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Turkey accused of 'stealing' trees in Iraqi Kurdistan logging campaign

Alleged deforestation campaign by Turkish army in Iraqi Kurdistan's border areas has caused public uproar and raised concern the environment is facing destruction
A photo taken in May 2021, in Sindy, a border area in Zakho district in Duhok, northern Iraq (Credit: MP Hevidar Ahmed/Zakho district)
By in
Sulaymaniyah, Iraq

As Turkey's military operations target Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militants in Iraqi Kurdistan, the region's environment is falling prey to a deforestation campaign aimed at constructing roads for Turkish military outposts and economic gains, according to several officials and eyewitnesses who spoke to Middle East Eye.

Over the past week, reports of Turkey's logging in Duhok province have been circulating on social media, with people condemning it and calling on the Turkish army to stop the campaign.

The news was first reported by Ali Hama Salih, an MP in the Kurdish region's parliament, who posted footage and pictures of fallen trees and burnt forests.

'This is not new. Turkey has been doing this for nearly 10 years but slowly and gradually, and recently, they constructed two new roads leading to Sirnak'

- Tariq Ismat, chief of Nizur village

"The Turkish army has crossed the border by 50km to build roads in order to clear out paths and link military posts built there," Salih told MEE.

He added that the Turkish army had "destroyed and distorted Kurdistan [region's] nature, specifically in Zap, Avashin, Metina and Bedlis".

Those areas are the focal point of two Turkish military operations against the PKK, launched on 23 April and dubbed Claw-Lightning and Claw-Thunderbolt. The objective of the operations is to establish a military base to stop PKK movements between the Kurdistan region and Turkey as well as Syria.

The areas are located along the Turkish border, where nearly 100 villages have been evacuated due to clashes between PKK militants and Turkish soldiers as well as bombardments.

The PKK is a Kurdish militant group based in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey that has been in conflict with Ankara since 1984, when the organisation started its campaign to carve out an independent Kurdish state. The group now says it wants greater autonomy for Kurds in Turkey.

The fighting is believed to have resulted in at least 40,000 deaths since the guerilla war began. Turkey, the European Union and the United States have designated the PKK as a terrorist group.

MEE has contacted the Turkish consulate in Erbil for comment, but had not received a response by the time of publication.

Satellite images

To link its military outposts, which are reported to number more than two dozen in northern Iraq, Turkey has for years reportedly been clearing the forests in its operations sites either by cutting down trees or burning them.

Satellite imagery shared online shows that Turkey has been clearing Duhok's forests to build various roads.

MEE has reached out to Duhok Governor Ali Tatar, but he was not immediately available for comment.

In a series of tweets, Wim Zwijnburg, a conflict and environment analyst with the Dutch peace organisation Pax, provided satellite images comparing the deforestation process between 2020 and 2021.

Tariq Ismat, chief of Nizur village, told MEE that the deforestation had been happening for years.

"This is not new. Turkey has been doing this for nearly 10 years, but slowly and gradually, and recently they constructed two new roads leading to Sirnak," he said.  

Sirnak is a border town in southeastern Turkey connecting Turkey and the Kurdistan region.

Ismat, a resident of Nizur village who has witnessed fallen and transported trees numerous times, said he had to evacuate his home along with all other residents in 2016 due to Turkish air strikes. His village is the last in Zakho district located between northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey.

'Logging was carried out extensively last year but it was stopped after intervention and numerous warnings to the Turkish government'

- Kawa Sabri, manager of Duhok province's forests.

Kawa Sabri, manager of Duhok province's forests, told MEE that for nearly a year Turkey had been intensifying its campaign of deforestation.

"Logging was carried out extensively last year, but it was stopped after intervention and numerous warnings to the Turkish government," Sabri said.

Both Sabri and Ismat confirmed that the recent campaign was halted as of 2 June.

Rudaw, a Kurdish media outlet, reported that Turkey has built more than 70km of roads in the Kurdistan region via a company linked to the Turkish army.

Sheikh Mus Babat, a contractor for the company, said: "We have built a road at Haftanin that extends 74km into Iraq, and another company has built a 38km road between Ashite village and the Kesta mountains."

Hard to investigate

Experts and officials say that the areas potentially affected are war territories, which makes it hard to investigate the damage, so whatever evaluation being published is a rough estimate.

"Nobody can be allowed to go there because a military operation is being carried out," Sabri said.

"However, we can say that 5,000 dunams [500 hectares] had been destroyed either by air strikes or by deliberate logging."

According to data from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Duhok province has 170,000 hectares of artificial and natural forests.

"The areas are a place of conflict. It's hard to go there and launch an investigation into the matter," Salih, the MP, said. However, he added that "after careful inspection and asking local residents, we learned that the companies responsible for cutting down trees transported 450 tonnes of trees to Turkey per day."

MEE could not independently verify the claims.

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He also said that woods near the military posts were burnt to facilitate movements.

