Who’s Behind the Attempted Coup in Turkey?

“I am deeply hurt!”

Blond John Bass

More than just another bimbo

It was John Bass, United States’ Ambassador to Turkey speaking in an interview with several Turkish journalists reported in our local daily on Sunday. He had been asked for his evaluation of the failed coup attempt on 15 July, and said he was deeply hurt that some commentators were suggesting, without a scrap of proof, that the United States had had prior knowledge of, and may even have had a finger in it. In fact, there was nothing in the report to say that any of the journalists present had even implied such a thing, so it may be that the ambassador “doth protest too much.”

As usual with diplomats, lawyers and politicians, however, the wording of the denial is very important. The honourable ambassador, you will note, is not hurt that his government is being accused, but that they are being accused without a scrap of proof. Well, of course, it’s not easy to prove these things at the time – the evidence tends to come out much later. Spooks are notoriously good at covering their tracks. It’s their job. Turkey’s political leaders also have to be particularly careful with the wording of their statements, whatever their suspicions, or even evidence, may be. President Erdoğan has been quoted as saying, “Gulen’s followers “are simply the visible tools of the threat against our country. We know that this game, this scenario is far beyond their league.”

The Brothers

Probably they would have been deeply hurt too

Turkey experienced three full-on military coups between 1960 and 1980, and there is ample evidence for CIA involvement. In recent years there has been much written on the subject of Gladio, an Italian word referring to CIA and NATO-sponsored secret armies that “colluded with, funded and often even directed terrorist organizations throughout Europe in what was termed a ‘strategy of tension’ with the aim of preventing a rise of the left in Western European politics.” American writer and journalist Stephen Kinzer published a book “The Brothers” in 2013 in which he details the activities of John Foster and Allen Dulles who, as head of the CIA and Secretary of State in the 50s and early 60s instigated “six regime-change operations . . . Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cuba, and the Congo, including the first presidentially authorized assassinations of foreign leaders in American history.”

Mr Bass, you guys have a long history of removing, or attempting to remove, leaders of sovereign nations whose policies and activities don’t meet with your approval. So don’t come the raw prawn with us!

Dear readers, you may think the following notes on falling oil prices have nothing to do with a failed military coup in Turkey, but don’t be too hasty.

I read an interesting article in the Daily Telegraph a week or so ago entitled Texas shale oil has fought Saudi Arabia to a standstill. Quoting a number of sources, the article was lauding the success of the shale oil industry in reducing the costs of the fracking process, enabling the United States to meet its own needs and drive down the global price of oil, thereby dealing a severe blow to the OPEC countries who, as we all know, are Muslim Arabs. The headline and much of the text focuses on Saudi Arabia and the damage the US is inflicting on the Saudi economy with its industrial might.

A recent article in The Economist purported to explain, in a similar vein, why oil prices are falling so low on the world market. The two main factors put forward were:

  • America has become the world’s largest oil producer, and
  • The Saudis and their Gulf allies have decided not to sacrifice their own market share to restore the price.

fracking dangersWell and good, but let’s take a closer look. First of all, how has the US suddenly gone from being a major importer of oil, to the world’s largest producer? By fracking shale oil is the answer. What’s that all about, you may ask. Like any other natural resource, supplies of oil run out as you consume the stuff. The United States has long since used up all its easily accessible supplies of oil, and found it cheaper to buy elsewhere. They still have oil, of course – that Telegraph article claims the Permian Basin in Texas has as much as Saudi Arabia’s largest oil field – but it’s not easy to get at. Enter the fracking process. Wikipedia explains: “The process involves the high-pressure injection of ‘fracking fluid’ (primarily water, containing sand or other proppants suspended with the aid of thickening agents) into a wellbore to create cracks in the deep-rock formations through which natural gas, petroleum, and brine will flow more freely.” There are serious environmental concerns with this:

  • The process requires huge amounts of water, which inevitably becomes contaminated, even if it does return to the surface, and a lot of it doesn’t.
  • There seems to be some secrecy in the industry about chemicals used in the process.
  • Large areas of land are rendered unsuitable for other uses, including wildlife.
  • There is enormous noise pollution, both from the process itself and from convoys of trucks bringing sand and other necessary materials to the site.
  • There is also a danger of increased seismic activity resulting in earthquakes.

For these reasons, the extraction of oil by hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is under international scrutiny, and has been banned outright in some countries.

Wall St crooks

Where do you slot in?

