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Expropriation, Lawlessness, and Resistance in Yirca's Olive Groves: An Interview with Olcay Bingol and Deniz Bayram

[Image by Ayşegül Ersoy.] [Image by Ayşegül Ersoy.]

[This interview regarding the ongoing resistance and expropriation processes in Yırca (Soma) was conducted by Boğaziçi University students Çiğdem Artık and Mustafa Kaba. The interviewees are Olcay Bingöl, who is an ecological activist resisting in solidarity with the villagers in Yırca against the expropriation of their olive groves for a coal power plant, and Deniz Bayram, who is a lawyer for Greenpeace Mediterranean, which is following the case. This interview was originally conducted for the periodical publication of the Boğaziçi University Members Consumer Cooperative. It was first published in Turkish on Jadaliyya; that version can be found here. It was translated into English by Cihan Tekay.]

Mustafa Kaba (MK), Çiğdem Artık (ÇA): When did the “emergency expropriation” take place? Were the farmers informed? When were they notified?

Deniz Bayram (DB): The emergency expropriation took place on 10 May 2014. There was no notification whatsoever; we found out from the government gazette, where it was published on 10 May. Because we knew that the area was full of olive groves, we sent a request to the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Livestock to issue some information, asking if the land in question would include the olive groves. Afterwards, we got in touch with the villagers and the muhtar (elected head of the village.) Once the ministry confirmed that this area included the olive groves, we shared this information with the public. In the meantime, no notifications were issued to the villagers about the emergency expropriation of their land. This is how the emergency expropriation process works: no notifications are issued whatsoever. A case is opened [by the state] on the basis of the need for an emergency expropriation, a decision is made during the trial, and the verdict does not have to be announced. On the basis of this verdict, they sent eviction notifications on 12 September. The villagers found out the news through us. Together with the villagers, Greenpeace sued and started a legal process on 1 September. The first official notification of the expropriation was issued on 12 September.

MK, ÇA: What is the meaning of “emergency expropriation”? Were these lands under protection? Does emergency expropriation violate the law regulating farmlands and olive groves? What is the role of the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Livestock, as well as that of the Ministry of Environment and Urban Affairs, in the events that took place in Yırca?

DB: According to the law, emergency expropriation is a tactic meant to be used under extraordinary circumstances, such as war or a state of emergency. In addition to this, it is used under circumstances where the Cabinet decides the situation is urgent. However, the Council of State has many ongoing cases regarding this process. The Council of State says that emergency expropriations can only be ratified by the Cabinet if the significance of the urgency is equivalent to those described in law, such as war or a state of emergency.

[Image by Ayşegül Ersoy.]

The Directorate of Provincial Food, Agriculture, and Livestock, a department of the (related) ministry, made an important decision: they argued that the land is reserved for olive groves, which are protected by law; therefore, it is illegal to construct a coal plant in this area. The Ministry of Urban Affairs, on the other hand, started an Environmental Impact Assessment (known by its Turkish acronym “ÇED”) process in the area. During the ÇED process, the public was not informed; people were not notified of participatory meetings. We received conflicting information from the ministries of agriculture and environment. The Ministry of Environment and Urban Affairs replied to our request by saying that they formed a ÇED committee, that the Directorate of Provincial Food, Agriculture, and Livestock was a member of it, but that officials from the latter did not attend meetings or make their views known to the committee. The Directorate, on the other hand, said that they were not notified of the ÇED process at all. The decision made by the Manisa Directorate on the illegality of expropriating olive groves was bypassed, although the Directorate was meant to be included in the ÇED process.

We opened a lawsuit for the emergency expropriation to be halted and overturned. During the trial, we defended the position that emergency expropriation is unlawful and that because these lands are designated for olive groves, a power plant cannot be built on them. The ÇED report was issued to the public on 15 October as a result of our request. We are also working on another legal case on this process.

MK, ÇA: When did the Yırca resistance start? When the company entered the area in September to cut down trees, did they have any legal basis for doing this?

Olcay Bingöl (OB): The Yırca resistance began in early September. They have no legal basis for entering the groves. The area is both designated for olive groves, and is farmland. That means that the land is protected by the laws governing olive production as well as farmlands. So even if the emergency expropriation law is applied here, new building permits cannot be issued on this land unless it is stripped of its status as designated for olive groves and farmland. In addition, there are no permits for building, construction, business, or for altering the landscape here. These are the kinds of permits needed in order to start construction in this area. Kolin A.Ş. (link to mülksüzleştirme) does not have these permits. In this case, even if the rush expropriation is in effect, the construction should not be able to proceed in this way. Thus, all of Kolin's actions that involved the entry of vehicles, people, and demolishers into this area are unlawful.

