Is Construction Business in Turkey for People or Against People?

by Sofia

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© Sofia Manukyan

When I started writing about the culture of construction in Turkey, my attention was caught by an article about gentrification plans in London. People expressed their opposition to the luxury brought by “development” plans in Camden which according to them was not only a threat to the local culture, but also posed a problem in terms of affordability of the neighbourhood. “The heart of Camden is being ripped out, pubs are being converted to luxury flats no-one can afford, venues are under threat, the market is flogged off to be a casino (and yet more unaffordable flats). Rents are rising … fast”, read the event statement on Facebook. This reminded me of the situation in Istanbul. 

Following various construction plans in different cities, including in my city – Yerevan, I can follow a specific pattern of city planning which has relatively similar cultural, economic, as well as environmental effects.

Going back to Istanbul. The case of Ilya Avramoglu’s shop is a combination of cultural, as well as economic factors impacted by the construction business.  His 78 years old shop on historical Istiklal (“hottest retail district”) run by three generations of the Jewish family is the last one on Istiklal owned by non-Muslims. However, it is at risk of being closed down as a result of new amendments in the commercial law of Turkey. The latter allows landlords to remove tenants of 10 years or more without a cause, which according to Ilya is a death sentence to families, whose income is based on such small businesses.

The new law is claimed to have no purpose of targeting the minorities of Turkey, such as Jews, Armenians, Greeks. However it is these communities who as a result of being Istanbul’s oldest tradesmen are thus long-term tenants, which in its turn puts them and their incomes at risk in the era of “development”. So minorities are yet another victims of construction business.

Meanwhile, this store is not only an income source for Ilya’s family, but also a witness of tragic historical event of September 6, 1955, when in one night pogroms started on Greeks’ homes and shops. This shop too bears scars of those events and closing it means sweeping away those memories and the history.

Tarlabashi district is another example of Turkish state’s support of construction business disregarding the minorities. In this district economically vulnerable and ethnically diverse population such as Kurds, Syrians, etc, are settled nowadays. They replace the inhabitants long ago expelled from their accommodations – Greeks, Armenians, Jews. These people are, however, under the threat of eviction every day as the urban-renewal project is making its way. Many landlords have thus sold their properties, while many tenants cannot afford to move out.

Evictions of people from their houses, unfair compensations, threats – all in the name of development – have even lead to a suicide attempt of Ismet Hezer. He is the owner of the house in the above photo, who lived there for 45 years. He is now threatened to leave it for not hindering the construction in Tokludede, Istanbul. Ismet Hezer witnessed his neighbours leaving their houses one by one, selling their properties at low prices to developers linked to the government, otherwise threatened by nationalization of those properties. Some other methods of forcing the inhabitants out have been cutting street lightings and blocking roads so that developers proceed with their plans without obstacles. As a result the inhabitants often face forced relocation to suburbs of the city, thus artificially creating classed neighbourhoods. A case of such relocation is the push of Istanbul’s Roma community of 500 years in Sulukule area to the suburbs for “modernizing” this neighbourhood.

The way construction business is carried out these days in Turkey, however, also angers the archaeologists, who complain that often there is secrecy of plans and construction processes which eventually damage the historical monuments. Not only ancient, but also 19th – 20th century buildings with their aesthetic value are not exempt from profit driven construction business.

In 2013 Emek Theater on Istiklal was lost to a shopping mall project, following the fate of Deveaux Apartment that was transformed into yet another mall on Istiklal. If you walk in Tarlabashi, there too you can meet buildings which at some point in the past would have architectural/aesthetic value, however, since the state has shown little attention to this neighbourhood, the buildings are no longer aesthetically valuable, not to mention their safety. Taking into consideration the lax attitude of the state even to its historical and touristic sites under continuous threats of earthquakes, which leaves Istanbul behind many cities in the world with regard to preservation of its historical monuments, no wonder there is such an indifference to its relatively recent history. So the right to enjoy the cultural heritage not only for the locals, but also for all those nationalities who had their contribution in building up that heritage in Turkey is under a threat.