According to a source quoted in that Telegraph article, much of the finance for the fracking industry is being supplied by Wall Street private equity groups such as the Blackstone and Carlyle Groups. Of course wise investment is an important motive for those businesses, but some might argue that equally important is the need to keep the world safe for capitalism. Daniel Rubenstein, one of Carlyle’s founders is identified in his Wikipedia biography as “financier and philanthropist”. He is also credited with having foreseen, in 2006, that private equity “activity” was about to crash – which it did indeed – but predicted in 2008 that the lean period would soon be over and he and his cronies would be back sucking the world dry more profitably than before. Three big cheers for philanthropy, people!

Do I sound sceptical? Apart from the involvement of Mr Rubenstein and his “philanthropic” ilk, I have other reasons. My primary concern is I do not believe Saudi Arabia is the main target of US strategy here, nor is a desire to be self-sufficient in oil production for its own sake, and I’ll tell you why.

Saudi Arabia is a firm ally of the United States, and the single biggest customer of the US arms industry. What do they do with all that military hardware, given that they don’t seem to be directly involved in any actual wars, to the best of my knowledge. Another source in that Telegraph article asserts that the Saudis are proxy suppliers of military hardware to Egypt and “an opaque nexus of clients in the Saudi sphere.” Whose proxy? No prizes for guessing that one! Furthermore Saudi Arabia has ample foreign reserves and its oil is very cheap to extract. It is well placed to withstand a long siege of low oil prices without seriously affecting the bloated lifestyle of its citizens.

OPEC, however, is not just composed of Middle Eastern Arabs and Muslims. Venezuela, with the world’s second largest oil reserves, was one of the five founding members of OPEC in 1960. Also in the group are Ecuador, Indonesia and several African countries with low per capita incomes: Libya, Algeria, Nigeria, Gabon and Angola. Do you see any countries in that list that Wall Street financiers might not love? Ecuador and Venezuela have been at the forefront of South American Bolivarian socialist progress for two decades. Rafael Correa and his neighbour Hugo Chavez began the process of nationalising their countries’ resources and using them to raise living standards for all their people, and Chavez’s successor Nicolas Maduro has continued on the same track.

USA wants Venezuela

When the fracking’s over . . .

In 2002 a military coup in Venezuela succeeded in overthrowing President Chavez, but after huge demonstrations of public support, the generals handed the reins of government back 47 hours later. According to Wikipedia, In December 2004, The New York Times reported on the release of newly declassified intelligence documents that showed that the CIA and Bush administration officials had advance knowledge of an imminent plot to oust President Chavez, although the same documents do not indicate the United States supported the plot.” Well, they wouldn’t, would they? Not a scrap of evidence, as the US Ambassador to Turkey would say. However, those Wall St financiers don’t give up easily, and they don’t have to win elections to stay in power. There is more than one way to bring down a government you don’t like. Ask Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi.

I came across an article in Global Research last month entitled US-Led Economic War, Not Socialism, is Tearing Venezuela Apart. The writer, Caleb T Maupin, argues, The political and economic crisis facing Venezuela is being endlessly pointed to as proof of the superiority of the free market . . . In reality, millions of Venezuelans have seen their living conditions vastly improved through the Bolivarian process. The problems plaguing the Venezuelan economy are not due to some inherent fault in socialism, but to artificially low oil prices and sabotage by forces hostile to the revolution . . . The goal is to weaken these opponents of Wall Street, London, and Tel Aviv, whose economies are centered around oil and natural gas exports”.


A Nigerian child’s share of his nation’s oil wealth

Who benefits from this economic war? No prizes for guessing that one either. Who suffers? Well, that’s pretty obvious too. The people of Venezuela and Ecuador in the short term, of course – but more so in the long term if the populist economic reform process can be derailed. The people of those African oil-rich countries, Libya, Algeria, Nigeria, Gabon and Angola, certainly, if the multi-national oil companies can retain their control of production. But there are others too, who receive even less publicity: the millions of migrant labourers from India and other poor countries who have been working in Saudi Arabia and other wealthy states in the region. A news report ten days ago revealed  that the Indian government had come to the rescue of more than ten thousand of their citizens starving in Saudi Arabia. 16,000 kg of food was distributed by the consulate in Jeddah to penniless workers who had lost their jobs and not been paid. The report claimed that there are more than three million Indians living and working in Saudi Arabia, and more than 800,000 in Kuwait, many of whom have not been paid for months after factories closed down, and employers are refusing to feed them. The Indian government is taking steps to evacuate as many as possible.

Supporting Turkey

Wink, wink, nudge, nudge . . .

