Illustrations of mobile pastoralists | Mobile Pastoralism in Turkey

The Mediterranean is Burning, and Mobile Pastoralists have a Solution

Dr. Eda Elif Tibet, Visual Anthropology Lead and Media Outreach Coordinator, Global Diversity Foundation &  Post-doctoral Researcher, Critical Sustainability Unit, Institute of Geography, University of Bern. 

Burcu Ates, Yolda Initiative and Alliance for Mediterranean Nature & Culture (AMNC) & PhD Researcher, Interdisciplinary Centre for Urban Culture and Public Space, Faculty of Architecture and Spatial Planning, Vienna University of Technology.

29 September 2021

Feature image for The Mediterranean is Burning

Sarikecili Mobile Pastoralist Family Meryem and Hülya Gök giving water to the goat flock through a water tank. Photograph courtesy of Eda Elif Tibet, from the film Hey Goat! 2014. Silifke, Turkey.

Just as the worst of the July 2021 floods in Western Europe was over, and clean-up operations were beginning, Finland battled its biggest forest fire in half a century. Since April, 1.5m hectares of taiga forest have been ravaged by wildfire in Siberia. The past few years have seen the worst wildfires on record in Australia and the west coast of North America. Over the summer, vast Mediterranean landscapes were consumed by flames. Communities in Italy, Greece, Turkey and Algeria dealt with wave upon wave of intense heat, with temperatures climbing to record peaks of 45 degrees celsius and above with significant loss of human lives. The heat, combined with intense drought, creates the ideal conditions for forest fires. In some parts of Greece, hospitals admitted patients with breathing difficulties due to the constant presence of smoke in the atmosphere. On the Greek Island of Evia, the entire northern area was evacuated as it went up in smoke. In Turkey, farmers watched helplessly as their animals perished. Dozens of villages have been evacuated. In Sardinia, precious old growth oak forests, pasture lands, and sacred sites were burnt to the ground.

The IPCC report on the physical science of Climate Change, published on 9 August 2021, is clear: the weather events we are seeing are unequivocally the result of anthropogenic climate change. The report is stark in its warning: not only are the changes we see now irreversible and inevitable, but if we don’t act now, these weather events will worsen significantly. And yet, we are still not seeing the kind of global leadership necessary to tackle this existential threat.

In this article, we share a story from Turkey that showcases how local communities—in this case nomadic pastoralists—are key allies in the fight against wildfires in the Mediterranean.

The situation in Turkey: fires, storytelling and media outreach

In Turkey, the official action plan to deal with the wildfires was insufficient and the response too slow. In the absence of leadership ‘from above’, civil society actors have been stepping in to seek solutions to the wildfires. Yolda Initiative, which works with Sarikeçili and other nomadic pastoralists, has been conducting fieldwork in the summer pastures of the Taurus Mountains in Southern Turkey, documenting knowledge from local experts. In a recent interview carried out as part of this research, Sarikeçili  community leader Pervin Savran, president of  Sarikeçilileri Yasatma ve Dayanisma Dernegi (Sarikeçili Livelihood and Solidarity Association), reflected upon the wildfires and their connection to climate change:

“In recent years, our forests became ready for fires due to climate change. Areas where our goats do not graze are ready to catch fire. You may ask why? When goats do not graze the flammable vegetation there will be no possibility to create fire-break corridors in the forest . The climate has changed so quickly, and humankind has done this to itself. You may ask why? We chose to live an easy life, away from hardship. Instead of living in yurts, humans ran away from the territories of life. They continue to escape from life – and a strange alternative life they chose, a life that is about destruction. Of course when humankind chooses to live this way, strange diseases and strange fires appear, reducing the lifespan of each human. We are racing  towards increased heat waves and climate changes. These fires are just the beginning, we have worse dangers to come. Humans who are not connected to the land do not understand the language of nature, they do not listen to the forests, nor to their animals, they are only into easy consumption. For us to be able to prevent the worst consequences of climate change, we the Sarikecili tribe continue our struggle and we say: let us continue our migration, let our goats continue to feed their stomachs in these forests, as we shall continue contributing to our country’s economy. Let humans think again and again, that we need life, we need breath, we need to complete the life cycle that is given to us. Let us not shrink our lives, by our own hands, let us not burn our forests, by our own hands, let us not destroy our common future, by our own hands. Let’s understand all of this before it is too late.”

The Mediterranean is Burning article.

