Guarding mountains from concrete

By Ezgican Özdemir

Over the past months, residents of the coastal region of Kyrenia, northern Cyprus, have been fiercely protesting against what they deem yet another state imposition on society, ignoring the needs of the people in favor of those of investors: sacrificing culture and beauty for profit and concrete.

Source: Kyrenia Initiative Facebook Page. Cyprus, neo-liberalism, protests, tourism, Kyrenia

Source: Kyrenia Initiative Facebook Page

On September 9, just a few days before the week-long Eid al-Adha holiday, during which all of state departments would close, the Council of Ministers of the de-facto state of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) managed to push through a last minute amendment. This amendment was of a decree (emirname) that deeply affects Kyrenians, if not all Turkish Cypriot residents of the north, and has stimulated widespread protest across the region.

The amendment entails a seemingly benign change in the geographical zoning of the Kyrenia region along the north coast, spanning from Karşıyaka (Vasileia) tucked under the shadow of the Beşparmak mountain range (Pentadactylos) to the sandy beaches of Esentepe (Agios Amvrosios). Underlying this move are planned alterations in the height of buildings within this area.

Cyprus, neo-liberalism, protests, tourism, Kyrenia

Source: Kyrenia Initiative Facebook Page

As a region with no urban ‘master plan’ since the inception of TRNC in 1974, Kyrenia now faces what some aggravated residents have described as their own ‘Great Wall of China’ along the northern coastal strip, made up of towering hotel blocks, a grim contrast to the picturesque landscape.

Urban development of Kyrenia has long been an point of contention. On the one hand, private investors and hotel owners perceive the region as a haven for profit, while the state points out the supposedly dire need for such investments in the name of improving tourism. On the other hand, residents feel increasingly suffocated by the tall, sterile buildings towering over and destroying the natural beauty of their neighborhoods, engulfing their formerly untouched beaches.  

The protests erupted when the historical Zeyko olive oil factory building was given to a private investor to turn into a hotel, without permission from the General Director of Ancient Arts and Museums.

An architecturally and culturally significant monument for Kyrenia, the building was the first modern olive oil factory in northern Cyprus. With only its old chimney standing, the old building is now almost entirely destroyed and construction of a seven story-hotel building is well underway. But the destruction of Zeyko is only the beginning, as the decree amendment provides for further drastic changes to the whole Kyrenia coastal region.

In the month since the amendment was passed, the Kyrenia Initiative has been founded. According to activists, the Initiative will work against the amendment and prove that the people of greater Kyrenia are firmly opposed to this change. The region has been fraught with such ill advised and seemingly ad hoc projects over the years.

Critics have raised issues over the lack of urban planning in the region, which is exacerbated by a high population density and tourism. In response, the government has largely relied on their position in a grey-zone, as an unrecognized state. Both arguments should be subject to critique, however one issue that endures in Cyprus, and indeed, across the modern world, is the battle between law and morality. The TRNC, like many before it, has used its secret weapon, legislation, to legitimise all manner of clandestine interests.

For example, in 1989, the Development Plan Law (İmar Yasası) – law 55/89 – came into effect. It states that in the absence of a master plan, the Urban Planning Office affiliated with the Ministry of Tourism and Environment is given the authority to  promulgate “a special development plan decree” (özel imar emri), commonly known as emirname. These decrees allow for the zoning and planning of the region and are subject to change if and when there is a need. So this extremely malleable law, with state actors hiding behind it, essentially paves the way for profit seeking businesses to exploit the land. Moreover, and a continuing theme in privatisation and its dissidents, is that high ranking officials may be shareholders themselves.

Reflecting upon his experience within the month of August, Birol, a mining engineer who now acts as one of the spokesperson of the Kyrenia Initiative, summarises the process leading up to this amendment: “The Law initially stated that in two years, the Master Plan of provinces are supposed to be officiated. This simply did not happen because of the constant change of governments. Over the years, these emirname amendments became common practice.”

“Right-leaning governments had this habit of distributing certain advantages: credit, employment, citizenship, etc. In the 2000s, the fiscal penetration by the Turkish state brought heavy investment on hotel complexes, casinos and universities, that no doubt unearthed rent-seeking goals through exploitation of northern Cypriot land” claims Birol, pointing out recent demographic growth in the region.

Indeed, the Kyrenia region’s population and density has grown exponentially over the past few decades, making the need for a Master Plan even more pressing. But with no such plan in sight, the decrees were amended and the land transformed into a neo-liberal playground for Turkish and foreign tourism investors..