It seems there are many ways the world’s sole remaining super power and its financial backers can get rid of “unfriendly” foreign governments and individuals:

  • Invasion and total destruction is one;
  • Drone strikes are more incisive and undoubtedly cheaper;
  • CIA-sponsored military coups have had some success;
  • Destroying a country’s economy is slower, but leaves less obvious dirt on the hands of the perpetrators, and has the additional advantage of inciting the people of the targeted country to oust the government themselves.

It is clear that the United States, or at least the small amoral power group who control it, do not care if they irreparably destroy their country’s natural environment, nor how many helpless, innocent people at home and abroad suffer for their greed. The US Ambassador to Turkey may be deeply hurt – but I doubt it. Any moisture you see in his eyes will surely be crocodile tears.

It’s a Hoax, Folks!

I must thank a friend in New Zealand for drawing my attention to a news item circulating in Western media to the effect that the government of Turkey is planning to build 80 new coal-fired power stations – one in each of the country’s provinces.

I can find no evidence that any such plan exists. There are, of course, plans to build some coal power stations. We all know they are bad for the environment, and miners die underground – but Turkey depends on imports for its natural gas; environmentalists and archeologists complain about hydro-electric dams; nuclear power is scary; Turkey’s economy and energy needs are growing rapidly, and the newly rich middle classes are hell-bent on emulating the profligate American ‘lifestyle’. Wind and solar sources are sadly not enough to meet demands.


Get a laugh out of it maybe, but don’t take it seriously

The Youtube video circulating online was made by a prominent Turkish actress and is obviously a spoof. The website term-x.com is equally clearly not genuine. ‘Term-X’, the company that allegedly will build the power plants, does have a presence on Linked In and their profile tells me they have 11-50 employees. I suspect they may need to start hiring if they are aiming to build 80 new power stations. Promises to be good for the country’s employment situation, if not for the environment.

However, if you take a look at their website, you’ll pretty soon realize it is not genuine, with punning and ironic slogans like:

‘Projects that will take your breath away!’

‘Our business partners are building a wonderful future for our children!’


‘Children are our future. We’re looking to the future with hope’. If you believe that’s a genuine website, you’ll believe anything.

It seems all the usual pseudo-leftist, pseudo-intellectual anti-government elitists in Turkey are up in arms; and media in the West are picking up on this nonsense and giving credence to it – whether out of ignorance or bad intentions I leave it to you to decide.

The biggest threat to democracy in Turkey, in fact, is the lack of an effective, credible opposition party. Most of the elitist opponents of the government are still living in the days when the army would step in and overturn a democratically elected government if they seemed to be following the ‘wrong path’ – as happened in 1960, 1970, 1980 and 1997. They just can’t get the hang of the democratic process.

Freedom of Speech in the United States

Florida Bans Use of ‘Climate Change’ by State Agency: Report

Another article I chanced upon while trawling around some news sites. The source is Reuters, dated March 9, 2015. I’m pasting it here without comment:

Street scene in the Sunshine State

Street scene in the Sunshine State

Climate change activists blasted Florida Governor Rick Scott on Monday for leading an “Orwellian” campaign to ban employees of the state’s lead environmental agency from using such terms as “global warming” and “climate change.”

Despite coastal Florida’s vulnerability to storm surges and rising sea levels, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection was directed in 2011 not to use the phrases in official communications, according to a report by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

“This is embarrassing, but worse than that, it’s very worrying,” said David Hastings, a marine science professor from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, on Florida’s west coast.

“To have this authoritarian word control is very Orwellian, a page right out of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four,’” he said, referring to George Orwell’s dystopian novel about widespread government surveillance.

30 years on from 1984 . . .

30 years on from 1984 . . .

The governor’s office and the Department of Environmental Protection denied there was a policy banning the terms. “There is no policy and it simply is not true,” said Scott’s deputy communications director, John Tupps.

Former employees of the department detailed the unwritten policy in interviews with the non-profit news agency, which reported the ban on Sunday.

Employees were told not to use the phrases ‘climate change,’ ‘global warming,’ ‘sea level rise,’ or ‘sustainability,’ attorney Christopher Byrd, who worked with the department’s Office of General Counsel from 2008 to 2013, confirmed to Reuters.

“Nobody questioned it. There was just a lot of snickers and internal chuckling,” Byrd said.

The euphemism suggested to employees for “sea level rise” was “coastal resiliency,” he said.

The prohibition began after the election of Scott, who had disputed the human impact on climate change during his 2010 campaign, according to the report.