Pervin Savran, photographed by Sezgin Pancar. ©Anadolu Ajansi

The interview was first shared on Yolda’s instagram account and subsequently cross-shared by many social media accounts, resulting in millions of views and interactions. Upon hearing Pervin Savran’s heartfelt call to humanity, national TV channels in Turkey (e.g. HALK TV) and newspapers carried out further interviews with Pervin. Mainstream media further disseminated Yolda’s video under the titles of:  “Mother of Wisdom Talks”,“A Lesson on Nature and Life From a Nomad Woman”,  “Humanity Lives by Destroying”, “Because Humanity Chose to Live this Way, there are Wildfires”, and “I Foresee Disasters in the Coming Years“.

In response to the interview, the Yolda Initiative released a statement that provides additional context:

“We are all living in deep sorrow for the loss of life due to wildfires. (…) Sarikeçili nomadic pastoralists communities, who move between the Mediterranean shores in the winter and the Taurus Mountain pastures in the summer, are among the most affected by these wildfires. They have already lost many winter pastures in the recent fires (…) The production system of Sarikeçili nomadic pastoralists, which is centuries old, is an important factor for the prevention of forest fires. This is because grazing has been maintained in natural areas where goats consume the dry vegetation and leaf cover in the understory, which are the main fuel for wildfires. Also, given that herds are kept in constant motion, animals crush the biomass that they do not consume, burying it underneath the soil. In addition, the migration routes created by mobile pastoralists have proven to be highly beneficial in the formation and maintenance of natural firebreaks that prevent the spread of fires. 

For these reasons, grazing of animals in forested areas is a fundamental tool that many countries in the world implement effectively to reduce the risk and spread of wildfires. Despite their crucial role in preventing and extinguishing wildfires and in the struggle to mitigate climate change, mobile pastoralists’ access to their traditional habitats is restricted and prevented in our country. The protection of our pastures and forests and ensuring their access to mobile pastoralists is of utmost importance for both the sustainability of this nature-based production system and also the struggle against the climate crisis.”

Yolda’s media outreach initiative built bridges between the community leader and wider audiences, and helped raise awareness about how to tackle forest fires. Such media outreach initiatives at times of crisis also showcase how conservation practitioners can support mobile pastoralists who are advocating for their rights. By providing safe platforms for community members and leaders to speak and to be heard, we are able to nurture spaces where broader discussions, debates and dialogues can occur. In this way, our role is not only to respond rapidly to urgent crises, but to build a practice of sharing inspiring stories and local knowledge of regenerative practices.

In relation to regenerative storytelling, we share HEY GOAT!,  an award-winning film made and released in 2014 and co-produced by KarmaMotion, Doga Dernegi, and the Mediterranean Consortium for Nature and Culture. It showcases how Sarikeçili nomadic pastoralists prevent wildfires, and is accompanied by testimonies by scientists who acknowledge the importance of traditional wisdom and expertise for sustainable landscape management. The film documents a cultural practice rooted in nature that is a regenerative and sustainable living force. It complements the work carried out by Yolda Initiative to provide evidence on how mobile pastoralism contributes to climate change mitigation and adaptation and has an important role to play in the prevention and control of wildfires.

Photographs made during HEY GOAT! filming are presented as part of a cross cultural virtual exhibition around the commons, entitled Territories of Life on the Edge and curated by Pablo Dominguez. With over 34 partners and supporting organisations worldwide, this participatory media outreach audio-visual initiative aims to amplify the many voices of mobile pastoralism to contribute to the healing and regeneration of our shared planet.

The Mediterranean is Burning. Photograph courtesy of Eda Elif Tibet, from the film Hey Goat! 2014. Silifke, Turkey.

Goats eat the flammable vegetation at forests, helping to decrease the risks of forest fires. Photograph courtesy of Eda Elif Tibet, from the film Hey Goat! 2014. Silifke, Turkey.

For more information on how mobile pastoralism contributes to the mitigation of climate change, biodiversity conservation, carbon sequestration and water conservation, please refer to Yolda Initiative’s report entitled “Mobile Pastoralism in Mediterranean: Arguments and evidence for policy reform and its role in combating climate change”, which is available in Turkish and English.

Feature image: Sarikecili Mobile Pastoralist Family Meryem and Hülya Gök giving water to the goat flock through a water tank. Photograph courtesy of Eda Elif Tibet, from the film Hey Goat! 2014. Silifke, Turkey.

First published as a GEN Op-Ed piece on the Global Environments Network website.