ISTANBUL, March 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Recep Eraslan, 64, has worked a tiny sliver of land on Istanbul’s historic Sultanahmet peninsula for more than three decades.
He grows spring onions, arugula and cabbage on a 1.25-acre (0.5 hectare) plot along the city’s ancient Byzantine-era walls that are part of one of the oldest urban gardens, or bostans in Turkish, in the world.
But last year, the tranquility of this parcel of green space, hemmed in by a metropolis of 15 million people, was shattered.
Pointing a finger over his right shoulder, Eraslan, with knife and spring onions in hand, recalled what happened on January 13, 2016.
“There used to be a building there that we used for our tools and plants. The municipality came with machines and destroyed it because they said they wanted the area to be cleaner,” he said. “Now we have lost that storage space and have to walk one kilometre to and from my house every day.”
More than 20 growers and their families, including Eraslan, the breadwinner for a family of five, depend on the Yedikule market gardens that abut the 1,600-year-old, UNESCO-protected city walls for their livelihoods.
But with Turkish authorities in the midst of a nationwide drive to modernise cultural and tourist areas, the farmers, who pay a fee for using the land, are under threat.
Opposition to the development of swathes of city space reached a peak in 2013 when demonstrators took to streets to protest the proposed levelling of Gezi Park in central Istanbul. Unrest quickly spread across Turkey, a revolt against what protesters said was increasing government authoritarianism.
The same year, more than 20 acres of gardens, including the 17th century Ismail Pasa gardens inside the Yedikule walls, were cleared and replaced with sports grounds, car parks and walk ways. Today, much of the surrounding areas are left derelict.
The Yedikule market gardeners, a community of around 200 people, are a living link to a heritage that goes back centuries.
Today, the gardens are popular with locals because the produce is cheaper and fresher than vegetables sold in supermarkets. Some farmers live part-time on site without electricity or indoor running water, though most have homes nearby.
The 1.5 km (one mile) stretch of land is owned by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, two local municipalities and several state agencies.
The authorities say because the gardens are not the farmers’ property they are free to construct recreational areas such as cafes and restaurants around the city walls to better serve local residents and tourists alike.
The municipality also claims the walls, wall-walks and ramparts are being frequented by drug users and homeless people who light fires against the base of the walls to keep warm.
Defending the January 2016 demolitions, municipal council member Abubekir Tasyurek said the farmers’ activities caused “visual pollution that can be seen by anyone passing by.” The authorities also say the gardeners could damage the protected city walls.
Although the government’s Site Management Directorate says it has a new plan for the Yedikule gardens, requests from the Thomson Reuters Foundation for specific details went unanswered.
“The biggest problem is that urban agricultural land doesn’t exist as a land type within the Turkish system,” said Ali Taptik of a group trying to preserve the gardens.
“Urban agriculture is mostly done on private or public property as ‘occupiers.’ Because of this, the gardeners can’t become members of the farmer’s union and can’t avail themselves of government support,” he said.
Political unrest in Turkey, including a botched military coup in July and a series of attacks by Islamic State and Kurdish militants, mean the government’s focus lies elsewhere.
“This is something which has to be lobbied for in Ankara, yet with all the political problems in the country, this won’t get priority.”
Last year, archaeological societies railed at the dumping of asphalt and gravel on the protected site, leading to fears that preparation for further construction was in the works. Reports emerged last month that the local municipality had covered a section of the protected walls in preparation of the building of a wedding hall.
For the farmers, spring is fast approaching and growers are busy tilling soil and planting seed, even though the shadow of uncertainty hangs overhead.
“They (the municipality) want to make a new plan for here; we don’t know what for, but maybe for houses or tourism,” said Eraslan.
On a recent afternoon, a dozen city workers were laying a new, wider footpaths bordering the gardens to offer visitors easier access to the walls. Further up the street, at least three sheds have disappeared.
For Kemal Keram, who has worked a three-quarters of an acre plot abutting the city walls for two years, growing cucumber, parsley and lettuce, says his customers are falling away.
“Two years ago, if there were 10 customers coming to buy vegetables, now there are five,” he said outside a shack that he complains can’t protect his tools from the elements. He says the authorities knocked down between 15 and 20 buildings last year.
“Ten days ago they came and cut down all the trees almost to the roots,” he says. “I don’t know why they did that; maybe because they want a give better view for tourists to take photos of the walls. Who knows?” (Reporting by Stephen Starr, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)