When residents of Sazlibosna, a village near Istanbul, tried to attend a public meeting about the Turkish government’s plan to dig a 400 meter-wide canal through their farmlands, they were stopped by police.
The 45 km (28 mile) Kanal Istanbul will link the seas north and south of Istanbul and ease traffic on the Bosphorus strait, a major global shipping lane. It will also redraw the map of one of Europe’s biggest cities, turning its western side into an island.
Critics, including the national architects association, have questioned the need for the canal and warned it will destroy an 8,500-year-old archaeological site near Istanbul and cause widespread environmental damage.
The experience of the Sazlibosna villagers illustrates how the government has shut them out of an enterprise that could displace thousands. Estimated to cost around $16 billion, the canal is one of the most ambitious of President Tayyip Erdogan’s infrastructure mega-schemes. He has publicly referred to it as his “crazy project.”
When the villagers, who described themselves as Erdogan supporters, arrived for the meeting in March in western Istanbul – a session intended to allow the public to voice concerns and learn about the project – they were met by police carrying rifles and tear gas who said the hall was full.
It was – with workers who told Reuters they had been bussed in from another government mega-project. The villagers were stuck outside the hearing, in a crowd of more than a hundred people, including environmentalists, who were also not let in.
“The owners of these lands need to be inside,” said Oktay Teke, Sazlibosna’s local administrator, as he stood with the villagers outside the Arnavutkoy municipal building where the meeting was underway.
“If land is going to be expropriated, it will be our land – we will lose our homes.”
A Reuters reporter saw dozens of men leave the hall and board buses after the meeting. When approached, three said they were workers from Istanbul’s giant new airport, which opens in October at the northern end of the planned canal.
“Projects at the airport are about to be finished. This (canal) is a job opportunity for us,” one said, without giving his name.
The spokesman for the Arnavutkoy municipality, Fatih Sanlav, said only a limited number of people were unable to enter the meeting, and no workers were bussed in to fill the hall.