Wandering in Istanbul – and looking on the bright side

Anti-government demonstrations in Turkey seem a little less frequent and well attended these days – at least in Istanbul. Nevertheless, another one has broken out recently in the Altunizade district on the Asian side of the city. As with last year’s ‘Gezi Park’ event, this also focuses on one more green area in a vast megalopolis seemingly determined to cover itself with tar and cement.

Last weekend, the weather being fine, Dilek and I set out to visit the exhibition of an English photographer, John Wreford, who has been working in the Middle East region for some years. In my opinion, you must be crazy or desperate to drive a car in Istanbul in the weekend, so we boarded a double-decker bus that passes the door of our new abode, on its way to the European side of the city.

Validebağ Park, Altunizade

Validebağ Park, Altunizade

Traffic became increasingly congested as we approached the first Bosporus Bridge, and our enterprising driver plunged his huge vehicle into a labyrinth of narrow back streets in an attempt to avoid the worst bottlenecks. Our top deck lashed by branches of overhanging trees, we made good time while being treated to expansive views of an unfamiliar part of town – passing on our tour the wooded park known as Validebağ, focus of the demonstrations referred to above.

Around the beginning of the 19th century Sultan Selim III established a little country retreat for his mother Mişrişah. ‘Valide’ was the title reserved for the mother of the reigning sultan so we may think of the park as ‘The Garden of the Royal Mother’. A later Sultan, Abdülmecid, gifted park and mansion to his own mother Bezmialem, who turned it into a kind of botanical garden with local and exotic plants. On her death the property passed into the hands of Altunizade İsmail Zühtü Pasha, scion of a wealthy family of merchants and high-ranking minister in the Ottoman Government – whose name is preserved in the surrounding neighbourhood. Subsequently, Ismail Pasha returned the land and buildings to the royal family, Sultan Abdülaziz had a mansion built for Adile, one of his sisters, and the extensive woodland was used for hunting parties.

Cast of the original 1975 'Hababam Sınıfı'

Cast of the original 1975 ‘Hababam Sınıfı’

For some years, the mansion, known as Adile Sultan Kasrı, and its adjacent garden, have been used as a kind of club and social centre for state teachers. It holds a special place in the hearts of citizens of a certain age by virtue of being the location for a 1975 film ‘Hababam Sınıfı’ starring the beloved comic actor Kemal Sunal and featuring the exploits of a class of roguish high school lads.

Current protests seem to be focusing on what some perceive as a threat to one of the inner city’s few large remaining wilderness areas, and in particular, plans to build a mosque therein. The local and national governments are taking the view that the land is neglected and needs to be developed so that the public can make better use of it – and they claim that the proposed mosque will not actually be built within the boundaries of the park. Opponents of development say that the area should be preserved in its wild state because of its importance to migratory bird species – and they are vehemently opposed to the erecting of another mosque, which they see as exemplifying the government’s Islamification agenda.

Cycling the bridge

View from the bridge

Leaving that debate to wiser and better-informed heads than mine, we continued our bus trip across the Bosporus into Europe via the 1.5 km suspension bridge erected in 1973 to join the two continents. An annual highlight for me in recent years has been the day in early summer when authorities close the bridge to motor traffic and allow cyclists to cross. Apart from the exercise, it’s a fabulous photo op. for the unparalleled views it affords of sea, sky and urban sprawl, with the domes and minarets of the ancient city in the distance.

Shortly after arriving on the European shore, we alighted at Zincirlikuyu, making our way along subterranean walkways to the Zorlu Centre, a vast ultra-modern monument to the new Istanbul. The enormous multiple-use complex comprises office space and residential apartments for the rich and famous, a multi-level shopping complex with 200 stores selling high-end merchandise, a food-hall with forty restaurants, terraced rooftop gardens and the largest performing arts centre in the country. It also contains Turkey’s first official Apple store, a sure sign of increasing wealth and disposable income, where I intended purchasing a genuine copy of MS Office to replace the less-than-genuine one that had been giving me problems for some time.

The Zorlu shopping complex (AVM as they are known in Turkey) is still something of a novelty, and the halls were crowded with day-trippers, sightseers, and possibly an actual shopper or two. As we rode an escalator up to the garden level, two well-known stars of popular local soap operas cruised down in the opposite direction. I’m sure I heard Bergüzar Hanım whisper to her husband as they passed, ‘Don’t look now, but isn’t that Dilek and Alan, the famous English teachers?’