Meanwhile, Fikri Ataoğlu, the TRNC Minister of Tourism and Environment, passed on some unsolicited advice to Kyrenians, saying that they should simply live in the outskirts of the Beşparmak Mountain range and let casinos and hotels take over the coast for the sake of “livening up tourism”.

His words are often ridiculed by members of the Initiative, but his remarks proved to Kyrenians once again that their distrust of state institutions and rent-seeking officials was not unfounded.

Indeed, Kyrenians learnt about the amendment “merely by chance” says Birol. A member of the Chamber of City Planners saw a call for a consultation meeting about the amendment in the hidden corner of a small local newspaper. Shocked, he took a photo of it and posted it on Facebook where it quickly went viral amongst Kyrenians, from activists to civil society at large.

Birol took the lead and founded the Initiative, after having long conversations with opposition parties, chambers, engineers, and other interest groups. In the end, the Initiative decided to comprise itself not of organizations, but of civilians. It organised protests, visited municipalities and spoke to residents of Kyrenia. After successfully postponing the mandatory consultation meeting that the City Planning office was to hold, the Initiative effectively raised the attention of national media and the whole of north Cyprus.

However, the consultation meeting was not postponed indefinitely. On September 1, the City Planning Office held a meeting to supposedly inform and consult with Kyrenian residents. Faika Deniz Paşa, human rights lawyer and Kyrenian local,  took the floor, giving a speech that according to many Initiative activists and citizens, resembled “an introduction to morality and human rights”.

Faika deplores the indirect ramifications of the building of more hotels in Kyrenia, from human rights violations to workers’ needs to have health care and their families’ social care. Her commentary, amongst others who spoke that evening, did not resonate with the consultants from the City Planning Office however, despite similar criticisms from many local chambers and unions.

Zerrin Kabaoğlu, an architect and a YKP-fem activist, who along with Birol leads the Initiative gives a clear but cutting picture of what the Minister and other like-minded state officials mean by tourism when they proclaim Kyrenia to be ‘the city of tourism’.

“Usually coming in as a group with a tour agency with an all-inclusive price, the tourists bring in high sums of cash to gamble in the casino, use hotel facilities, without leaving the premises and they usually leave with a sad face having lost most of their money. If you don’t believe me, go see them on Monday early morning at Ercan airport.”

The Kyrenia coast is already plastered with hotels and casinos that attract foreign tourists, mostly from Turkey. Zerrin claims that there is no data on either the population or economic growth rates that prove tourism is key part of the Kyrenian economy. There is also no reasonable projection as to how the rising population would be accommodated in terms of potential infrastructure and environmental issues.

The uncontrolled and unmonitored population growth and the mushrooming number of hotels and casinos not only offends the eye, but is also are a point of concern for environmentalist groups.

Zerrin interrogates the underlying motives of so many new hotel constructions and echoes the North Cyprus Hoteliers Association, who recently released information that the hotel occupancy in north Cyprus for the month of August averaged 65 percent. The Association’s analysis is that the high percentage is caused by the almost 100 percent occupancy of hotels in Karpaz region by local Cypriot tourists. “These figures simply show that we do not need hotels for the sake of ‘tourism’; yet people bend all the rules and fact so as to accommodate certain people’s rent-seeking motives on the island” Zerrin said firmly.

Kyrenia functions with these decree amendments. Developers and contractors rely on them, private investors utilise them – all, apparently, quite legally. But Birol and Zerrin both agree that the lack of quantifiable data on Kyrenian development and lack of accountability from government officials will lead to catastrophe.

TRNC President Mustafa Akıncı also questioned the benefits of this decree amendment for public welfare. “If we cannot say yes to this, then there must be a wrongdoing here. [The decree amendment] will be harmful in the long run, and it will trap Kyrenia under a silhouette of tall dark growing buildings” he stated. The Chamber of City Planners is now preparing to take the fight to the administrative court and call for a cancellation of the amendment.

Summer of 2016 was certainly the summer of activism for Northern Cyprus. Turkish Cypriots seem to have found their voice in many aspects, not letting any state — neither their own de-facto state, nor their self-appointed guarantor, the Turkish state — exploit their land, people, or resources.

We have seen this with the Reddediyoruz movement, and the Kyrenia Initiative holds proof that Turkish Cypriots are adamant in taking a stand against invasive state power. This time it is a fight against the ruin of their environment, and their cultural and historical sites. The Initiative members and supporters ask for one thing only: to maintain their historical town Kyrenia and live in an environmentally sustainable way, without being suffocated by rising towers of grey concrete.

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