[Image by Ayşegül Ersoy.]

MK, ÇA: If the draft legislation on olive groves is ratified by the parliament, will Kolin's actions be legalized?

OB: No. Because of the Soil Conservation Act, the area will still be designated farmland. It can be protected as farmland, even if it cannot be protected based on the status of olive groves.

MK, ÇA: What are the goals of the company in Yırca?

OB: The company seeks to construct a coal power plant here, and in order to pave the way for it, it is trying to demolish the olive groves in the area.

MK, ÇA: What is the attitude of the village and the neighboring villages, as well as that of Soma center, towards the resistance? Do you receive support from other cities?

OB: Yırca did not receive support from Soma or from their neighboring villages. This should be evaluated in the context of the locality of Soma, since this area is made up of people who work for the mines. There are still a lot of actions around the mines issue. Most of the population in this area works for the coalmines. In addition to this, there is a lot of misinformation that circulates, such as the one about Yırca villagers reaching a settlement with Kolin and selling their land to the company. Whenever we go to speak to people in Soma for support, they tell us that Yırca villagers already shook hands with Kolin and they don't need anyone's support, because they did not resist and settled with the company.

Kolin is a powerful company here, as it is everywhere. On the one hand, it owns the coalmines here, and people are employed by these mines and by the coal plant. So they tell us, “You are trying to hinder the employment opportunities here by stopping the construction of the power plant.” Rumors circulate that two to five thousand people will be employed by the plant, but this is not the case. Maybe a lot of people will be employed during the construction process, where there will be a need for unskilled labor. But as we have seen in other parts of Turkey, once the construction is over, and once the demand for unskilled labor decreases, there will be many layoffs; at most, two hundred to two hundred and fifty people will be employed as skilled laborers in the end. The security is already contracted labor. Still, because of these rumors, there was no support for Yırca from Soma or neighboring villages. But environmental organizations from other cities, or those concerned with the olive groves, continued to give their support here.

MK, ÇA: Did deterritorialization and disposession start with these events? Or were there previous policies that aimed to impoverish farmers via the collaboration of state and capital?

OB: When we look at this region, we see that all of the villages are covered with coalmines. A neighboring village, Eniş, is completely eradicated: the village is split in two and the population has disappeared. They are considering moving the village whole, but they cannot find a place to move it to. There are seven other villages here in similar conditions. There are villages that will completely lose their land and their possessions because of the existing mines and those under construction: they will be forced to move to the urban areas. All of this will take place very shortly, because there are a lot of mines that will soon be opened. There are also mines that will be opened for Kolin's power plant under construction, and these have been exempted from the ÇED process. On the one hand, there is the deterritorialization and dispossesion of the villagers who are farmers. On the other hand, who will work at this new power plant? It will be these villagers who are dispossessed, in addition to those who are already working in the mines. The three new coalmines that are scheduled to be opened have also been exempted from the ÇED process. Thus, there is deterritorialization and dispossession here, and people are being sent to their deaths.  

[Image by Ayşegül Ersoy.]

MK, ÇA: Oktay Uyan, the farmer who said that Yırca will set a precedent that is very important for all the olive groves in Turkey, drew attention to the draft legislation on olive groves. What are the dangers of this new law?

OB: This is very important. This needs to be evaluated on the basis of energy and mining policies, not just agricultural policies, because the changes planned in this legislation have been made through energy and mining. The olive groves under twenty-five dönüm (twenty-five decares, or 25,000 square meters) will not qualify for olive grove status. When we look at where these groves are located in Turkey, they are mainly in the Kaz Mountains, the Edremit and Manisa areas. The people who make a living through their olive groves in Turkey already own land that is much less than twenty-five dönüm. Each piece of land in these areas is at most three to five dönüm; the biggest pieces are fifteen dönüm. When you go to the Kaz Mountains, those who own twenty-five dönüm of land are the ones with the biggest pieces of olive grove land. When you strip areas under twenty-five dönüm of their olive grove status, this means that small farmers will be completely eradicated.

The olive groves are where they are planning the search for gold, copper, and oil mines or the construction of coal power plants. This is actually a campaign run by the Ministry of Energy through the Ministry of Agriculture. As we see here, the Ministry of Agriculture has taken the attitude of protecting the olive groves. The Manisa Directorate for Agriculture has taken the decisions necessary to protect the olives. But they have also participated in the ÇED process. There are conflicting situations between the Ministry of Energy, the Ministry of Urban Affairs, and Ministry of Agriculture. There are two sides to the demand for legislation protecting olive groves to be changed: the eradication of small farmers and olive producers, and the opening up of these areas for energy and mining investments.