Well, we left the crowds to their Louis Vuitton handbags and Lacoste t-shirts, descending this time to the Metro station for a train that would take us to Taksim and İstiklal Avenue, location of last year’s protests, but beloved of Istanbul residents as the city’s main centre for more traditional shopping and a night out on the town. İstiklal is a two-kilometre stretch of art nouveau architecture whose main thoroughfare and adjacent streets contain a bewildering multiplicity of shops, movie theatres, bars, restaurants, cafes, art galleries, and palaces formerly home to diplomatic legations from the imperial states of Europe. It tickles my fancy to imagine how furious those foreign ambassadors must have been when they learnt that the new republican capital would be Ankara – in the 1920s, a remote eastern town indisputably beyond the pale of European civilisation.

Hagia Triada Orthodox Christian church, Taksim

Hagia Triada Orthodox Christian church, Taksim

Having resisted the temptation of Zorlu’s forty restaurants, we made our way to Hatay Medeniyet Sofrası, an eatery assuredly belonging to a less frenetic era of the city’s history. It’s easy to miss if you don’t know where you’re going – but definitely worth the effort of searching. From the large open space of Taksim Square, a building that catches the eye is a domed and turreted edifice clearly owing more to Christian than Muslim architecture. Hagia Triadas, opened for worship in 1880, is the largest Greek Orthodox shrine in Istanbul, and its existence is testimony to a more tolerant age when Christians of all sects, and Jews, were permitted to build their schools, churches and synagogues, live, pray, educate their children, speak their own languages, bury their dead, carry on business and rise to high positions in a society ruled by the Muslim Ottomans.

Interestingly, our restaurant, reached by an unpretentious stairway from the main street, is located in a building owned by the foundation that administers the church. The main dining room looks over its tranquil arboreal garden, a peaceful refuge from the teeming multitudes that throng the street below. Hatay is the name generally used here for the southeastern city sometimes known as Antakya – in ages past, Antioch, once one of the great cities of the ancient Mediterranean. Its cuisine has a well-earned reputation in Turkey – and tourists from neighbouring Arab countries also clearly find it to their taste. Alcoholic beverages are not served, but if you can do without that accompaniment to your meal, you won’t regret your visit.

Well, as you may remember, the primary purpose of this outing was to visit an art gallery, so, well nourished with the culinary delights of Hatay, we strolled the glittering length of Istiklal Avenue to the locality of Tünel at its western end. Tünel is actually the world’s second-oldest and probably its shortest underground railway. Opened in 1875 with only two stations, the line links Istiklal to the seaside district of Karaköy, formerly Istanbul’s main port.

Galatea Gallery, Asmalımescit Mh.

Galatea Gallery, Asmalımescit Mh.

On our right, just before arriving at the upper station, and near the terminal stop of the antique tram that runs from Taksim Square is the rapidly gentrifying area known as Asmalımescit. Ducking down the street of that name we took the first left – and found ourselves in a narrow lane of bars, and cafes. Galatea Gallery is well signposted and located on the upper floor of an old Greek style house typical of those that line the back streets in this part of town. John Wreford is a fit-looking Englishman who lived for ten years in Damascus, Syria, earning his daily bread as a photojournalist. His current exhibition is entitled ‘Raqs Sharqi – Doğunun Dansı’, and portrays in monochromatic images, the Middle Eastern art form commonly referred to in English as belly-dancing. Wreford has used long-exposures to capture the fluid movements of the dancer, and his images are strikingly evocative against the stark white walls and minimalist décor of the gallery.

Before leaving Syria, Wreford had been unable to work for two years because of the civil war that has been tearing that country apart. He arrived in Istanbul just as last year’s ‘Gezi Park’ protests were gaining momentum – so he may have wondered whether the violence was following him. Those particular protests have quietened down, it seems – but more serious problems are facing Turkey now. An estimated two million refugees from that Syrian conflict have now flooded into the country, placing intolerable strain on social services to feed and house them – as well as planting the seeds of a potentially explosive backlash from Turkish citizens. Pressure is being exerted on the government by the USA and its anti-ISIS allies for Turkey to become militarily involved across that border. At the same time, extremists among Turkey’s Kurdish citizenry have been staging protests and carrying out terrorist activities in southeastern cities in an attempt of their own to force the government’s hand.

In such times, it is good to be reminded of the peaceful achievements in arts and architecture of the peoples who have inhabited for countless centuries these lands widely recognized as the cradle of human civilization. We can only hope that good sense will prevail and our political leaders will find a way to bring us safely through the minefields of nationalist and religious bigotry that currently threaten our world.