Environment is also directly affected by construction projects that lead to destruction of forests and relocation (if not extinction) of animal habitats.  Around 2.7 million trees have been estimated to be cut as the construction of third airport and third bridge in Istanbul are taking place (aerial video of the construction of the 3rd bridge). As the construction of the third bridge is ongoing, I remember locals telling me of occasions when wild animals swam in Bosphorus, apparently fleeing from destruction of their habitats in northern forest, where the constructions take place. Humans will also be affected as the northern forest is a source of clean air and water for Istanbullites.

Turkey’s presidents’ own 615 million USD palace in Ankara was build on a 50,000 sq/m forest land, after which the regulation banning such constructions were changed accordingly (the Cultural and Natural Heritage Preservation Board amended Decision No. 271 stating that public buildings can be built in historical sites without the need for a reconstruction plan).

Generally there is little respect to nature, even to biosphere reserves such as Machahel basin between Turkey and Georgia, the first and only biosphere reserve in Turkey recognized by UNESCO, where construction of hydroelectric power plant is planned. Or the construction of a five-star hotel near the ancient city of Phaselis, located within the National Park of Beydaglari Olympos (the city aims to enter UNESCO’s world heritage list).

The situation has become particularly paradoxical after it turned out that in July 2014 the Constitutional Court of Turkey had annulled an amendment passed by the government in 2013 allowing various construction projects, such as motorways, bridges (including the 3rd bridge over Bosporus), construction on area of more than 50,000 square/meters, mass housing projects including 2000 units or more proceeding without environmental impact assessment (EIA).  However, the paradox is that this court decision on annulment of this absurd amendment became public only a year later in July 2015. Thus although many projects, including the 3rd bridge, are required to have an EIA, a huge destruction is already caused to the nature.

Yet irresponsible construction business has also caused serious problems in terms of occupational safety and health, as well as right to life. Turkey is on top in Europe in terms of number of workplace accidents per 100,000 workers.  For example in 2013 most of the fatalities in workplace was registered in building construction sector with 296 deaths, while the number of accidents in this sector was 14, 286. The number of deaths in 2012 in this sector was 278, while in 2014 this number was 423.

So as we observe, irresponsible construction business in Turkey interferes with number of human rights, some of which are mentioned above: right to housing (Article 11 of the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)), right to take part in cultural life, which includes the state’s obligation to preserve, protect, develop and transmit cultures to the future generations (Article 15 of ICESCR), right to work, which includes not only safe working conditions (Article 7 of ICESCR), but also right to the opportunity to gain his/her living (Article 6 of ICESCR), adequate standards of living including safe environment (Article 11 and 12 of ICESCR).

In fact there are more issues that can be included in this list of violations, however, one aspect necessary to be mentioned is that private and public sectors go hand in hand in Turkey. This has been mainly done under the veil of corruption and opaqueness. It has been the pro-governmental (or rather say pro-AKP (majority ruling party until June, 2015)) contracting firms that have received licenses for realizing their projects. And of course part of their incomes have been directed to their AKP “guardians” if not directly, then through their foundations in forms of donations.

Moreover, the Housing Development Administration of Turkey (TOKI) that has been associated with the General Directorate of Building Land Office, agency that manages public land, has misused 400m USD worth of assets according to a report. This body was placed under the prime minister’s personal control and was granted powers to acquire, rezone and dispose of private and public lands. As a result it built more than half a million homes and has gained 7bn USD. Through this body the AKP has been able to take valuable public and private properties and transfer it to companies that are linked to it.

In fact TOKI is also carrying out activities which many concerned people call as white genocide, as it carries out construction on sites, such as Kale district in Mush, where Armenians lived before the Genocide.  The erasure of the remaining buildings wipes the last signs of Armenians once living here, thus reshaping the memory of locals about the past, which is already shaken by the state propaganda and educational program at schools. Only thanks to the locals (mainly Kurds) knowing from their parents and grandparents that Armenians once lived here makes some memories survive.

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