In the summer of 2021, one of the largest wildfires in the history of Turkey destroyed over 333,000 acres (135,000 hectares) of forest and killed eight people along with thousands of animals.

A firefighter extinguishes a forest fire near the town of Manavgat, Turkey, July 30, 2021. Kaan Soyturk/Reuters

The conflagration was not unexpected. Mediterranean forests are ecologically prone to fire, and summer is fire season in this region. Weeks before the wildfire, the General Directorate of Meteorology forecast a heatwave for the end of July and the first days of August. In addition, extreme drought had been a major concern throughout the year. Given these conditions, forestry experts had been informing the public and state officials about the likelihood of large forest fires.

Fires are simultaneously social, political, historical and ecological phenomena that shed light on class struggles, discrimination and inequality, changing human-nature relationships and the politics of environmental knowledge production.[1] As flames spread through the Mediterranean forests in Turkey, broader political fissures were revealed in the ethno-nationalist narratives that blamed fires on sabotage by members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, PKK) and through public criticism of the state’s response to fires.

Last summer’s fires also ushered in a new, significant debate around the issue of post-fire forest restoration. Turkish forestry experts and the public are questioning conventional solutions, such as planting trees, that promise a quick and convenient recovery after wildfires. Political conflicts over the environment in Turkey thus do not solely focus on issues of destruction and degradation—problems that have been intensifying and expanding especially under Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule—but they also now revolve around questions of the restoration and recovery of damaged landscapes. Pushback by forestry experts and ecology scientists has challenged the government’s greening of its image. The new debates about ecological recovery also make space for a broader questioning of the dominant anthropocentric approach to nature as a passive object to be restored through intensive and quick human action.


The Politics of Wildfires and Forest Restoration


Last summer’s wildfires started on July 28 in the Manavgat district of the southern province of Antalya, igniting the material and political landscapes simultaneously. It was the hottest week of the year, and extreme drought had been a vital concern since the winter months. In a few days, 299 fires were detected in 54 provinces, the largest of which raged through the Mediterranean and South Aegean regions. In the face of the expanding conflagration, one of the first narratives to circulate widely in social and traditional media was the possibility that the fires were deliberately set as sabotage or attack. These claims primarily referred to the long-running armed conflict between the PKK and the Turkish military.

In the early days of the fires, for instance, the former mayor of Ankara Melih Gökçek (from the ruling AKP) shared a popular video on Twitter that claimed to show forest fires being ignited by drones and wrote, “Traitors are starting fires with drones.” He quickly deleted his tweet after a fact-checking organization revealed that the video was not shot in Turkey and showed prescribed burning implemented as a forest management practice. Mainstream and pro-government media joined this wave of blaming the fires on “terrorist sabotage.” Demirören news agency, owned by a holding company openly supportive of the AKP government, reported that two PKK members had been arrested while exploring a forest with the goal of setting it on fire. When the relevant city governorship announced that there was no evidence of the suspects’ links to forest fires, the agency withdrew the news from its website.

Around the same time, the pro-government newspaper Yeni Akit published a headline that read, “Those who criticize the government and those who set fires share the same mentality.” While reproducing the attribution of wildfires to the PKK, this article raised the claims to another level by stating that those who criticize the government’s fire management intended to protect the actual culprits. Moreover, as political sociologist Gülay Türkmen crucially points out, the nationalist, securitized approach to wildfires also targeted a new group, Afghan refugees who had recently arrived in Turkey in the wake of the US withdrawal and Taliban takeover of their country, by labeling them arsonists responsible for the summer fires.

The heated debates over Turkey’s aerial firefighting capacity mapped onto broader concerns about the dissolution of institutional capacities and effectiveness due to processes of neoliberalization and increasing authoritarianism in the country.

Another political debate quickly escalated around the subject of Turkey’s firefighting capabilities and equipment, leading to criticism of the government’s level of preparedness in the face of intensifying and proliferating fires. Parliament members from the opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), were instrumental in bringing this issue to the center of public attention. Their critique revolved around the fact that the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry does not have its own firefighting planes and helicopters but had to acquire them through a tender-based annual lease. The low number of planes was a hot topic from the very first day of the fires. On July 29, the Turkish Aeronautical Association—which has long been one of the ministry’s primary suppliers—declared that they had leased three planes and 17 helicopters to the General Directorate of Forestry to combat the fires. It soon became apparent, however, that those planes were ones that the Association had itself leased from Russia and that the planes belonging to the Association were kept unused in the hangars. While the government and state officials pointed to the Association’s planes’ inability to function properly, critical voices from opposition parties and the public questioned why proper maintenance and repair services were not provided for these planes. In short, the heated debates over Turkey’s aerial firefighting capacity mapped onto broader concerns about the dissolution of institutional capacities and effectiveness due to processes of neoliberalization and increasing authoritarianism in the country.