MK, ÇA: What is the situation in Yırca now?

OB: We experienced both great pain and great joy on the same day. The other day, while we were waiting for an answer to our request that the process be halted, they surrounded the area with very sharp and dangerous dual barbed wire used for military zones. In addition, they brought in extra security forces working for the Yeniçeri (literally means Janissary) Security Company, numbering up to one hundred, from Balıkesir, Bursa, and Aydın. We were trying to understand what was going on.

At the same time, there was a piece of land inside the security area that was still contested—a villager had a rent contract that was made in March. The renter said he had the right to put his tent and resist in that area, and we continued the olive grove watch there. This was beneficial for us, as we had access to the land, because we were previously positioned outside the barbed wire area. Whenever trees were being cut or demolished, we used to run over these barbed wires and stop it. This took us ten minutes, and in the meantime, they cut a lot of trees. When this contested land came up, we demanded to be positioned inside. The Soma prosecution declared that it was lawful for us to be inside, as the renter still had the right to the contested piece of land. Thus, we continued the watch from inside the area from then on. Our access to the demolition area would be much easier.

When this happened, the company reacted very violently. They started to increase security measures. Because we were going over or stepping under the barbed wire, they put in wires with blades on them. Two days ago, the same security company brought in one hundred additional security personnel. They placed them five by five inside an area of 490 dönüm. While we continued our watch inside, the security personnel surrounded us and showed us their batons; they threatened us and tried to make us leave. While we were resisting inside, the villagers were at the main door resisting. We told them that the villagers should be let in, because it is against the law to put barbed wires around this land. The villagers still own the olive groves and they should have been able to harvest here. But Kolin claimed that the harvest depended on their permission. With permission from the governor, they let the villagers harvest for only three days. Then they closed the area to the villagers. However, it is not the right time here yet for the harvest: there is still one week for tirilye olives to be harvested. Whereas normally the villagers would have extracted one liter of olive oil per four kilos of oil, they were only able to get one liter of oilve oil from 9.6 kilos of olives, because of the early harvest.

While the resistance continued inside and outside, there was a big brawl inside that night. Many security personnel blocked the villagers. People were injured, some from the stones being thrown at the security personnel, and some were hospitalized. This went on until 1.30am, when the gendarmes arrived. The gendarmes told us that we could not go in, because the security personnel would not let us and because Kolin does not want us to. The gendarmes told us that there was nothing they can do; they cannot legally bar us from entering or let us enter, because the rights and responsibility here are on the company's security personnel. They made us leave. There were around six bulldozers inside, and we wanted those to be taken out, because they were threatening the olive grove. But we could not convince the gendarmes of this; they told us they were not legally entitled to do anything about it.

[Image by Ayşegül Ersoy.]

While we continued our watch, the vehicles started moving around 6am. These vehicles are very fast, very strong and destructive. Within an hour, they destroyed five thousand trees. Close to six thousand trees were destroyed in total. The security forces were very violent and ruthless; I had not even seen this kind of attitude from the police. The people were trying to go in through the barbed wires; the trees were disappearing as we were watching. They stoned us violently from inside; I still can't walk. After the demolition, the gendarmes arrived; everyone was weeping. After a few hours, our lawyer informed us that the execution process was halted: our rejection was accepted. Within a day, Kolin removed the barbed wires and the security—they probably knew of the verdict beforehand, and that the demolition was unlawful. We experienced great pain and joy on the same day. It was a broken joy; we are dancing, laughing, but at the same time weeping. Nobody could look at the demolished area, although it was only three meters away from us.

MK, ÇA: Will the olive groves keep their status and continue to be protected by law?

OB: We will make sure they keep their status. There are areas that are cut and demolished, there are some trees that still have their roots in the soil. Also, we quickly started to plant olive trees. When the expropriation process starts again, the status of the groves will be at stake. We are suing the ÇED because it's unlawful on many grounds. We want the ÇED to be annulled—this will mean that everything will have to stop and the company will have to start all over again. Our prediction and wish is for Kolin to stop this project.

MK, ÇA: How can we lend our support?

OB: By coming here for planting olives during this heated time, and being together with the villagers. Also, by resisting against the coal plants. Let's say Kolin leaves Yırca and starts to build the coal plant somewhere else, we need to support the resistance against that as well. This is an ongoing process.

Also, there is the question of villagers being eradicated here. Because agricultural production and the by-products of agricultural production are devalued, and cannot reach their consumer, these villagers are already trying to make a living by other means. What can we do from the city? We can support them by purchasing their products through co-operatives, by reproducing their products together with them and putting them to use.

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