ARTVIN, Turkey, Sept 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From the view of a bus travelling through villages and past the waterfalls, apiaries and dairy cows dotting northeast Turkey’s mountainsides, all seems blissfully calm.
Only when standing on a street in the city of Artvin and looking east towards the scarred landscape around the giant Deriner hydroelectric dam does the impact of mega infrastructure projects in Turkey’s eastern highlands become clear.
Dams, highways and now, a copper mine, have wreaked ecological havoc across the region, threatening farmers’ livelihoods and locals’ health, say environmental campaigners.
In July, Turkey’s council of state, the highest administrative court in the country, backed a local court decision to approve the reopening of a mine on the state-owned Cerattepe hill, just south of Artvin.
More than 200,000 tonnes of copper and several thousand tonnes of gold and silver are set to be mined.
Activists who have opposed repeated attempts to mine the hill for 35 years say around 50,000 trees may be felled, and protestors have already come into conflict with police.
“The nearby crops are covered in dust. Herdsmen are banned from using this road (because of heavy traffic to and from the mine) and they are forced to take their flocks along a further and more difficult path,” said Neşe Karahan of the conservation group, Green Artvin Association.
Last year, riot police used teargas and detained activists and farmers - some of whom who say they have lost livestock due to chemical seepage from the mine - for blocking machinery from reaching the site.
Farmer Fikret Beyaz told the Thomson Reuters Foundation he had lost 11 beef cattle collectively worth more than $15,000.
“The chemicals from the mines have poisoned the local waters. The animals I pastured came back with sicknesses. I told this to the mining firm but they didn’t want to clean or do something about the water,” he said.
Cengiz Holding, the Cerattepe mine operator’s parent company, did not respond to requests for comment.
The region’s bucolic charm has been undermined by other major projects. Several hydroelectric dam systems along the Çoruh river have not only affected farmers’ access to water and property, but cost lives, they say.
Locals blame these projects, as well as climate change, for triggering deadly floods and landslides. In August 2015, powerful floods, the worst for half a century, killed eight people and destroyed houses.
Three months later, three people, including a toddler playing in her room, were killed by a landslide in Borçka village, 30 km (19 miles) north of Artvin. The village lies a short distance downstream from a hydroelectric dam built at the confluence of the Murgul and Çoruh rivers.
Activists say the combination of new hydroelectric dams and a changing climate due to global warming have made life more precarious in the valley.
Turkish authorities, however, says dam systems help to control flooding. “With the construction of dams in the main branch of the Çoruh basin, flood disasters are no longer experienced due to the storage characteristics of the dams,” said State Hydraulic Works (DSİ) general manager, Murat Acu.
Further west along the Pontic mountain range, a new mass tourism project is set to present more problems for farmers and shepherds.
At 2,600 km (1,600 miles) long, the “Green Road” tourist highway will connect dozens of valleys across eight provinces, along routes trodden for centuries by shepherds to bring their livestock to high pastures - or yaylalar - during the summer months.
More than 40 “tourism centres” are planned along the route, in the hope of increasing the number of visitors to the region fivefold. The project is expected to be completed next year.
An officer at the state-run Eastern Black Sea Regional Development Plan (DOKAP), who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the project only uses and extends existing roads.
Conservationists, however, say the so-called Green Road is anything but that. As well as cutting off shepherds’ ancient routes, the widening of roads would affect the traditional honey making industry, a central plank of the local economy.
But the government claims the project will be beneficial for local communities. “With the project, which will make life easier, the employment in the region will develop and the people of the region will have access to the Green Road, too,” said Acu head of the State Hydraulic Works, a state agency.
The projects have bought benefits. Hydroelectric dams provide employment and electricity for millions of residents across a part of the country that suffers from brain drain to cities in western Turkey. Artificial lakes created behind several dams along the Çoruh river are used to farm fish, an additional source of income.
And on the banks of the Tigret Creek in Şavşat, a village in Artvin province, DOKA, a government development agency, is constructing a recreational park and cultural centre that, says the mayor, will offer a new space for locals to socialise.
But when a Thomson Reuters Foundation reporter visited the project in Şavşat, heaps of freshly moved soil could be seen to have fallen into the creek, a waterway prone to flash flooding in summer, just metres from the construction work.
Five people were killed in 2009 when barriers erected by the General Directorate of State Hydraulic Works (DSI), the state agency responsible for dams, collapsed following heavy rainfall.
Asked if such large projects are responsible for deadly flooding, the DOKAP officer said: “Before the projects were started, a masterplan was established to research how they and their results would affect people (but) these are projects created to serve people and we can’t know their full consequences without further research.”
Conservationist Neşe Karahan said tunnel digging and explosives use at the Cerattepe hill mine were hazardous for residents.
“These activities secrete hazardous chemicals that poisoned specifically the river on the borders of the Hatila National Park,” she said.
“Gardens can’t be watered anymore and people have lost their jobs and their centuries-old culture.”
For landowners such as Fikret Beyaz, the mining work is making him reconsider his livelihood, but he said quitting would leave his neighbours worse off.
"I'm one of the biggest livestock holders in the area,” he says. "If I leave, the mining firm will continue ruining the waters." (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, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)