The Gezi Park Protests and the Emerging Mid-East Environmental Movement
This week, the world has its eyes trained on Turkey, as efforts of environmental activists to save Istanbul's Gezi Park from being replaced with a shopping mall have manifested into full-blown anti-government protests. Gezi Park is a small area of 600 or so sycamore trees, located on Istanbul's much-neglected Taksim Square. The Square constitutes the last of Istanbul's public spaces, as the surrounding historical neighborhoods, buildings and parks have already given way to development, razed in favor of shopping malls, luxury hotels, and tourists attractions.
When government officials released plans to build yet another shopping mall—fashioned in the likeness of Istanbul's Ottoman-era Taksim Military Barracks, which once stood in that same place—Turkey's environmentalists were outraged. They set up camp on the square, hoping to blockade construction. The government responded by sending police to force out the protesters with water cannons and tear gas cannisters. The government's reaction only inspired activists to double down their efforts to save the park.
But these protests were no longer about just a park. They were about the government's disregard for the public voice and its prioritization of tourism development over the interests of Turkey's own citizens. The park became a lightening rod for a slew of issues—the government's rampant gentrification of Istanbul, the silencing of dissent, and the militarization of Turkey's police force. At the heart of the Gezi Park protests is a disillusionment of Turkey's residents by their leaders, but these events also serve as evidence of an emerging environmental movement in a region that was seemingly devoid of one.
Environmental sustainability is not a concept often paired with discussions of the Middle East—perhaps understandably, as the region has plenty of human rights violations to contend with first. But this doesn't mean that a Middle Eastern green movement isn't already brewing, albeit slowly—just look at Gezi Park. Environmentalism in the Middle East has arisen not just from a desire to create a more sustainable future but for the need to create a more livable present.
Middle Eastern governments—many of them totalitarian—have provoked the ire of their citizens by sheer neglect of the environment, doing very little to police litter, clean the air, or protect the Middle East's precious Mediterranean beaches. Black smog coats Egypt's sky, making the air unbreathable. Excessive water use in Jordan has dried up its resources. Dubai's rapid growth and development have increased the city's electricity use to unsustainable levels. Middle Easterners are fed up—and they've initiated their own efforts to protect the land.
Cleaning Up Libya
Libya has always been notorious for its littered streets, but the garbage problem reached peak levels during the political uprising of 2011. Government-paid trash collectors stopped working when the regime fell and trash began to pile up in high mounds all over the city. The stink got so bad and the mountains of trash so high that Libyans began burning it.
In the absence of government institutions, Cleaning Up Tripoli was founded. The nonprofit, led by a group of concerned Libyan citizens in the country's capitol of Tripoli, called on Libyans to organize clean-up expeditions around the city to alleviate the trash problem. They also organized demonstrations calling on the new elected government to find a solution for the garbage crisis. The Cleaning Up Tripoli program gained traction and inspired duplicate initiatives all around Libya, including Benghazi. The environmental groups regularly organize beach clean-ups, tree plantings, and campaigns to discourage littering. Libya's trash problem is far from over, but Libyans are that much closer to a more livable Libya.
The Water Wise Women of Jordan
Jordan is ranked the world's fourth poorest in water resources. The Middle Eastern nation suffers from severe, debilitating water scarcity. Water supply is sporadic and what few water resources the country has are often polluted. Enter the Wise Water Women initiative. Developed in 2007, the project aims to combat the water shortage by training women in water harvesting conservation, and reuse; gardening and composting. The women are taught to also train other women in the same water conservation habits. These women then implement "water-conscious" gardens in their villages and towns, irrigating their land with recycled water.
"I used to think that the lack of water and poor service was the government's fault. Now I've realized that we, as a community, are at the core of the problem," said one participant.
Jordan's Bedouin Solar Mamas
Jordan also suffers from an energy crisis—they import 90 percent of their energy, and fuel is extremely expensive for the impoverished villages that exist outside of the country's urban cities. Many villagers cut down trees for firewood, destabilizing the country's ecosystem.
Solar Mamas, a fantastic PBS documentary, highlights the work of Rafea Al Raja and her aunt Seiha Al Raja, two Bedouin women in Jordan who have solarized their village. The women received training as solar engineers at The Barefoot College in India and returned to their homes in Rawdat Al Bandan to start a training center. They've since solarized 80 homes. The government hasn't shown much enthusiasm, but the two mothers are still battling to keep their project alive.
A Turkish Village Goes Off the Grid
Turkey's national electricity company cut off the lights for one village when they didn't pay the bill. The village owed the company more than TRY 33,000 ($18,000), an unmanageable debt. Instead of paying off their debt to get back on the grids, the village's residents decided to stay off. They petitioned the local government to subsidize a TRY 160,000 wind turbine project and contributed TRY 20,000 of their own money to pay off the costs.
The Green Prophet blog notes that this isn't the first time Turks have taken energy sustainability into their own hands: "Last year, a mosque in the village of Büyükeceli installed photovoltaic panels on its roof to protest a nuclear power plant that government officials were trying to build in the area. The country’s first Alternative Energy Races were held in Izmir this year, showcasing a range of solar- and hydrogen-powered vehicles built by teams of Turkish university students and professors."