As these debates over how the fires started and the government’s lack of preparedness in fighting the fires continued, a new topic emerged—the regeneration of burnt forests. Since wildfires expand or retreat over the span of days, weeks, and sometimes, months, multifaceted discussions about how to prevent and combat fire take place at the same time as debates over post-fire restoration. Last summer’s debates brought to the public’s attention those forestry and ecology experts who question conventional post-fire restoration methods such as reforestation, which are based on the notion of nature as a passive object in need of quick and intensive human intervention to regenerate. In this dominant understanding, greening the burnt forests through tree planting is a matter of national pride and resilience and conveys a sense of state-led and publicly embraced environmental stewardship. By questioning the need for and the benefit of post-fire reforestation, forestry and ecology experts’ criticisms pointed to a radically different notion of recovery and restoration that foregrounds the complexity and vitality of ecological landscapes.


What Greening Campaigns Reveal and Conceal


Image from the Geleceğe Nefes (Breath for the Future) campaign website during the 2021 wildfires. The text on the left reads “Our life is burnt” (a phrase that actually means “We are hurt”). The text on the right side reads “We will make it green.” The two lines underneath them read “Adopt a plant, and give breath to the future of burnt areas.” Source:

Only a few days after the beginning of the wildfires, on July 30, the nongovernmental Turkish Foundation for Combating Soil Erosion, Reforestation and the Protection of Natural Habitats (TEMA Foundation) launched a seedling donation campaign with the slogan, “We will make life green again.” It called for every citizen to donate a sapling and be part of the national effort to regenerate not only life but also collective hope for the future. Several other organizations and institutions announced their contribution to existing sapling donation campaigns or the organization of new ones. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and the General Directorate of Forestry appealed to citizens to donate to the existing campaign Geleceğe Nefes (Breath for the Future). This campaign had been launched in 2019 with the announcement of a National Tree Planting Day, to be celebrated every November 11 with nationwide, state-led tree planting festivals. During the wildfires, a new pop-up window was added to the campaign website that juxtaposed the picture of a forest engulfed in flames with lush green forest scenery. It invited citizens to donate and adopt a sapling to cultivate “breath for the future” in the areas affected by fire. Accordingly, the act of reforestation was seen as a way to revive not only the forests but also the patriotic hope and pride in environmental stewardship. In stark contrast to the nationwide reforestation campaigns, another collective effort—the social media campaign Help Turkey that called on the international community to send aerial firefighting equipment—was criminalized by the government as “humiliating the Turkish state.”

Sapling donation campaigns are important not only for what they reveal but also for what they conceal: They risk overshadowing the responsibilities of the government and state institutions and diverting attention from the structural problems that caused the wildfires in the first place. Governmental and institutional actors remain silent about—if not actively deny—the underlying political and socioeconomic issues that contribute to the increasing number of annual forest fires in Turkey. According to forestry professor Cihan Erdönmez, in a virtual meeting organized by the Green Party of Turkey in the aftermath of the summer 2021 wildfires, official forestry statistics show a considerable increase in the number of forest fires, which has risen from around 500 fires annually in 1937 to more than 3,000 in 2020. Simultaneously, there was a decrease in the total area of forest burned annually. Since 2019, however, this decrease has been reversed. The phenomena that directly or indirectly affect the growing number and intensity of wildfires in Turkey include climate change; the lack of a budget, personnel and equipment dedicated to fire prevention and management; the depopulation of forest villages that led to overgrowth of highly flammable vegetation; the allocation of forests to extraction, tourism and construction sectors and forestry policies that prioritize timber production. All of these human activities are led by government policies and increase the risk of fire.

By foregrounding sapling donation campaigns, state and civil society organizations leverage the politically entangled past and present meanings of tree planting as a practice of modern nation-state building in Turkey to the advantage of the ruling party.

