By J.E. Nigros
The people of Turkey have long been aware of the unique biodiversity of their country and the importance of preserving natural habitats. More than a millennium ago, the folk poet Dede Korkut wrote this prayer:
May our big shade tree never be cut down
May our forests never thin out
May our clear running streams never dry up
May we never be deprived of hope
May our wings never be broken
May our household fire keep burning
While Dede Korkut’s prayer seems to consign the fate of the environment to Allah and to chance, modern Turkish people know they must pass laws and enforce environmental policies to protect their environment.
Since the 1950’s, Turkey has been developing its environmental policies. Since 1997, the rules of the Convention of Biological Diversity have been in force. Turkey is a party to all relevant international conventions having to do with the conservation of biodiversity. According to the ever-evolving document, the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, Turkish legislation, however, has never been “harmonized from a consistent environmental point of view which presents frequent problems of overlap and lack of legal mandates for institutions.”
Turkey’s Unique Place Among the World’s Environmental Systems
A brief glance at a map of central Asia reveals that Turkey holds a unique geographical position: it is also the genetic center or “diversity center” for a large number of plants. It is at the crossroads of the Mediterranean and Near East gene centers. Because of its position between Asia, Europe and Africa, Turkey has flora and fauna comprised of elements of all these continents. The 120 species of mammals living in Turkey reflect its central geographic location: the lynx, wolves, brown bears, otters, red deer, chamois, wild boar, squirrel and wild sheep represent European elements; hyenas, porcupines, gerbils, antelopes, caracals, and leopards represent African and Asian elements.
As well as being a repository of plants and animals from many different countries, Turkey is also home to several species of plants found nowhere else on the planet. Of the 9,000 plant species in Turkey, 3,000 are endemic to Turkey. There are also 172 local varieties of apple trees, 253 of pear, 91 of walnut, and 286 of figs.
Turkey’s Environmental Challenges
As in any rapidly developing country, Turkey ’s enormous population growth destroys habitats and displaces many species of animals.The leopard and the bald ibis bird are becoming extinct. The darter species Anhinga rufa is already extinct.Turkey ’s concerns about biodiversity often take a backseat to the more pressing issues of development and growth.Immediate prosperity often comes at the expense of long-term prosperity.
Deforestation and the Loss of Valuable Resources
Deforestation is of particular concern to Turkish biologist, Dr. Aykut Kence, of Middle East Technical University’s Department of Biology. He says, “There is an attempt to change the constitution of Turkey to allow for the sale of lands that were once classified as forests because they have lost the properties that a forest must have. The government of Turkey expects to receive billions of dollars of income by selling off these once protected lands. This policy also encourages people who wish to buy this land to cause the land to lose the properties of a forest—by burning the trees off the land for instance. In the long run, the deforestation of Turkey will have important consequences for the country and the environment. Invaluable resources are lost that should have been passed down to future generations.Deforestation causes a chain reaction which reduces the biodiversity of Turkey’s land.”
Destruction of Genetic “Libraries”
Turkey’s flora and fauna are the heritage of all humankind. When any species of plant or animal becomes extinct or is lost to mankind, it is like destroying an entire library of genetic information. Dr. Kence says, “This information, the experience gained and the solutions found to the problems faced by living things throughout the course of millions of years of evolution, is encoded as messages called genes. Genetic diversity can be defined as the diversity or wealth of hereditary information of a species in its gene pool. The differences in genetic composition observed between local varieties of the plant and animal species of economic importance are especially significant because they reflect adaptations to different local conditions.”
Losing vast stores of genetic information through loss of biodiversity is a global tragedy in the making.Even by the most optimistic estimates, almost one-fifth of the living species on earth face the danger of extinction within the next twenty to thirty years.
Although the massive disappearance of living species has been witnessed many times in the biological history of the earth, those losses were spread over a much longer time—perhaps a few million years.This destruction over a longer period of time may have allowed ecosystems to adapt themselves to such losses and new species evolved to take the place of those lost.
Dr. Kence says, “The massacre of species caused by modern man is 400 times greater than the losses of species in recent geological eras.A loss of diversity of species of such dimensions has perhaps not been seen for at least the last 65 million years.A decrease of this magnitude and rapidity in the diversity of species on the earth will also have negative effects on the future of mankind.”
Dr. Kence believes that the development of theoretical ecology, which includes mathematical models of ecosystems, makes it even more important to preserve genetic data.Otherwise, it is like losing the answers to the questions before the questions can be asked. It is like “tossing a major part of a vast library out into the street without even cataloguing it.”
Marine Ecosystems of Turkey
By looking at Turkey on a map, one notices that it is a peninsula surrounded by four seas: the Black Sea, the Sea of Marmara, the Aegean, and the Mediterranean. Of these surrounding seas, the Marmara and the Black Sea are of the most concern ecologically. The Danube River carries industrial pollutants from several European countries into the Black Sea thus affecting its underwater biodiversity. An international consortium of nations and organizations is working to reverse this situation.
Despite laws that require wastewater treatment plants for all Turkish industrial plants, the Sea of Marmara receives sewage and wastewater from the densest population centers of western Turkey. The situation is especially serious in the Bay of Izmit where a good many industries are located. This situation will improve as laws are better enforced.
The maritime traffic through the Turkish straits between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara is also costly to Turkish marine ecosystems.
Jeanene Mitchell, a Fulbright Scholar researching international environmental law in Istanbul, gives this account of the environmental issues in the Turkish Straits that connect the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea:
"The Turkish Straits play a crucial role in the biodiversity of the ecosystems of both the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Various species of migratory fish, dolphins, and sea birds traverse the straits seasonally, as do phytoplanktons and zooplanktons. Additionally, the Turkish Straits form an "acclimatization zone" for transiting species, allowing those from the Mediterranean to adjust to the different environmental conditions in the Black Sea, and vice versa. And yet, pollution originating from increasing ship traffic is causing the Straits to be referred to as a ‘closing biological corridor’ by marine biologists. Various oil spills have significantly diminished algae and benthic organism populations (benthic meaning those living on the bottom of the Straits), as well as affecting local fish and sea bird populations. As an example, a snail introduced by ballast water from the Sea of Japan in the 1960s caused the extinction of all mussel and oyster beds in the Sea of Marmara thirty years later in the 1990s. Populat ions have still not fully recovered.
"The introduction of exotic species from the illegal discharge of ballast water by transiting ships has also disturbed the ecological balance of the Straits. These exotic species, sometimes having no natural predators in the Straits system, can create severe ecological imbalances by consuming local species, as well as their eggs and larvae. Following an oil spill in 1999, 90% of bottom-living organisms within a 5 km vicinity of the accident perished, as well as over 3,000 sea birds.
Increased ship safety standards, greater observance of international environmental regulations, and the pursuit of alternative routes for transport of oil and other noxious substances are necessary to protect the marine biodiversity of the Turkish Straits and keep this essential ‘biological corridor’ from closing completely," concludes Mitchell.
What Citizens Can Begin to Do Today
When asked what people could do to preserve and protect Turkey’s biodiversity, Dr. Kence offers these four suggestions that apply to people in all countries:
1. Train and educate your children in every possible way to protect the environment. In order to do this, you need to set an example for children to follow.
2. Think of the long-term effects of any development, rather than short-term profits. Always consider future generations, your grandchildren, in thinking about the environment.
3. Vote for the people who are most likely to protect the environment.