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A warming world adds peril for a way of life

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For centuries, the Yörük people of southern Turkey have trekked up and down the rugged Taurus Mountains. When the hot Mediterranean summer begins to dry out the vegetation that feeds their sheep and goats, Yörük families migrate with their animals to the grassy highlands. Then, just before the first snows, they return to spend the cooler season farming in the coastal plains. They eat what they grow, and at outdoor markets, they sell honey, goat milk and cheeses, livestock, and the bright wool kilim rugs they make.

Today, many Yörüks have settled in coastal cities, where five-star hotels and the turquoise waters of the “Turkish Riviera” draw the tourists who help support the regional economy. Mehmet Bodur was one of them. He had worked about 25 years as a mechanic in the popular coastal city of Manavgat. But in 2004, he and his wife, Gulsen, moved with their two sons into the foothills of the Taurus Mountains to the small village of Bucakşeyhler, nestled among fragrant forests of pine and cedar, a half-hour drive from the coast but a world away.

Rotary members in Turkey leaped into action to help victims of the February earthquake.

There, they built a wooden house with a small auto repair garage on land Mehmet inherited from his father. They planted avocados and, like their elders, raised goats. They sold the milk and avocados at a twice weekly bazaar to supplement their modest pension. By the summer of 2021, they had invested their savings in hundreds of chickens, expanding their small business enterprise. And their younger son, Can, was about to get married at a pretty riverside restaurant just below the village. They had already bought the bride's dress and the groom's suit.

"Life was really good," Gulsen Bodur says wistfully one day last fall, standing where her home once stood. "But the fire ruined everything."

The summer of 2021 was, at the time, the warmest on record in Europe, with a potential all-time high of 119 degrees Fahrenheit recorded in Sicily. Along the Mediterranean, drought desiccated vegetation and turned it into fuel for fires — conditions that researchers have found are generally growing more extreme and more common because of a changing climate. Wildfires swept through Spain, Italy, Greece, Algeria, and Turkey. On 28 July, a fire started near Manavgat and, fed by strong winds, quickly spread through villages and into the mountains. It became the worst wildfire season on record in Turkey.

For days, firefighters and residents battled more than 200 blazes that turned forests to ash, darkened the skies, destroyed homes, and killed livestock. With temperatures around 100 degrees, water from hoses seemed to almost instantly evaporate. Thousands of residents and tourists were evacuated, many by sea. While on beaches not under immediate threat, there were surreal scenes of sunbathers reclining before a horizon glowing an eerie orange. By the time the smoke cleared, at least nine people had died, hundreds of homes and other structures were destroyed, and thousands of farm animals were killed. More than 470 square miles (1,200 square kilometers) of pine forest turned into a blackened wasteland. Manavgat district was the worst hit.

A firefighter battles a blaze outside the city of Marmaris in southwestern Turkey in August 2021. It was the worst wildfire season on record in Turkey.

Image credit: Erdem Sahin/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Out in the villages, the fire swept in before most were awake. It was about 5 a.m. and Gulsen Bodur, who is in her 60s, slept fitfully in the suffocating heat. Her older son slept on the balcony, unable to bear it inside. Suddenly, he woke his family, shouting, "There's a fire, there's a fire! Let's go or we will burn!"

"We were in our pajamas," Bodur recalls, her voice breaking. "We just changed our clothes and rushed out. We didn't think we would lose everything." Outside, they watched towering flames engulf trees. The fire burned so intensely among the trees it sent pine cones flying at them "like bullets," she says. Not knowing what to take, she grabbed three chickens and stuffed them into a bag. (They suffocated.) They rushed to their cars and sped out of the village through the smoke and flames to Manavgat. Across their village, some 60 other families were facing the same horror, the same fateful decisions, and the prospect that this disaster would take more than their livelihoods.

Around the world, a changing climate is not just wreaking economic and physical damage; it's adding to factors imperiling centuries-old ways of life and identities. That's especially true for Indigenous populations that depend on the natural environment, from Sami reindeer herders in Finland, Norway, and Sweden grappling with the loss of food sources for their animals to groups of people living in the Himalayas where the shrinking of glaciers has disrupted the seasonal flow of water they depend on. In Turkey, Rotary clubs helping with fire recovery came to realize that a meaningful response was about more than satisfying immediate needs and even restoring livelihoods; it was about helping preserve culture and social identity. To assist villagers with what they said they needed most, the Rotary members mounted an extraordinary campaign involving dozens of Turkish clubs, districts, and The Rotary Foundation.

