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Land disputes, climate change pressure Turkish nomads to settle

by Liz Cookman | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 1 December 2021 03:00 GMT

Kezvan and her two daughters, Özlem and Songül, migrate with the animals between camps on foot in Anatolia, Turkey, May 13, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Alba Cambeiro

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As drought and tensions with local farmers threaten their pastoralist lifestyle, the last of Turkey's nomadic Yoruks fear they may soon have to settle down

By Liz Cookman

ANATOLIA, Turkey, Dec 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Woken by the first light of dawn, Mehmet and his family rise to drink sweet black tea before they deconstruct the goat hair tent they share and set out across the rangelands of central Anatolia.

The family are Sarikecili Yoruks, a nomadic people who have grazed their animals on land that is now part of Turkey for more than a millennium.

Members of the Yoruk community say only 150 nomadic families remain today, compared to the 1,000 families estimated to have roamed the region 50 years ago.

Mehmet and his family fear they could be among the last, as the struggle to find water, a sharp rise in land disputes and a lack of legal protection to ensure their way of life could force future generations to settle down.

"For people like us, if we lived in a village there would be no work opportunities, but mountain life is ending," said Mehmet, who asked that his last name not be used.

"We are miserable, but nobody looks after us."

Yoruks spend half the year in the cooler mountain plateaus of central Anatolia and the other half by the temperate coast.

Every year, Mehmet, his wife Kezban and their three children travel 600km (371 miles) between the southern port city of Mersin and the plains around Konya, a city south of the capital Ankara, living off their animals and selling livestock, cheese and yogurt at village markets.

Their migration patterns have already shifted, as successive years of reduced rainfall that scientists attribute to climate change have dried up the rivers, lakes and groundwater that the Yoruks rely on during their travels.

"There is little water now ... this year it did not rain much at all," said Mehmet.

"The hardest challenge we face is with the muhtars (village chiefs)," he added, explaining that over recent years, the chiefs have made it more difficult and expensive for nomadic families to pass through their villages.


Each migration, Yoruks get permission from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry to move their animals across public land.

But to travel through private land, the families need the blessing of the village muhtar, an elected head, who often asks the families to pay a tender - and the rates are constantly rising, Mehmet said.

As a result, some nomads can no longer afford to migrate to their summer pastures, which means they are forced to settle and, in many cases, sell their livestock to make enough to feed their families.

Those who can pay to continue their travels are often confronted by officers of the jandarma, Turkey's paramilitary force, or angry locals who accuse the herders' livestock of eating and trampling their crops.

"The villagers don't want us. The jandarma say, 'You can't come', but give no reason," said Mehmet during a stop about 120km south of Konya.

He held up a piece of paper given to him earlier by the jandarma, asking that the family move on.

Officers who visited the family a few days earlier even tore up the migration permission documents he had gotten from the agriculture ministry, he said.

Turkey's Directorate of Communications said that it had "nothing to add" when contacted about the Yoruks' claims.

The office of the governor of Ahirli, one of the towns on the Yoruks' migration path, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation they do not charge the nomads nor disrupt their migration.

Several officials in other towns on the route declined to comment.

The family's mother, Kezvan, gathers the herd of 500 goats early in the morning to set out on the road in Anatolia, Turkey, May 13, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Alba Cambeiro


Natural rangelands in Turkey have reduced by about 70% over the last 60 years, due to a combination of drought, the spread of farming and unchecked development, said Engin Yilmaz, director of the Yolda Initiative, an Ankara-based conservation group.

This means nomads are increasingly forced to pass through other types of land, including that used for agriculture.

Nomads all over the world are being blamed for the degradation of rangeland, but that land loss is usually more to do with government mismanagement, Yilmaz said.

"We don't have a policy framework that ensures the right to access lands and natural areas in Turkey," he said. "Policies favour industry and lifestyle production systems and usually have a harmful impact on (pastoralist) communities."

Tensions between nomads and rural communities are also compounded by Turkey's current economic crisis, with the lira hitting record lows against the dollar over the past three years and food prices rising by nearly 20% annually.

Yoruks say the financial squeeze is causing rural communities to use herders as scapegoats for their reduced profits.

"When the economy is really awful tensions rise, and it affects nomads," Yilmaz said, adding that, from an ecological perspective, pastoralism is good for the land, aiding biodiversity by spreading seeds around and keeping ecosystems healthy.


To save the Yoruks' lifestyle from disappearing completely, the government should protect their culture while also ensuring they enjoy the same rights as all other Turks, said Tarik Beyhan, campaigns and communication director at Amnesty International Turkey.

"All nomadic communities around the world are vulnerable to being marginalized and excluded," he said in emailed comments.

"Authorities should adopt and implement policies to improve the living conditions of nomadic people."

Unlike some Yoruks who have chosen to settle, at least partially, Mehmet's family live in their tent all year round.

The family's lack of a permanent address means they have limited access to social services like healthcare and education.

When Mehmet's son and two daughters – aged between 11 and 16 – were asked if they want to continue to be nomadic when they grow up, only the boy said yes.

But the community's traditional values and an unwillingness to send girls to higher education means finding work could be hard for the daughters if they choose to settle, said Ayse Hilal, an anthropologist at Yeditepe University.

The children have no formal schooling, instead they attend classes using their phones whenever their migration schedule allows.

Yoruk women and girls do all the cooking, cleaning and walking the animals to new pastures each day, meaning they have fewer transferable skills such as driving, and would be disproportionately impacted by the loss of their way of life, Hilal said.

"The work done by Yoruk women is mostly related to the inside of the tent and its surroundings, while men are interested in non-tent jobs," she said.

"There is a patriarchal structure in nomadic life – women are pushed to the second rung in society."

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(Reporting by Liz Cookman, Editing by Jumana Farouky. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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