Turkey’s Mining Disaster 2014 – and keeping up with the Joneses

Families of Turkish coal miners in Soma
The words of an old song have been running through my head for the last few days. Maybe you remember the Bee Gees. I guess they had a little something for everyone, since their musical career spanned five decades. The song I’m remembering, though, was their first major hit, released in 1967. It’s a fictional monologue by a coal-miner trapped underground, showing a picture of his wife to his mate while they wait and hope for rescuers to arrive:
In the event of something happening to me,
there is something I would like you all to see.
It’s just a photograph of someone that I knew.
Have you seen my wife, Mr Jones?
Do you know what it’s like on the outside?
Don’t go talking too loud, you’ll cause a landslide, Mr Jones.
I keep straining my ears to hear a sound.
Maybe someone is digging underground,
or have they given up and all gone home to bed,

thinking those who once existed must be dead.

Despite the song’s title, Wikipedia assures me there was no mining disaster in New York in 1941 – though there apparently was one in Pennsylvania that year, and there had been one in New York State two years earlier. The Bee Gees were perhaps inspired by a tragic accident in the Welsh coal-mining town of Aberfan. In 1966, 144 people including 116 children were killed when a mountain of debris from the mine collapsed, burying a village primary school under 40,000 cubic metres of rock and shale. Very definitely, however, a mining disaster has taken place in Turkey in the town of Soma, Manisa, where almost 800 miners were underground when an explosion occurred. So far 300 have been confirmed killed – with that death toll likely to rise.

Unlike the Bee Gees’ miners, who had some hope of survival, so long as rescuers arrived before their pocket of air was exhausted, the Turkish miners were mostly doomed from the beginning. Some of them were working 420 metres below ground when the explosion occurred. The horror of what happened down there in a hell of pitch blackness, burning coal and an atmosphere of deadly poisonous methane gas can scarcely be imagined by those of us for whom an electricity outage above ground is a scary experience.

The other aspect of the tragedy, of course, is the shocking bereavement for hundreds, perhaps thousands of Soma townspeople who have, at one blow, lost husbands, fathers, sons, neighbours, friends and workmates. What makes it worse is that miners and union representatives had apparently been expressing concerns about safety in the mine for some time – with little response from company management.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan reportedly cancelled a trip to Albania to visit the stricken town and express his sympathy. He also apparently urged people to refrain from using the tragedy as a political football. Some hope! Already there have been demonstrations across the country, adding fuel to the fire of political unrest that has been growing against the government for the past year, with some protesters adding ‘murderer’ to the list of accusations they are levelling against Mr Erdoğan.
How fair is it to blame the AK Party government for the disaster in Soma? First of all, it must be accepted that the Soma mine is operated by a private company, not the Turkish state. On the other hand, say opponents, that is the heart of the problem – the privatization of former state activities results in the application of bottom-line accounting and principles of short-term profit such that worker safety and conditions of employment figure very low on a list of management priorities.
Well, I have no personal experience of coal mining, thank God, but I have been working in the private education sector in this country for some years, and I have seen how owners and managers of educational institutions treat teachers. With no union or professional organisation to represent their interests, teachers often work in a state of fear, knowing that their employment can be terminated without redress, and that any comments they make about pay or working conditions can be a reason for termination. If employers can treat university-educated professionals in this way, it is easy to imagine that the lot of a coal-miner will be little removed from servitude. Clearly, whatever social and economic gains have been made in Turkey in the first years of the 21st century, there is a crying need for improvement in workplace conditions, and the right of employees to collective bargaining is fundamental to this.
To be fair, however, these problems are not confined to Turkey. In 2010, 29 coal miners died in a similar tragedy in New Zealand, again in a mine operated by a private company. A Royal Commission found that government oversight of safety regulations had been inadequate and that company management had been aware of dangers such as high levels of methane gas. As a result, the company was ordered to pay compensation to the bereaved families, but it was unable to do so, since it went bankrupt. The CEO was absolved of blame on the grounds of insufficient evidence. I would have thought that, in these days of grossly overpaid CEOs, one of the few justifications for their obscene pay-packets would be strict liability in such circumstances – but who am I?
Anyway, I thought it was a little unfair that reports in NZ news media on the Soma disaster concluded with the words, ‘Mining accidents are common in Turkey, which is plagued by poor safety conditions.’ There is a website called the Coal Mining History Resource Centre which publishes a list of recent fatal mining disasters. According to CMHRC, apart from the New Zealand explosions, three of the worst in the past ten years occurred in the United States.
The fact is that coal mining is an extremely nasty business that few would willingly undertake if they had alternative means of making a living for themselves and their families. According to CMHRC, at the peak of coal mining in the United Kingdom, between 1900 and 1950, there were 84,331 injuries and deaths in mine accidents. In the same period in the United States, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration of the US Dept of Labour, there were 452 accidents in coalmines involving injury and death. It is, of course, technologically possible these days to make conditions underground safer. Reports in the Turkish media are saying that there are safe-room installations available for miners to take refuge in in the event of high gas levels or explosions – but they are so expensive that mining companies do not consider them economically feasible.
Open-cast coal mine in Alabama, USA