In those frantic first days, Kemal Ketrez, then governor of District 2430, which includes areas along Turkey's Mediterranean coast, remembers sending a short urgent message to a WhatsApp group of club presidents: "There is a disaster in Manavgat. We must help." They coordinated the purchase of items published on a government disaster committee list, things like burn cream, shirts, boots, bottled water, socks, and tents for the people fighting the fires. Ketrez opened a bank account to receive donations from clubs in the district. They provided fire brigades with chainsaws and a generator. They collected school supplies for children, along with appliances, clothing, and household goods for those who would need to rebuild.

Several weeks after the fires, it was clear to the clubs that they needed to do more to support long-term recovery, especially for villagers outside the coastal cities. Altan Arslan, a member of the Rotary Club of Ankara-Kizilay and a past governor of the district, proposed mounting a larger campaign with the support of The Rotary Foundation. Ketrez appointed Murat Sidar and Ayhan Gedikoğlu, members of the Rotary Club of Alanya, to the disaster committee and charged them with finding out what the villagers needed. They learned that people were desperate to replace lost livestock: goats, bees, and chickens.

  1. Gulsen Bodur feeds the goats she received as part of the Rotary project. “I hope the goats will have many babies soon and they will bring me extra income,” she says.

    Image credit: Faid Elgziry

  2. The government is building Bodur and her family a new home. Until it is finished, they are living in a trailer.

    Image credit: Faid Elgziry

With a Rotary Foundation global grant funded in part by donations from 23 clubs and nine districts, the effort raised nearly $100,000 to supply about 100 families across the Taurus Mountains with goats and honeybees. The Rotary Club of Lidingö Milles, Sweden, signed on as the international partner. Clubs and districts as far away as Denmark, Germany, and Korea also donated money. But first, the club members had to locate the goats, going to seven farms. "It's so hard to find 324 goats at the same time," Arslan says. "We are businesspeople. We had no experience dealing with goats."

By 12 August, the fires were out. That day, Mehmet Bodur and his sons went back to see the village. "They wouldn't let me come with them," Gulsen Bodur says, her hair pulled back and partially covered by a brown and white headscarf tied loosely at her shoulders. "They said it would make me feel bad." Indeed, nothing remained. The family lost its home and everything in it, as well as a livelihood. The equipment in the garage, the goats and chickens that burned, the avocado orchard — everything was charred. "We were left with only the clothes on our backs," she says, her voice trembling with emotion.

Bodur, who wears a blue T-shirt and loose polka dot pants, looks weary, although she has little to do. Initially, she and her family stayed with her in-laws in Manavgat city. But she and her husband moved back to the land and have lived in a government-supplied trailer for more than a year, while the government builds them a new home.

The government began constructing homes for those who could pay back one-third of the cost, but it takes over a year, and the family had no means of making a living — until the Rotary clubs stepped in.

Bodur walks past the skeleton of a burned tractor wagon lying lamely to one side, toward a pen next to the unfinished concrete house the government is building. She picks up a bunch of long green grasses along the way. The land is regenerating, but it will take 20 years for pine trees to grow back. As she approaches the fence, five young long-haired, long-eared Damascus goats scamper over to her. She drops the grass over the fence, and they begin to chomp happily. She smiles. She received the goats last spring through the global grant-funded project.

Damascus goats lactate for longer periods and yield more milk than the more common local breed. Each goat can bring in about 3,600 liras (close to $200) a month in milk. And within a few years, six animals can become 30 and provide for a family. "I hope the goats will have many babies soon and they will bring me extra income," she says on that warm October day.

To identify the neediest families, Rotary members had to delve into government livestock license and veterinary records and solicit help from agricultural agencies. When reaching out, they discovered some potential aid recipients were hesitant, wary of fraudsters who prey on disaster victims, says Ayfer Öz, president of the Rotary Club of Manavgat. Some had already started working in tourism because it made more money. Some didn't want to see animals anymore after the fires; it would make them too sad. Others felt too old to begin again and take care of animals.

For some of the Rotarians contacting people, the effort was personal.

  1. Seyma Ozturk at the highlands encampment where she lives with her husband, Ali. Their other home and their orchard were destroyed in the fire.

    Image credit: Faid Elgziry

  2. Ali Ozturk (second from left) displays the bees he received through the recovery project to visiting Rotarians (from left) Ismail Toy, Kemal Ketrez, Ekrem Uyanık, and Altan Arslan.

    Image credit: Faid Elgziry

Ersin Körhasanoğulları is past president of the Rotary Club of Anamur, where numerous Yörük beekeepers lost their hives when the fires reached the highlands. He is an electrical engineer who also runs a family agricultural company. His family is originally Yörük too. "My great grandfather was a Yörük. He traveled with donkeys from the lowlands to the highlands and back," says Körhasanoğulları. "We want the Yörük to stay here, to keep their traditional lifestyles. But some, including the youth, go to Antalya city and work in tourism. Some grow strawberries or work in the packing industry. Year after year the Yörük tradition is ending."

