Two new directives that went into force on Thursday that further facilitate development and commercial activity in Turkish forests are the last of 10 changes made to the Forest Law in the last decade that will likely prove disastrous for the country.
On Friday, two new directives removing restrictions to mining activities and development in Turkey’s forests were published in the Official Gazette. These changes opened the country’s forests to any kind of non-forestry activities, from oil exploration to building education and health facilities as well as building underground storage facilities.
Previously, all forests that are home to endemic and rare ecosystems had been closed to mining activity. This is no longer the case and many other changes have also been introduced with the directive that experts say puts Turkey’s 21 million hectares of forested land at risk of destruction. The Ministry of Forestry and Water Affairs, however, claims that the directives don’t pose a threat to forested land. However, experts who analyzed the changes for the Radikal daily say that the changes seek to encourage investors to pursue and conduct commercial activities in the nation’s forests.
The directives adopted on April 18 make changes to Article 16 of the Law on Forests, which restricted mining activity in forests, and to Articles 17 and 18, which specify the rules regarding non-forestry activities other than mining on forested land. The directives are dozens of pages long, and include many changes that contain numerous threats to Turkey’s forests, according to experts from the Rural Environment and Forestry Problems Research Association (KIRÇEV), who compared the old and new versions of the directives for the Radikal daily.
Forest engineers Ahmet Demirtaş and Salih Usta said the two directives and the many modifications will certainly cause damage in the forests and lead to deforestation. The experts say that according to prior directives, a commission that was part of a regional forest directorate was in charge of determining whether there is any public benefit to carrying out activity in the forestland. The commissions could also suggest alternative locations for projects that were deemed not to bring any public benefit. The new directives only state that whether there is any public benefit will be “examined” for a given project, but there is no indication of which body will do the “examination” and by what method.
According to former directives, an investor had to pay a fee for work carried out in a forested area within a month. Under the new directives, the period to remit this fee has been extended to three months. The two engineers say this makes it easier for capital holders to carry out mega-projects such as the third bridge.
The new directives also allow debris generated during construction to be stored inside a forest with permission from the General Directorate of Forestry. In return for allowing debris storage, the Ministry of Forestry will only require a reforestation fee and no payment for debris storage. The two experts noted that debris storage has a devastating effect on forests.
Under the previous rules, if an investor changed his mind and chose not to invest in a particular area, the surety they had paid would not be reimbursed. With the new directives, the state promises to refund any sureties submitted during the contract period.
The former directives also made it compulsory for the investor to restore any damage to the environment in the event the project is stopped by a court order. According to the new directives, the investors are no longer required to restore the land to its former state in the event of any damage if the project is curtailed under such circumstances.
The former directives also required officials from the regional forestry directorates to inspect the areas for which permits had been issued. This function has now been given to private forestry offices. In other words, a primary duty of the state has been given to the private sector, which is a violation of the Constitution, the two forestry experts said.
The new directives also allow allocating forested land given to state agencies to third parties, something not possible under the old rules.
In addition, a time limit of 10 days has now been inserted in which regional forestry directorates must respond to queries from investors regarding permission to conduct commercial activity on forested land.
The new directives also abolish the local commissions that evaluate the feasibility of a project in terms of public benefit, and leave that task to “assessment commissions,” that are more centralized. In other words, the decisions to allow commercial activity will now be up to the ministry, not local directorates.
The directives also include a new concept of the construction of health or educational facilities through a public-private partnership and gives a “superior right” to the contractor during the construction phase of such facilities. However, it is not clear what this superior right might entail. The forest engineers also said that the directives did not explicitly speak of hospitals or schools, but merely said health or educational facilities.
The directives say that the size of the area for reforestation should be twice the area of the forest allocated. However, forestry engineers say that Turkey is home to nine of the world’s 100 warm temperate forests. Planting trees over a 20-hectare area is not equivalent to the destruction of 10 hectares of such precious forests.