The Toxic Valley

How global industry turned a once green Turkish province into an environmental wasteland.

Çerkeşli, Turkey – “Everybody stop,” Ismail Sami said, as he pushed his way to the front of the crowd. “Those who love their village should not enter that room.” The villagers, now waiting, looked at one another, unsure what to do next. A well-dressed man in a sleek business suit, a representative from the company that called the meeting, walked up to Ismail Sami and asked who he was. “You will know soon enough,” Ismail Sami said, and turned back to the crowd.

A health disaster zone

The bid to halt Akçansa’s plans is the latest in a long series of disputes between residents and industrialists across the Kocaeli province. For the past three decades, the region has seen relentless industrial development that has turned it into one of the most polluted areas of Turkey, causing serious environmental and health problems. Since the beginning of 2019, The Black Sea and the European Investigative Collaborations network investigated the environmental consequences of Kocaeli’s industrialisation, and learned of a pattern of chemical dumping and polluting that has led to a widespread health crisis in the region.

Government incentives, public outrage

Aside from the ubiquitous breathing problems among the townsfolk, academic studies conducted since 2005 have shown that cancer rates in Dilovası are well above the norm. The subject is not an easy one to broach with the locals, however. Most refer to it as simply hastalık – the “disease”. But we heard of people in treatment more than we saw them. Discussing the “disease” with locals is taboo, especially when referring to the health of their neighbours. The town is protective of cancer sufferers. Those who contracted lung cancer were not willing to share, we found; either out of embarrassment at being seen physically weak, or a reluctance to take part in a story that highlights the town's health problems. One man, a 27 year old who worked for AKP’s local office declined to speak with us, died of lung cancer only a few weeks after our visit in July. He did not want to risk blaming the state, we were told. The wife of another man with lung cancer, who was undergoing treatment, told us that he did not want to be seen with no hair or talk to strangers. If there is a man responsible for bringing the plight of Dilovası residents into Turkey’s public consciousness, it is Onur Hamzaoğlu, a medical doctor and public health specialist, who since the mid-2000s has conducted several health studies on the region.

The Dissident Scientist

Aside from the ubiquitous breathing problems among the townsfolk, academic studies conducted since 2005 have shown that cancer rates in Dilovası are well above the norm. The subject is not an easy one to broach with the locals, however. Most refer to it as simply hastalık – the “disease”. But we heard of people in treatment more than we saw them. Discussing the “disease” with locals is taboo, especially when referring to the health of their neighbours. The town is protective of cancer sufferers. Those who contracted lung cancer were not willing to share, we found; either out of embarrassment at being seen physically weak, or a reluctance to take part in a story that highlights the town's health problems. One man, a 27 year old who worked for AKP’s local office declined to speak with us, died of lung cancer only a few weeks after our visit in July. He did not want to risk blaming the state, we were told. The wife of another man with lung cancer, who was undergoing treatment, told us that he did not want to be seen with no hair or talk to strangers. If there is a man responsible for bringing the plight of Dilovası residents into Turkey’s public consciousness, it is Onur Hamzaoğlu, a medical doctor and public health specialist, who since the mid-2000s has conducted several health studies on the region. We met with Hamzaoğlu for a two-hour interview in Istanbul in February. Always neatly dressed in a suit, with black-framed eyeglasses and a thick, grey moustache, giving him the appearance of a fatherly professor, the gentle and soft-spoken scientist is for many a symbol for the environmental movement in Dilovası. Calling himself an “orthodox dissident”, the military-trained doctor was appointed to lead the Kocaeli University’s public health department in 2001, where he soon saw first hand the effects of the region’s industrialisation.

The Environment

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and World Bank have also been kind to companies. We found that Turkey is the biggest investment country of the EBRD, a bank owned by the EU's member states and with a claim to “promote environmentally sound and sustainable development”. In this decade alone, it provided over €480 million in loans to foreign-owned companies operating in Kocaeli. Most were issued in the past three years. The International Finance Corporation, a World Bank institution, which works to develop economies and “end extreme poverty”, has, since the mid 1990s, given loans of more than $760 million, with nearly half of the projects occurring after Hamzaoğlu's landmark study in 2005. With little land left to build factories in the towns, the government instead pushes new business up into the hills above Dilovası, to new industrial zones that now fill up with companies from all over the world. Two of the recent zones - IMES and Gebkim – are home to the likes of Cargill, Hans Berg GmbH, KÖSTER Bauchemie. These are only a few hundred metres from the village of Çerkeşli and the proposed HeidelbergCement site. HeidelbergCement's Akçansa, which already has over 40 production sites in Turkey, also received tax incentives on some of these operations, but would not say whether they had asked for tax breaks on the Çerkeşli investment.

The Uncertain Future

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and World Bank have also been kind to companies. We found that Turkey is the biggest investment country of the EBRD, a bank owned by the EU's member states and with a claim to “promote environmentally sound and sustainable development”. In this decade alone, it provided over €480 million in loans to foreign-owned companies operating in Kocaeli. Most were issued in the past three years. The International Finance Corporation, a World Bank institution, which works to develop economies and “end extreme poverty”, has, since the mid 1990s, given loans of more than $760 million, with nearly half of the projects occurring after Hamzaoğlu's landmark study in 2005. With little land left to build factories in the towns, the government instead pushes new business up into the hills above Dilovası, to new industrial zones that now fill up with companies from all over the world. Two of the recent zones - IMES and Gebkim – are home to the likes of Cargill, Hans Berg GmbH, KÖSTER Bauchemie. These are only a few hundred metres from the village of Çerkeşli and the proposed HeidelbergCement site. HeidelbergCement's Akçansa, which already has over 40 production sites in Turkey, also received tax incentives on some of these operations, but would not say whether they had asked for tax breaks on the Çerkeşli investment. The International Finance Corporation, a World Bank institution, which works to develop economies and “end extreme poverty”, has, since the mid 1990s, given loans of more than $760 million, with nearly half of the projects occurring after Hamzaoğlu's landmark study in 2005. With little land left to build factories in the towns, the government instead pushes new business up into the hills above Dilovası, to new industrial zones that now fill up with companies from all over the world. Two of the recent zones - IMES and Gebkim – are home to the likes of Cargill, Hans Berg GmbH, KÖSTER Bauchemie. These are only a few hundred metres from the village of Çerkeşli and the proposed HeidelbergCement site. HeidelbergCement's Akçansa, which already has over 40 production sites in Turkey, also received tax incentives on some of these operations, but would not say whether they had asked for tax breaks on the Çerkeşli investment.