I recently came across the fascinating story of a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania called Centralia. Apparently, back in 1962, a fire started in an exposed vein of anthracite coal which then began to burn underground. All attempts to extinguish the fire proved unsuccessful and the town eventually had to be abandoned because of noxious gases emerging at the surface. Reports say that the fire could burn for another two hundred and fifty years before the 12 km coal seam is exhausted. In the mean time, the ghost town of Centralia has been erased from maps, and roads that used to pass through it have been diverted.

Now, I understand, when regulations are passed obliging companies to spend money on health and safety, they either close their mines, or do what seems to be the norm in developed countries – revert to open-cast or strip mining. The method here is to use massive digging machines to excavate down to the seam and load the coal on to trucks without the need for a large labour force of subterranean workers. Admittedly this process does create a significant amount of environmental damage – but as yet governments are less responsive to that cost. In the case of the New Zealand Pike River mine, however, the fact that coal extraction was taking place in a national park means that strip mining has so far not been approved.
One report I read about the current issue said that Turkey meets 40% of its current electricity needs from coal-burning plants. I’m sure the government recognises that this is undesirable, and in fact, they are planning to build at least two nuclear power plants to reduce dependence on coal and imported natural gas. Nuclear energy itself, of course, has its down side, as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima have shown us. So what’s the government of a developing economy to do when its industrial base is expanding and its middle class is growing and demanding higher living standards (read ‘energy consumption’)? Out of curiosity I checked how the US and the UK meet their electricity needs and the results were surprising, to me at least:
In the US, the largest source of electricity is coal-burning plants (37%), followed by natural gas (30%) and nuclear energy (19%). In the UK, natural gas (40.4%) nudges out coal (32.3%) as the major source, with nuclear power supplying 17.6%. According to Wikipedia, coal-fired power plants are still far and away the largest provider of electricity in the world. So what’s the answer? If you really feel sorry for those coal miners, reduce your electricity consumption – but be aware that those guys will then need alternative means of employment.
Clearly this whole business is not merely a problem that Turkey alone is facing. In developed and developing countries alike, the pressure is on to privatise activities that were once considered the primary responsibility of the state, from education and health, to public transport, telecommunications and energy supply. I will readily admit that some of these services are more effectively and efficiently supplied by private sector owners and managers. I well remember, for example, how long we used to wait for a telephone connection in days gone by. On the other hand, I question whether private enterprise can provide satisfactory health and education to the majority when its first responsibility is always to its shareholders, and turning a profit is inevitably the number one priority. Short-term employment contracts, out-sourcing of functions formerly carried out in-house (such as cleaning and catering), as well as the tendency to look for cheaper labour in countries with lower standards of living and less stringent labour protection laws, have created a global environment where concern for human dignity and rights are given scant attention.
I really would like to think that things are getting better, but I have serious doubts. I recently had reason to look up statistics on car ownership around the world. As you would expect, the USA ranks pretty high, though its rate of 80% puts it in 3rd place behind billionaire playgrounds San Marino and Monaco. New Zealand and Australia also feature pretty well up the list, with 71 and 72%. Northern Europe, again as we might expect, is less dependent on the private car. Denmark, for example, where the bicycle is a lifestyle choice, has a 48% rate of car ownership. City-dwelling Turks, suffering for hours in the gridlock of Istanbul traffic, will perhaps be surprised to learn that their nation’s rate is a mere twenty percent. If Turks and the Chinese (current ownership rate 10%) approach even the proportion of cars owned by Danes, never mind Americans, what hope is there for planet Earth?
So I say to my Turkish neighbours (and American and New Zealand friends across the oceans could set an example here) – if you really care for those coal miners, get yourself a bicycle and an Akbil[1], start using the Metro and the Metrobus, and give serious thought to reducing the size of your carbon footprint.

