(Jonathan Watts / The Guardian – July 21, 2018)
Photo: Birhan Erkutlu and Tuğba Günal, figureheads of a campaign to protect rivers and trees from hydropower plants in Antalya. Photograph: Thom Pierce / Guardian / Global Witness / UN Environment
Birhan Erkutlu and Tuğba Günal wanted to ‘get away from it all’ but are now leading a campaign to protect rivers and trees from hydropower plants
Birhan Erkutlu and Tuğba Günal moved into the forests of Antalya to get away from it all. They wanted a natural, peaceful life free of capitalism, consumer culture, social media, the internet, even electricity. Fate had other plans.
Fourteen years on, the two artists are now figureheads of a campaign to protect rivers and trees from a cascade of hydropower plants. Their tweets and Facebook posts attract hundreds of thousands of followers. They use drones to expose wrongdoing. And they have overcome threats, warning shots and a hostile political culture to lobby successfully for the creation of a new protected area.
“We have become guardians here without intending to,” says Erkutlu. “But now we see how many others are doing this around the world. It has opened our minds. Maybe our problems are small compared to the Amazon and elsewhere. But it is the same threats, the same courts.”
The Turkish couple’s high-tech activism is accidental. The artists have known each other from their teens. They left wealthy neighbourhoods of Istanbul in 2004 and built a home in the Alakir Valley without electricity, telephones or internet. The goal was to explore the possibilities of an alternative lifestyle; to escape rather than confront consumer culture.
But it caught up with them five years later when they heard the sound of bulldozers and chainsaws near their woodland home. The Kürce HES power company were clearing land alongside the Alakır river so they could begin construction of a cascade of six hydroelectric dams.
“We decided to do everything we can to stop them,” says Erkutlu. “We saw birds raise chicks here. Squirrels and foxes too. After a while, they become like family. When someone comes to your home and starts to kill them, it’s a normal reflex to try to stop them.”
They changed tack. Abandoning a policy of isolation and total self-sufficiency, they asked friends for donations to help pay for a legal challenge against the project, then painted pictures, released albums and performed street art to raise awareness and funds. Most effectively, they have taken to social media to mobilise public opinion, posting photos of the destruction.
A backlash followed. Some in the local community turned against them for opposing a company that had brought jobs and tax revenue. Their visitors were threatened. Lawsuits were filed. Police called them in repeatedly for questioning. Shots were fired outside their home.