By foregrounding sapling donation campaigns, state and civil society organizations obscure those structural issues that lie at the core of the problem. But they also leverage the politically entangled past and present meanings of tree planting as a practice of modern nation-state building in Turkey to the advantage of the ruling party. Reforestation festivals have been common occurrences since the foundation of the Turkish Republic. Borrowed from the late Ottoman period, they are meant to fight deforestation in Anatolia. These festivals were imbued with notions of modernization and progress; they became sites of articulating and performing nationalism, state authority and civilization through the act of greening the landscape and protecting the soil. [2] The political legacy of casting forestation as part and parcel of modernization and nationalism has rendered tree planting one of the unquestioned environmental activities in Turkey. Despite this long legacy, last summer’s debates on how to restore the fire-affected forests piqued a critique of tree planting as the ultimate green act.


Rethinking Environmental Restoration


While tree donation campaigns quickly gained popularity since they give people an easy way to participate in healing the wounded forests, forestry professors objected to the idea of planting saplings in the burned areas. On the day TEMA launched its sapling donation campaign, a newspaper interview with fire and plant ecologist Çağatay Tavşanoğlu was widely circulated on social media. The title of the interview, originally published in 2019, reads: “Tree Planting Mobilization Leads to Ecological Disaster.” In the interview, Tavşanoğlu underlined the need to pay attention to the particular ecological characteristics of the burnt forests and to plan the restoration process carefully rather than quickly leap to popular but misguided practices such as tree planting.

Mediterranean forests have long been subjected to fires and have developed effective adaptation mechanisms that enable them to regenerate through and after fire.
Mediterranean forests have long been subjected to fires and have developed effective adaptation mechanisms that enable them to regenerate through and after fire. For instance, Tavşanoğlu explained that the species Pinus brutia (Turkish red pine), native in the Mediterranean region, keeps some of its mature cones closed and in the upper parts of the branches, closer to the crown. In this way, the cones are protected during a fire. A few weeks later, the cones open—the fire-induced heat melts the resin that normally keeps them closed. The seeds protected inside the cones then fall on the soil, which now thanks to the fire is sun-filled and nutrient-rich, to germinate with the next rainfall.[3] Moreover, some Mediterranean bushes and shrubs preserve their seeds or roots under the soil, which serves as a protective, insulating cover during a fire, and find the burned forest to be a suitable environment to sprout after the fire. Therefore, as Tavşanoğlu explained, in Mediterranean forests, plant diversity tends to increase significantly in the first couple of years following fires. All these adaptations show that, rather than a disaster to be extinguished, fire constitutes part of the Mediterranean forest ecology and stimulates regeneration—as long as climate change does not alter the frequency and intensity of fires. Tavşanoğlu, along with many other ecologists and foresters, emphasize that interventions such as tree planting interrupt and distort the fire-stimulated ecological recovery process in mature Pinus brutia forests (those more than 15 years old).

As warnings against sapling donation and tree planting campaigns gained traction across social and traditional media, the president of the TEMA foundation admitted that instead of leaving scorched areas to regenerate on their own, public pressure leads to the quick implementation of reforestation practices. This public pressure comes from citizens’ demands and expectations that the fire-affected areas be protected from the encroachment of development and extraction projects. In Turkey, where forests are one of the main frontier zones for the expansion of the mining, energy, construction and tourism sectors, immediate and intense reforestation of areas affected by fire is thus used to protect against state-supported neoliberal encroachment. A striking example that seems to confirm the legitimacy of the public’s concerns occurred when a legal amendment published on the first day of the fires in 2021 gave the Ministry of Culture and Tourism the authority to allocate forests to tourism investment and construction. The law was enacted while fires continued to rage, provoking strong criticism about unrelenting state policies that pave the way for forest plunder even during the largest wildfires in its history. Especially in the last two decades, changes in laws and regulations have led to the increased allocation of forests to the energy, mining and tourism industries. In the first weeks of 2022, the hashtag #OrmanlardanEliniÇek (#GetYourHandsOffTheForests) circulated on Twitter to raise awareness about and protest a presidential decree that lifted the forest designation from a total of 1 million square meters of forest in four provinces.

In the first weeks of 2022, the hashtag #OrmanlardanEliniÇek (#GetYourHandsOffTheForests) circulated on Twitter to raise awareness about and protest a presidential decree that lifted the forest designation from a total of 1 million square meters of forest in four provinces.

