How to save a forest: A Turkish lesson

UNDP Eurasia
6 min readMar 20, 2020


Photo: Mahmut Serdar ALAKUŞ / UNDP Turkey

The first three minutes are critical in responding to forest fires.

An effective response is affected by the distance of units, changes in the wind, efficiency of helicopters, the water levels in the pools and maybe most importantly, the preparedness of the response team.

Roughly 28 percent of Turkey’s surface is covered with forests, and people live and work in them. These forests are valuable and in danger of seasonal and human-made forest fires. Raising awareness, decreasing response time to fires, capacity building — all of these are important in creating an efficient plan to combat fires. So how to do that?

One answer comes from the Antalya International Forestry Training Centre, dedicated to train foresters of the future. The centre was first planned and opened as a forest fire training school, but forward-thinking people in Turkey’s General Directorate of Forestry saw visions for more.

Hundreds of foresters from seventeen different countries attended the programs last year.

All photos: Bikem Ahıska / UNDP Turkey unless otherwise noted

The centre is equipped with training rooms and a first-of-its-kind simulation developed by local software and systems companies. The simulation analyzes the weather conditions, altitude and other variables that make it accurate in mimicking a real fire. They can start a digital fire anywhere in Turkey and have dozens of people work together to effectively combat it.

A crucial update of the centre’s systems was supported by UNDP Turkey, as part of a broad-reaching Integrated Forestry Management project it runs with the Government of Turkey.

For last seven years, the project has been working in five main forestry areas along Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. The area has approximately 7 million hectares of forests, which are rich in biodiversity and prone to seasonal & non-seasonal forest fires.

Photo: Bora Akbay / UNDP Turkey

The greatest achievement was a revolutionary open access computer platform for forest planners and decision makers makers that can project, quantify and optimize forest ecosystem services. It allows for a more integrated approach and brings in often disconnected areas like biodiversity or ecotourism.

Imagine having a large forest divided into different zones: industrial wood grow zones, rejuvenation work for old tree clusters starting to collapse (and more prone to fires), biodiversity preservation areas, etc… By connecting them, creating wildlife corridors, increasing carbon stocks, reducing fire danger, improving forest villagers income, you are able to use the forest more sustainably and maintain stable ecosystems not only for today but also for the future.

“Forest Management is about creating the inventory of a forest plan and taking it forward in line with our goals,” says Tamer Ertürk, a forest planner in Pos, Adana. “We are reviving the forest, seeing what’s where… what types of tree stock exist.” From there, they figure out what to do to protect the ecosystems and keep the forest functional.

Planners are not the only people immersed in the forests.

Forest villagers have a special status in Turkey. They live and work in the forest with very few suitable areas for farming and grazing. When there is work in the forest like planting saplings, harvesting or transporting wood, they are recruited to do it. But in Andırın, Kahramanmaraş, there were very few income options for the villagers, whose age is getting higher each year as the young leave for cities.

Here the project looks into alternative non-wood sources of income that will allow the forest to produce livelihoods sustainably.

Daphne, or laurel trees, have provided one such alternative. This tree has naturally grown in mixed forests for thousands of years. The leaves are used not only in the culinary arts, but also in cosmetics and medicines.

The trees are resilient, but for maximum yield, they need to be harvested in a specific way. Villagers here have learned the best methods of harvesting to ensure sustainable production of this valuable commodity. Turkey is now the top daphne exporter, covering 90 percent of all daphne demand in the world.

Along with daphne, thyme, pine nuts and natural mushrooms also draw high profits. In 2018, forest villagers in Turkey earned 600 Million Turkish liras (almost US$90 million) from all of these products combined.

Forests can provide economic benefits not just by its products, but also what you can be built with it.

Köyceğiz, Muğla is one of the few places in the world to have vast sweetgum forests. The trees are very tall and thin, in some places growing almost parallel to the ground. Legends tell of people with alzheimers getting miraculously cured after sleeping under them and a cure-all medicinal oil processed from the sap.

Photo: Soner Şimşek / UNDP Turkey

The forestry department has been developing models of ecotourism, training the villagers, giving grants to develop businesses and introducing new nature activities. They’ve created new bike trails and observation balconies, as well a health walking route through the sweetgum forests for people with chronic illnesses.

This type of tourism is planned in nature, without harming the environment and supports the locals as much as possible.

The forests need to also support what’s living within, as they are home to many species and habitat biodiversity.

In Gazipaşa, Antalya, while evaluating ecosystems to protect endangered species and their habitats, the foresters actually managed to discover new species — a new plant and a new butterfly. And in the end, identified over 130,000 hectares of forest for nature conservation.

Mahatma Ghandi said, “What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.”

To reverse the trend of what we are doing, it’s important to educate young and old on their importance. Across these regions, the awareness-raising doesn’t stop at the forestry staff or villagers. The project piloted protection and forest fire trainings in 34 primary schools for over 1000 students.

Back in Gülnar, Mersin, the training and innovation continues for adult fire fighters.

One time, they “fought” a simulated fire, only to have a similar fire happen in real life. Applying what they learned in the simulation allowed them to quickly put out the fire.

During a recent fire, thanks to censors they installed in water pools, they realized the closest pool didn’t have sufficient levels of water so they directed the helicopter to another one. When you have precious minutes to counter a fire, this real-time information means everything.

Deputy head of the forest fires department İlhami Aydın, who also specializes in technology, is excited about how to develop and utilize it for good in his department.

“This project taught us how to dream,” he says.

These dreamers make projects like this possible. A impressive initiative that spans over seven years, five provinces, dozens of different forestry divisions and has developed solutions that the General Directorate of Forestry can now expand and apply to other forests across the country.

After all, the forest is still there.

Photo: Soner Şimşek / UNDP Turkey

Take a video journey along Turkey’s Mediterranean coast with the foresters of the region.

The project, funded by the Global Environmental Facility, covered many different areas of forest management, introduced a new integrated way of planning Turkey’s forests and was chosen as “best practice” by GEF.



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