhood of the Ida Mountains), the protest grew quickly to include tens of thousands of demonstrators by August.
The movement was especially visible because it followed the opposition’s electoral success in the spring 2019 municipal elections, which culminated in Ekrem İmamoğlu’s election as mayor of Istanbul. Galvanized by these successes, opposition politicians joined the protests on Mount Ida. In October 2019, the Turkish Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources did not renew mining concessions to the Canadian company Alamos Gold, which nevertheless has been occupying the area ever since.
The mobilization against Canal Istanbul—the most ambitious megaproject promoted by Erdoğan—is another example of a local resistance movement that has brought together a large coalition of actors and gained national attention. It is the project’s size and visibility that make it exceptional: the government plans to build a 28-mile-long artificial waterway that would connect the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, creating an alternative maritime route to the Bosporus. In response, civil society actors who oppose the project created the platform Ya Kanal Ya İstanbul (Either the Canal or Istanbul). Almost 150 civil society organizations support this platform, which provides the best example of how an environmentally motivated mobilization can encourage other civic actors beyond green activism circles. Reflecting this diversity, the Ya Kanal Ya İstanbul manifesto not only puts forward environmental demands against the destruction of maritime ecosystems and agricultural areas but also aims to increase transparency—by looking into corruption allegations—and social justice.
In most cases, local protesters would probably reject any association with a national green movement. Their primary motivation is the defense of their own endangered communities. But citizens have learned over the years that it is only by being connected to national environmental and climate platforms that they can elevate their cause, give it visibility, and secure successful outcomes. However, even once these connections are made, protesters are careful to position themselves as working for the common good, away from the government-opposition dichotomy. For example, activists usually regard engagement with local politicians from across the political spectrum as a useful tool. Only when an environmental cause captures the attention of the national audience does the participation of the opposition become more visible, the rhetoric more divisive, and the government more aggressive.
Adapting: Becoming More Community-Oriented or Professionalized
As a result of two separate trends, parts of Turkey’s green civil society have become more community-oriented, while other parts are becoming increasingly professionalized.
Since the restriction of civil liberties beginning in the early 2010s, Turkish citizens have started being more cautious when manifesting dissent, be it on the streets or on social media. Activist groups have adopted new strategies to adapt to these new conditions, progressively abandoning large demonstrations and high-visibility protests in favor of small-scale, locally focused initiatives.
Political scientist Özge Zihnioğlu has provided a detailed overview of the adaptation strategies of Turkish activists since the Gezi Park protests. “Even though activists emphasize the importance of people coming together for a cause,” she notes, “many people would not join civic groups solely to participate in a protest.” By focusing on community support and events, activists have been looking for alternative ways to consolidate and expand their networks.
A good example of this tendency in the environmental movement is Northern Forest Defense (KOS), an NGO that was born out of the Gezi Park protests and focuses on protecting the ecological sustainability of the area to the north of Istanbul. KOS members have kept up their activities, for example by organizing forest hikes as a way to present their fight to new groups. Another strategy to keep members involved has been to adopt an organizational structure that mirrors that of more traditional civil society organizations, to engage activists and volunteers in longer-term projects such as focus groups and the development of action plans.
For different reasons, other parts of Turkey’s green civil society have become more professionalized. This has happened because the deterioration of the rule of law in Turkey has coincided with an unprecedented global emphasis on climate advocacy. After the December 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris, international civil society organizations and networks working on carbon-emissions reductions scaled up their operations worldwide to coordinate action at the national and international levels.
Turkey, which uses coal as a primary source of energy and has a long history of anticoal demonstrations, has been a natural target of this outreach. Organizations such as the Climate Action Network Europe and the European Climate Foundation have established a presence in Turkey, and while their operations have remained small, their presence has been an incentive for green civil society organizations to orient their work toward Turkey’s climate goals. Symbolically, the last large climate demonstration in Turkey took place in May 2016 in Aliağa, the capital of a heavily polluted industrial district on the Mediterranean coast, under the banner of the international campaign Break Free From Coal 2016, which was orchestrated by the 350.org movement. Since then, anticoal networks have been created and strengthened thanks to external professional expertise and, at times, funding. This, in turn, has brought more professionalism to the ranks of Turkish climate activism.