[1] Intelligent ticket – usable on most forms of public transport in Istanbul

Saudi Bustards

We New Zealanders are very concerned about endangered species of flora and fauna. We actually have a government cabinet minister responsible for the environment. I’ve got a feeling we used to have one tasked with its conservation, but I wouldn’t swear to that.
I have to confess, though, we can sometimes get a bit self-righteous and holier-than-thou on the subject, which we really have no right to be. Since Europeans began to arrive in numbers a mere 170 years or so ago we have managed to eradicate at least twenty species, mostly birds. We have also brought many more to the verge of extinction, including four species of sea mammal.
Nevertheless, being aware of its existence is the first step towards solving a problem, and I feel some pride in the programmes our government funds to preserve fascinating birds like the kakapo from following the dodo into oblivion.
Houbara Bustard
getting it on for the ladies
The modern state of Turkey, despite standing on land that has witnessed the passing of innumerable civilisations for millennia, is surprisingly still home to species of birds and animals not much to be met with elsewhere in Europe: the white-tailed eagle, fallow deer, Iranian gazelle and the Mediterranean seal; the Anatolian spiny mouse, the steppe eagle and the pallid harrier; the striped hyena, Indian crested porcupine, northern bald ibis, demoiselle crane, Saker falcon and the Taurus frog. It’s not so long ago, I understand, that dancing bears were to be seen on the streets of Istanbul for the entertainment of visitors. These days, at least among educated urbanites, more enlightened attitudes are in evidence towards the preservation of native flora and fauna.
Currently before a court near the southeastern city of Diyarbakır is the case of two shepherds charged with illegally shooting a rare Anatolian leopard. The brothers claim that the leopard leaped out of a tree and attacked them. If they hadn’t shot it they would have been torn to pieces. The judge, for his part, has expressed scepticism that the scratches sustained by one of the brothers are consistent with his having been savaged by a 90 kg wild cat. If his decision goes against them, the shepherds could be jailed for three to five years.
While you probably have some knowledge of leopards, gazelles and eagles, you may be less familiar with (perhaps even have less sympathy for) spiny mice, Taurus frogs and crested porcupines. Another creature whose existence may come as a surprise to you is the Asian Houbara (Chlamydotis mcqueenii), sometimes known as the McQueen’s or Houbara Bustard.
The Asian houbara, whose natural habitat is the arid steppe or desert, is apparently quite a large bustard, somewhat bigger than its North African bustard cousins. It is, however, severely endangered and the subject of conservation efforts by the International Foundation for Conservation and Development of Wildlife (IFCDW).
Interestingly for New Zealanders, this big bustard has an important characteristic in common with our own flightless, nocturnal parrot, the kakapo. While many birds form bonded pairs for the purpose of mating and raising chicks, both kokako and bustards engage in what is known in ornithological circles as a lek breeding system. What happens here is that males select a spot to stage their performance and proceed to dance, bellow loudly and otherwise make spectacles of themselves while the young ladies stand demurely around and select a partner. One thing naturally leads to another – after which males and females go their separate ways, males, one assumes, happy to escape the responsibilities of fatherhood, and females relieved that they don’t have to spend a lifetime with those noisy arrogant boorish bustards.
Possibly as a result as a result of this male behaviour, the meat of the bustard is considered, particularly in traditional Arab societies, an aphrodisiac. In addition, bustards seem to have a rather evolutionarily unpropitious approach to being hunted. Hunters on camels would surround the birds and approach in slowly decreasing circles. Eschewing the obvious avian escape of flight, the bustard would attempt to conceal itself in the manner immortalised by ostriches, with generally unhappy outcomes for the survival of the species. It’s also possible that they had learnt the futility of flight from the Arab practice of using trained falcons to catch them on the wing – and just wanted to get it all over with quickly.
Prince Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz al Saud
in need of a bustard kebab
Whatever the case, the result, as noted above, is that the Asian bustard is a critically endangered species. Its disappearance has been accelerated as wealthy Arabs have graduated from traditional Mohammedan camels to Western 4WD SUVs and state-of-the-art hunting rifles. The poor little bustard is now a rare sight in the Arabian desert, and sheikhs with potency problems are having to travel farther afield in their search for hubaran assistance. Again, as we New Zealanders are aware, poorer countries are often obliged to woo rich neighbours to spend their money in our market-place. In Pakistan hunting permits for bustards are issued and safari tours organised for Arabs from the upper strata of society. Quotas, of course, are stipulated, but not, it seems, stringently policed.
The matter came to my attention in an articlein our local Turkish newspaper. Saudi prince, Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was reported as having participated in such a hunting safari in the Balochistan region of Pakistan. During the 21-day outing, the royal Saud accounted for 1,977 of the endangered bustards; though Wikipedia records a higher number – 2,100.

Who can know? And who was counting? Maybe His 63 year-old Royal Highness was proud of his achievement, and tweeted the kill as advance warning to the houris in his harem back home . . . ‘Look out, momma! Here I come!’