Forestry professor Cihan Erdönmez recognizes the reasons for public concern and distrust of the government since deforestation from industrial encroachment has been one of Turkey’s fundamental environmental problems. In a podcast interview, however, Erdönmez assured listeners that fire-destroyed forests in Turkey are protected by the constitution, and that they cannot be used for any purposes other than reforestation—an article of the law that so far has not been violated. Hence, there is no need for the public to pressure the state to plant trees for the purposes of quick restoration to deter encroachment. He explained that allowing the necessary time and space for the self-regeneration of Mediterranean forests would not leave them exposed to an increased threat of industrial activities since in Turkey healthy forests are already subject to capitalist encroachment thanks to government policies that make forests available for mining and other activities. In fact, he argued, reforestation through tree planting may do more harm than good. Critical scholarship has delineated the failures of massive tree planting programs in realizing their social and ecological promises.[4] Anthropologist Shannon Mattern writes that popular initiatives such as the One Trillion Tree Campaign, which encourages every person to plant a tree to fight the climate crisis, exemplifies “magical thinking, a crowd-sourced form of techno-vegetal solutionism—and as such a distraction from the large-scale, systemic transformations that are required to counter the impacts of global warming.”[5]

Narratives of environmental degradation as well as proposed restoration practices are intimately political, often nested within processes of colonization and dispossession. Climate change and accelerating natural disasters are forcing scholars and the concerned public to rethink how restoration projects are developed, for whom and by whom restoration is conducted and whose lives and livelihoods are impacted. The politics of post-fire recovery in Turkey became evident, for example, when Cengiz Holding, a large company with close political ties to the government, announced their donation of 50,000 trees to TEMA’s campaign. The announcement was met with major backlash on social media, spearheaded by ecological activists and joined by ordinary citizens. They accused Cengiz Holding of ecocide—including severe deforestation—due to its numerous large-scale construction and extraction projects. TEMA’s later decision to refuse Cengiz Holding’s donation was a clear victory in the ecological movements’ long-standing fight, not only against environmental destruction but also against greenwashing.

While tree planting campaigns foreground the act of greening, they obscure the fact that forests are landscapes of life and livelihood beyond the mere existence of trees. The decreasing number of people living in and around forests is one factor contributing to the scale and frequency of wildfires. In most cases, forest villagers are the first to notice a fire and to intervene quickly and effectively, given their in-depth knowledge of the landscape. Also, the diminishing presence of people and livestock in and around forests leads to an increase in vegetation, especially vegetation that is highly flammable. Restoration plans that merely focus on the regeneration of trees disregard the forest as a complex ecosystem that is also inhabited by humans and their accompanying livestock, bees and other animals.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared on television last summer that villagers would be compensated monetarily for the loss of cattle and poultry, an approach that reduces the restoration of life after fire to a solely economic issue. The recent debates over forestry practices in Turkey also illustrate how seemingly green environmental restoration policies, such as tree planting, act as sites for the performance of political power and disregard the complex vitality of ecological landscapes.


[Ekin Kurtiç is Neubauer Junior Research Fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University.]





[1] Mike Davis, “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn,” Environmental History Review 19/2 (1995). Timothy W. Collins, “The Political Ecology of Hazard Vulnerability: Marginalization, Facilitation and the Production of Differential Risk to Urban Wildfires in Arizona’s White Mountains,” Journal of Political Ecology 15/1 (2008). Marien González-Hidalgo, Iago Otero and Giorgos Kallis, “Seeing Beyond the Smoke: The Political Ecology of Fire in Horta de Sant Joan (Catalonia),” Environment and Planning A 46/5 (2014). Timothy Forsyth, Critical Political Ecology: The Politics of Environmental Science (Abingdon: Routledge, 2004).

[2] Hande Özkan, “Cultivating the Nation in Nature: Forestry and Nation-Building in Turkey,” (Unpublished Dissertation: Yale University, 2013).

[3] Çağatay Tavşanoğlu, “Kızılçam (Pinus brutia) Ormanlarının Yangın Sonrası Doğal Onarımı ve Ormanların Geleceği İçin Öneriler,” Orman ve Av, 4/99, (July/August 2021). [Turkish]

[4] Eric A. Coleman et al., “Limited Effects of Tree Planting on Forest Canopy Cover and Rural Livelihoods in Northern India,” Nature Sustainability, (2021) and Forrest Fleischman et. al., “Pitfalls of Tree Planting Show Why We Need People-Centered Natural Climate Solutions,” BioScience, 70/11, November 2020.

[5] Shannon Mattern, “Tree Thinking,” Places Journal, September 2021.


How to cite this article:

Ekin Kurtiç "Wildfires Ignite Political Debate in Turkey," Middle East Report Online, February 22, 2022.

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