Ali Ozturk is among the beekeepers struggling to carry on. When he got the call from Rotary members that they could replace his lost bees, he was in his tent in the Eynif valley in the highlands, where he lives with his wife during the warm season. "I was so happy I almost cried," he says.

His other home, a permanent house, and his orchard in Salur, deep in the mountains, burned down in the fire. Like many semi-nomadic Yörüks, he had no deed to the land, so the government would not build him a house or give him a trailer. In the meantime, his children are living with his mother in the village of Yeniköy, close to Manavgat, and going to a school nearby.

Ozturk is a quiet, stocky man in his late 30s with a ruddy complexion and graying hair. He's standing in a wide plateau up in the highlands flanked by bushy pine trees that still stand green and alive. There, raised off the ground by a wooden plank set on stones, sit long rows of beehive boxes. Nine have covers with the Rotary logo.

"We really needed more bees for selling honey and for fertilizing the almonds," he says. He has started buying and planting new almond trees. His income from the honey goes toward daily living costs. Raising his goats has gotten more expensive because of the fires, he notes, and he was forced to sell some of them. "There are no more branches and bushes left to feed the goats," he says, "so I need to take them by truck to a shepherd who cares for them." Adding to his challenges, bears looking for food in the scarred landscape sometimes steal the honey his bees produce, he says. Still, he's optimistic. "Someday, I will return to my hometown in Salur," he says with conviction.

The road leading down the mountain from Ozturk's highlands encampment passes a cliff overlooking a valley. The vantage point reveals the startling destruction. Blackened trees stand forlorn, their burned trunks exposed with bare branches. "Before, it was only green forest all the way to the horizon," says Ekrem Uyanık of the Manavgat Rotary club, pointing to a house in the distance. "You couldn't even see that house because of the height of the trees. You couldn't see anything but green. This was one of the greenest places in Turkey." Yet there are signs of hope and beauty. New green growth dots the scorched land. And one occasionally glimpses the wild horses that gallop over the plateaus, as if in a mirage.

The summer of 2022 was another season of deadly wildfires in Europe and around the Mediterranean. The UK declared a drought in parts of the country, and some water companies banned the use of hoses for things like watering gardens. Both France and Italy reported their second-hottest summer since records began more than a century ago. Europe's great rivers, including the Danube and the Loire, ran low.

Besides increasing the risk of fires, climate change is affecting life in other ways. As temperatures rise, snow melts sooner, resulting in less water available during the summer months. In Turkey, the heat arrives sooner each year, so the Yörük people need to migrate to the high plateaus earlier, which can interrupt children's schooling. The slow recovery of the hillsides is leaving less land for grazing, as government officials seek to prevent herders from bringing livestock into areas of young, regenerating forest, which can take decades to mature. That also stresses the Yörüks' bees, which rely on pine trees for food.

Yeter Tasbas making bread in the village of Belenköy. The six goats her family received through the Rotary project provide comfort and hope. “I love hugging the baby goats,” she says.

Image credit: Faid Elgziry

Tourism quickly recovered and has been largely unaffected by the fires, even in the scarred mountain foothills in places like Green Canyon reservoir, where tourists continue to take boat rides and enjoy fish lunches. But the tourism economy does little for the Yörüks and other rural villagers.

In a building with a clay oven built into a wall, 59-year-old Yeter Tasbas sits on the floor in front of a low wooden table, stretching balls of dough with a long, thin rolling pin. With one graceful move, she transfers a paper-thin circle into the oven. She works with three other women, her neighbors in the village of Belenköy.

Her family's wooden home on the edge of the village burned in the fires. The family had a barn for its four goats and 30 chickens. Today, where the home once stood is a flattened piece of land covered with dry weeds. The family has been unable to rebuild because of a dispute with her husband's siblings, who share ownership of the land. "We built our house with our own hands," she says through tears. "We put so much effort into it. After we lost it and didn't get support from my husband's siblings — all of this is too much for me."

Through the Rotary project, they received six goats. She keeps them in her neighbors' barn in exchange for caring for their goats as well. The goats provide comfort and hope. "It relaxes me to take care of them," she says. "I love hugging the baby goats." She hopes the income from selling the milk will help her to eat better. Her family only eats meat during holidays, when generous neighbors provide it. And, of course, she hopes to earn enough to one day rebuild her home. For now, that hope is enough to keep the family going.

This story originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of Rotary magazine.

Local Rotary members take action to help communities recover when disasters strike.