After a cushy night on the Ankara – Adana Mavi Cukurova night train, we jumped straight into a coach headed east to Antakya. Once the grand city of Antioch benefiting from trade routes running between Europe & South Asia, medium-sized Antakya is the last Turkish town before Syria, and the source of an ongoing border dispute between Syria and Turkey.
With the temperature display hovering around 34 C, our bus passes field upon field of roasted brown sunflowers to our south, in the fertile Cukurova plain. After being reclaimed from marshland in the late 19th and early 20th Century, the plain became a malaria-filled hell for poor migrant workers from the mountains to our north and the site of local resistance against brutal landlords, described by Yashar Kemal in Ince Memed & other novels:
“I’ve been picking cotton in this accursed Çukurova for fifteen years […] and I’ve never known such a heat nor seen so many mosquitoes.” […] “We’ve never seen such wonderful cotton either, Anakız sister,” [Memidik] murmured. “The hotter the weather, the better the cotton crop.”
Today Cukurova’s soil produces the watermelons piled up outside London’s Turkish & Kurdish corner stores, and continues to rely on seasonal Kurdish migrant workers.
As the bus curves around the Bay of Iskenderun from North to East, orange groves with thick green leaves and purple thistles line the roadside, with teasing views of the sea through the trees. Six supertankers can be seen waiting just off the coast, ready to collect oil from BP’s Heydar Aliev Marine Terminal – named after the former Azeri dictator and father of the current one. Each ship will collect 500,000 barrels of thick black crude oil, before chugging across the Mediterranean and delivering its load to refineries at Fawley (near Southampton), Trieste or Augusta in Sicily over the next ten days. Together, the supertankers will move half a million tons of crude closer to the atmosphere.
Fourteen days previously, these 500,000 tons of oil were neither in barrels, tankers nor split up into any type of corporate storage container. They lay still, part of a large viscous mass of former organic material, thousands of metres deep beneath the Caspian, as they had for many millennia.
Thirteen days previously, the pressure changed abruptly with a strong suction force, and the crude began to move first sideways towards a funnel and then straight up – slurp – several kilometres through wide pipes – to the sea surface. One of BP’s Azeri-Guneshli-Chirag rigs out in the middle of the Caspian was sucking it up. Once on the move, BP didn’t let the heavy black liquid stop. Eight power stations forced the 500,000 tons at 6 kilometres every hour across the Azeri desert, Georgia’s Borjomi mountains & nature reserve, Turkey’s north-eastern plateaus, along the Euphrates and then down to the Cukurova – ready to be sold on in tanker loads of either 80,000 or 130,000 tonnes.
Across the bay, a plume of smoke ascends from Isken coal plant – financed by the Germany’s Export Credit Agency Hermes with over $700 million in 2000 and built by Siemens in the years after that. BP’s oil terminal and Siemen’s coal plant were followed by various other industrial projects. A myriad of confusing jetties now protrude out into the bay, one next to the other. Fisherfolk and villagers believe that the industrialisation of their coastline and resulting chemical emissions and discharges is causing crops to die and killing fish. Several cases have been filed in local courts demanding compensation.
Briefly, I catch a glimpse of Burnaz beach – used by the people of nearby Erzin to escape from the oppressive summer heat and dip into the sea. Although I can’t spot them at this distance, on a hot summer day like today there’ll be boys playing football in the sand, teenage girls rafting in the surf on inflatables and families introducing toddlers to the water.
The Turkish state and several coal companies are planning to build 5 new coal power stations [Termik Santral] on this four kilometre stretch. This will destroy Erzin’s beach and poison the nearby orange groves – the primary local product and source of income. The five plants together will total more than 4000 MW – more than Drax, the largest coal plant in Britain.
There is strong local opposition in an area not known for resisting, with local residents particularly worried about the health impacts. The first demonstration had up to 1,000 people on it, with several protests since, led by the Erzin Volunteers Group. National support has come from Greenpeace Mediterranean in Istanbul, with the Rainbow Warrior arriving to block coal deliveries to the existing Isken plant in September 2008.
Over 40 new coal plants are planned across Turkey – almost all to rely on imported fuel from South Africa and Russia. Local community campaigns resisting the proposed plants have sprung up everywhere, and are increasingly linked up.
The Cukurova is known for its oranges and its prawns – the heavy industrialisation heralded by BP’s arrival threatens to change this.