Connecting: Linking Up With the Global Green Wave
A third tendency shaping green activism in Turkey is the emergence of new forms of climate engagement—part of a global trend that started in 2018, when both Swedish activist Greta Thunberg’s school strike for climate (later the Fridays for Future campaign) and the global environmental movement Extinction Rebellion (XR) were established. In a matter of months, these two movements had achieved worldwide reach, and both are represented today in Turkey.
Turkish students were quick to join Thunberg, and 134 Fridays for Future demonstrations have taken place in Turkey since March 2019. Three years later, however, the Turkish movement is struggling to retain mass participation. Ninety-five school strikes took place in 2019 alone, but there were only four in 2020 and twenty-eight in 2021. Restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic played an obvious role in this decline, but numbers have remained low into 2022: the movement struggles to attract large crowds in the way it did in 2019—a trend that has been observed in other countries as well.
Nevertheless, student groups remain an important part of the Turkish climate movement. New youth platforms have emerged, such as Youth for Climate Turkey, which has linked up with other parts of green civil society, for example by setting up campaigns on topics such as reducing the use of coal.
Volunteers established the Turkish branch of XR and started translating the organization’s materials into Turkish shortly after XR was born, at the end of 2018. In a series of interviews in 2019 and 2020, activists described the organization’s goals as increasing awareness of the climate emergency and having the Turkish government design a path to zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. While the first goal is consistent with XR’s global platform, the time line for reaching zero emissions has been adapted to the Turkish context; globally, the movement asks for this objective to be reached by 2025.
Like the Fridays for Future movement, XR Turkey has lost some of its initial drive and energy. One reason for this could be the difficulty of adapting to Turkey’s repressive environment, which shows little tolerance of XR’s trademark social disobedience. “Detaining a large number of people to get onto the agenda is an effective method in England, but not in Turkey,” activists say. For this reason, XR Turkey oriented its actions toward art and music, organizing creative demonstrations to help citizens grasp the consequences of the climate crisis. The group’s departure from the international network’s original purposes might explain why it progressively lost its momentum.
Across the board, local groups that are flourishing in connection to global climate movements seem to be most attractive to the younger parts of the population. Because of this, and thanks to their use of social media, these groups tend to achieve immediate success and visibility but are then short lived. Activists eventually lose interest, move on, or connect to other parts of the green movement.
The Ruling Party and the Environment
In democratic systems, governments are identified as playing a role in environmental degradation. They are responsible for managing their respective country’s environmental and energy policies; they sign off on large infrastructure projects; and they can assign concessions to private companies for the exploitation of the country’s natural resources.
In authoritarian settings, the lack of political alternation makes the connection between governments and environmental degradation even stronger. The corrupt way in which licenses and permits are typically awarded is an aggravating factor. Additionally, the shrinking space for civil society reinforces the oppositional dynamics between mobilized citizens and the government. If citizens are not allowed the space to express dissent, every contestation of public decisions—including those that are to the detriment of the environment—will be seen by the government as a radical act.
All of these dynamics are at play in Turkey, where the green agenda is heavily politicized and repressed by a government that paints itself as the only true repository of environmentalism.
The nexus between environmental degradation and Turkey’s rising authoritarianism has three main facets. The first is the strong connection between environmental policies and the social transformation that sustained the emergence and consolidation of AKP rule from the early 2000s onward. Part of the AKP’s initial success was in providing a modern way of life for the millions of rural migrants living in Turkish cities. To do so, the government embarked on a vast process of urban transformation and renewal that changed the look of many cities. Hundreds of thousands of new homes were built in addition to new airports, highways, high-speed railroads, hospitals, universities, and museums. Several laws were changed to speed up this transformation: controls were reduced, consultations forgotten about.
Second, to keep its electoral base happy and sustain its continued social ascent, the AKP has pursued markedly developmentalist policies to boost Turkey’s growth. Crucial decisions—such as the push for the production and consumption of energy from coal, investments in nuclear and hydroelectric power to the detriment of local ecosystems, and the opening up of public lands to private development—have had devastating effects on the country’s environment. It is not only Turkish cities that have changed their look under AKP rule: forests have been cut down, mountains carved apart, and rivers deviated to make space for the government’s infrastructure megaprojects.
