Istanbul’s farmers fight to keep historic urban agriculture

An aerial view of Yedikule gardens.
An aerial view of Yedikule gardens.

While urban farming gains in popularity in many capitals around the world, Istanbul is struggling to keep its centuries-old farming plots due to the drive for modernisation. Dozens of farmers face being kicked off the land they have cultivated for generations.

The Yedikule (“Castle of the Seven Towers”) gardens, planted and taken care of by local farmers for generations, are located right outside the old city walls in the southern tip of European Istanbul. The area is a UNESCO-protected site that contains the old walls that guarded what was then Constantinople from outside invaders.

After losing most of their storage areas and sheds in January, when city authorities dismantled them by force, the farmers and their families now fear they will lose their gardens by this spring – and that Istanbul’s city center will lose its 1,500-year-old agricultural practice.

Farmers' sheds being demolished. 

Some politicians and security officials have conveyed to a number of Turkish media outlets that security concerns have driven the municipality’s actions.

These gardens have been a source notably for tomatoes, mint, potatoes, and the renowned Yedikule lettuce of Istanbul. The cultivation and irrigation methods used there have passed down through generations of farmers.

“We plant parsley, mint, lettuce, tomatoes, corn and so many other vegetables”

Cihan Kaplan inherited his farming business from his grandfather. He serves as an unofficial spokesperson for the Yedikule farmers.

My grandfather, my father, my uncles, and my kids – we all work on this land. We plant it and make our living with it. We don’t have anywhere to go if this is taken from us. Since we don’t own the land, around 16 years ago we started paying monthly penalties in fees to the municipality. These monthly fees are part of an informal arrangement between us and the city to continue cultivating the land.

The gardens in the Ottoman era. 

It’s already bad that they took away our sheds, where we stored our tools. Now, things are looking like they’ll get worse for us, despite some promises we received Thursday from members of the ruling AKP Party parliament members. They told us that nothing more would be removed, but we fear that will not be the case.

If we lose our gardens, we will be jobless; this will also be the case for 30 other families. We are a family of 6 people, but others have more children.

We plant parsley, mint, lettuce, tomatoes, corn and so many other vegetables and usually our crops won’t be ready to harvest before April. If the government comes and takes everything in March – which is what we were told by the city workers who came and dismantled the sheds – we won’t be able to sell anything!

So far, there has been no official communication from the mayor’s office regarding future plans for the gardens.

France 24 contacted the Mayor Kadir Topbas’ office, but he has yet to respond to our questions.

“The gardens are self-sustaining, and part of our intangible heritage”

Aslihan Demirtas is an architect and a lecturer at Kadir Has University. She is part of an initiative to preserve the gardens.

If we can protect the old city walls for architectural and historical reasons, then the gardens that have existed ever since the walls were built also deserve to be protected. They are a unique, intangible heritage.

We can only assume that the city’s actions are in preparation for an upcoming UNESCO World Heritage Conference set to take place in Istanbul in July 2015. They want this urban agriculture concept out of the equation in order to turn the area into what they consider a more attractive site, notably by filling trenches around the old walls with water. We know this from our meeting with an opposition parliament member who called the mayor herself to inquire about the issue. The mayor told her that by March 1 all the farmers should be gone.

We held a meeting with a group of farmers, historians, and architects Thursday to present our recommendations and invite the government to work with the farmers for the improvement of the area.

Produce grown at the Yedikule gardens. 

These gardens produce food that is sold locally. Unlike other farms that depend on government subsidies, they are self-sustaining. Moreover, they ensure a green space in a big, sprawling city. To preserve this landscape, we must protect the farmers.

If the government is concerned about security in the area, then it should ensure the area is provided with enough lighting.

The controversy has prompted Slow Food International’s President Carlo Petrini to drum up support for Yedikule gardens and its contribution to urban agriculture in a statement on the organisation’s website:

“The act of planting a food garden may seem like an insignificant gesture when faced with the complexity and gravity of food security problems, but if thousands of sustainably farmed food gardens are cultivated, and if networks of farmers, agronomists, students and chefs spring up around each one, then they can each point the way towards a more sustainable future that responds to the needs of local communities.”

Article written with France 24 journalist Van Meguerditchian.