Hevidar Ahmed, a member of parliament in the Kurdistan region, posted a number of photos that showed trucks carrying wood, and said the campaign of deforestation was illegally carried out in May 2021.

"Turkey's gangs have been cutting down and stealing trees in Sinat, Mergashish, Shish, Kalok, Masi villages etc...  in Sindy region in Zakho district," he wrote on his Facebook page.

When asked by MEE about the date of the photos, he said they were probably taken in mid-May.

"Most of the trees cut down were walnut and plane trees. They're the most expensive ones. There were trees aged 350 to 400 years and sold at a worth of ten thousand dollars each."

"These two types are used for the most expensive furniture. Trees from those areas are valuable." 

"I'm originally from there [Sindy] and we are not allowed to go there because of Turkish operations [against PKK]" 

"My family has orchards that are worth 100,000 dollars. This is just my family's loss and there are a lot of orchards there belonging to people who are not allowed to get near them." 

A satellite image published by Zwijnburg indicates that a large part of the forests have been cut down for motives other than road construction.

"In other areas, the road construction didn't merely cut down trees to make space but larger parts of the forest were cut down," he wrote.

Trees 'taken to be sold'

According to Ismat, Turkey transports the wood for commercial purposes.

"I have seen with my own eyes that the trees were taken to be sold. In Turkey they are being taken to factories and turned into furniture. They are also used for other purposes such as for cooking in restaurants," he said.

Salih confirmed this, saying "the trees were taken by some contractors and companies to make furniture".

This is not the first time Turkey has been being accused of "stealing" precious and indigenous trees while destroying the environment.

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In 2019, locals in Afrin, a town in northern Syria, accused Turkey of "stealing" the town's olive trees. Afrin was subject to a Turkish military operation against the People's Protection Units (PYD), an offshoot of the PKK in Syria.

The news quickly spread online, sparking public outrage. People took to social media to demand an explanation from the KRG and to end the process.

"The Turkish action is unacceptable... It's not acceptable that the environment could be used as a weapon to pressure one's enemy, whatever the reason that may be," Maruf Majid, head of the Ayinda (Future) Organisation for Protecting the Environment, told MEE.

He said Turkey should seek other channels for settling its dispute with the PKK, and that "its actions against the Kurdistan environment would have a great consequence which will lead to environmental and humanitarian disaster".

In a statement, his organisation, based in Sulaymaniyah, called on international organisations and the United Nations to take necessary measures against Turkey's action "which are not justifiable according to international law and norms".

Another prominent organisation advocating for protecting the environment, the Green Party of Kurdistan, submitted an urgent appeal to the UN demanding that Turkey face international law for "destroying and stealing" the region's forests.

The KRG has issued a statement saying that it has conveyed its "dissatisfaction" and "concern" to Turkish officials about the damage done by the Turkish military, calling the action "unacceptable" and saying it should be immediately stopped.

Turkey said in a statement that it showed "maximum sensitivity and attention" to civilians, to the environment as well as to historical and cultural sites during their operations.

However, due to its recent operations, five villages have been evacuated.

According to the International Crisis Group, 55 out of 67 fatalities due to clashes between PKK and Turkey happened in Iraqi Kurdistan, with two civilians killed in the first four months of 2021.

According to the same organisation, since 2015, more than 5,000 people have been killed due to the conflict.

A report by the Kurdistan regional parliament published last year shows that a total of 504 villages have been evacuated because of Turkey-PKK clashes since 1992.

In a meeting on 1 June with the Turkish general consul in Erbil, Hakan Karacay, the deputy speaker of the Kurdistan Regional Parliament, Hemin Hawrami, expressed his "grave concern about the harm caused to the lives and livelihoods of the villagers in the border area... by the military conflict between Turkey and the PKK".

According to Iraqi Kurdish Bwar News, the consul urged Hawrami to block an attempt by 36 MPs to arrange a session to discuss the deforestation campaign in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Bwar News cited an unknown source that claimed Karacay expressed his concern about some MPs' moves against Turkey.

It comes after 36 members of parliament collected signatures to convene a meeting in parliament to seek to prevent further Turkish incursions into the region.

"Now the number is 42. Only 10 signatures are needed to hold a session," Salih said.

KRG 'weak stance' blamed

According to Abbas Fattah, the head of the legal committee cited by Bwar, convening the session needs two of the three parliamentary groups' leaderships to give it the go-ahead but Deputy Speaker Hawrami and a pro-KDP Turkmen parliament secretary are "blocking" it.

MEE could not independently verify the authenticity of the article published by Bwar News.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, is the most powerful of the ruling parties in the region. It enjoys an amicable relationship with Turkey both politically and economically.

Both Salih and Majid agree that a "weak" stance shown by the KRG has led to the Turkish incursion and deforestation campaign.

"We are blaming the KRG for this as it continuously chooses silence or a weak stance over Turkish military actions. It always stands short to condemn Ankara's military advancement," Majid said.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.