Third, the AKP has used the resources mobilized by this accelerated industrialization to tighten its grip on power. By “distort[ing] the rules and procedures for transparency,” overrelying on public-private partnerships to build large-scale infrastructure, and using state-controlled concessions, the party has created the conditions for redistributing considerable wealth to a small, tightly knit network of party supporters and allies. Most infrastructure megaprojects, from Istanbul’s third airport and bridge to Canal Istanbul, have been tainted by allegations of corruption and misconduct. Meanwhile, several of Erdoğan’s allies appear to have increased their wealth thanks to tenders and incentives received in the fields of construction, mining, and energy.
Tackling Green Activism Head On
In this context, the year 2013 was when Erdoğan decided to tackle the green movement head on. That summer, protesters across the country started contesting the AKP’s model of governance after a decade of the party being in power. As Carnegie’s Marc Pierini put it, “the Turkish government [was] being asked to account for the environmental and socioeconomic repercussions of its actions and to give the people a greater voice at the local level in the decisionmaking process.” In this sense, environmentalism started to pose a serious threat to the Turkish leadership.
The government’s response left little doubt about where the AKP stood on environmentalism—and on its own right to power. In the country’s increasingly polarized political climate, Erdoğan presented himself as the only custodian of true environmentalism and painted the mobilization as just another ploy to attack the ruling party. He called the activists terrorists and insisted on the legitimacy of the government’s actions, which was based on the AKP’s overwhelming success in the 2011 general election.
From that point onward, the role of civil society in policymaking processes and policy consultations, on which Turkey had been improving its track record as part of its EU accession process, was progressively reduced. The government started to view civil society organizations, including environmental ones, increasingly through a partisan lens and to dismiss them as opposition agents, ignoring scientific evidence or policy suggestions and diverting funding away from critical actors. Funding is a central point and another channel through which authoritarian systems constrain such movements. If activists have difficulty in fundraising domestically, they will start relying on foreign donors, which reinforces a government’s claim that they are foreign agents working to take down the regime.
The Turkish green movement has suffered from the shrinking space for civil society just like any other social movement in the country—struggling to grow and become more cohesive, limited in its scope and reach as a mobilizing force, yet striving to play an effective role in the political debate. On the domestic political front, the government took specific action to prevent the establishment of a Turkish green party. In the past, two Turkish green parties failed to overcome the obstacles that Turkey’s electoral law creates to avoid the emergence of smaller parties. Notably, a party must win at least 10 percent of the vote—a figure that will be lowered to 7 percent in early 2023—in a parliamentary election to enter the legislature and must have established a presence in at least half of Turkey’s eighty-one provinces at least six months before the election.
Turkey’s third green party, which was established in September 2020, would likely have encountered the same hurdles. This time, however, the Ministry of Interior made an active decision not to approve the party’s registration—a prerequisite for it to operate in Turkey. The reasons for this move are unclear: other parties requested registration after the greens and obtained it within a few days or weeks. While the government has so far offered no explanation, fear that a green party would potentially succeed among the younger part of the electorate seems the most obvious reason for the decision.
Will Green Activism Save Turkey’s Democracy?
In Turkey’s creepingly authoritarian political context, green civil society remains a vector of social unrest. This is despite the constraints imposed by the government, showing that such activism is possible in restrictive, polarized contexts.
Green activism thrives because of the nature of environmental threats: Turkish citizens see their forests burn, their mountains hollowed out, and their valleys submerged. They mobilize out of a primary concern for their communities’ survival. But because of the link between ecological mismanagement and authoritarian rule, green protests can become the platform for a contestation that goes beyond the environment and includes demands for more inclusive and more transparent governance.
Yet, the obstacles the Turkish government has put in the way of civil society prevent the green movement from becoming more cohesive and effective. Even if green activists continue to mobilize and call for a greener and fairer future for their country, they will not stop further authoritarian backsliding. In the lead-up to Turkey’s next general election, however, environmental activists might provide some energy and tools to confront the Turkish government on issues that are crucial to citizens. Green activism might not save Turkish democracy, but it is essential to keeping it alive.
Carnegie Europe is grateful to the Open Society Foundations for their support of this work.