At the first light of dawn, Mehmet and his family get up to drink sweet black tea before dismantling their goatskin tent and heading for the grasslands of central Anatolia.
They are all sarıkeçili yörüks, a nomadic people who have kept their animals in present-day Turkey for more than 1,000 years. It is estimated that only about 150 families remain, although this is not an exact figure, as it is very difficult to account for such a dispersed ethnic group. Due to the lack of legal protection to guarantee their way of life and a sharp increase in land disputes, they say themselves that they risk being the last.
In addition, successive years of drought and reduced rainfall due to climate change alter their migration patterns and force these nomads to carry water in cisterns. “There is little supply, and this year it hasn’t rained much; is a serious problem, but the most difficult challenge we face concerns the muhtar [jefes de las aldeas]says Mehmet, sheltering from the midday sun after moving his herd of 500 goats to a new pasture.
The Yörüks migrate seasonally: first in April to spend the summer on the cool mountain plateaus of central Anatolia; then in September to winter on the temperate coast. Mehmet, his wife Kezban and their three children commute between the southern Mediterranean port city of Mersin and the plains around Konya.
At each migration, the Yörüks must apply to the Ministry of Forestry and Agriculture for a permit to move on public lands with their animals. However, to travel across private land they usually have to pay a fee, which is constantly increasing. Each city has a muhtar who, although they do not have the competence to do so, increasingly encourage pastors to pay for pilgrimages in their regions. As a result, some of them can no longer afford to go to their summer pastures.
“The villagers don’t want us here. A jandarme [gendarme turco] he came and told us “you can’t come”, but he didn’t give any reason. Farmers are also worried about their crops,” explains Mehmet, holding up a piece of paper given to him by this law enforcement agent. It is an obligation for them to leave.
In recent days, he said, Jandarma officials have visited the family on several occasions. They took their migration permit documents and tore them up.
One morning, the family moves their animals through the brush to a new, lusher pasture. During the trip, they see a local man in the distance taking pictures with his cell phone; nomads believe he intends to use them to complain to the muhtar. “In a city, half the people say we can come and the other half say we can’t. When there are elections, the neighbors say “I will vote for you, but only if you don’t help the Yörüks”, says the father of the family.
Natural grasslands in Turkey have shrunk by around 70% over the past 60 years, according to Engin Yılmaz of the Yolda Initiative, an Ankara-based conservation group that works to care for biodiversity. This means that nomads are increasingly forced to traverse other types of terrain, including those used for agriculture.
Yılmaz points out that around the world, nomads are blamed for the degradation of grasslands, often to justify preventing them from crossing private land. However, the reduction of natural land is more related to the mismanagement of the authorities. “In Turkey, we do not have a political framework guaranteeing the right of access to land and natural areas. Policies favor industry and production systems and often have a detrimental impact on these communities.
The Yörüks are also heavily affected, according to the Yolda spokesperson, by any negative impact on the country’s economy, as well as on meat and dairy prices. For three years, Turkey has been facing a debt crisis and an economic crisis. The lira continues to reach historic lows against the dollar and food prices are rising by nearly 20% per year.
The financial pressure on ordinary citizens is causing rural communities to turn against them, according to those affected, blaming them for the reduction of benefits from their land. “When the economic situation is really bad, tensions rise and this affects the nomads,” says Yilmaz. As he explains, from an ecological point of view, grazing is a good thing, something the UN Food and Agriculture Agency (FAO) also supports. It promotes biodiversity by helping to move vegetation, keeping ecosystems healthy and helping to mitigate the negative effects of climate change.
The Turkish Communications Directorate replied that it had “nothing to add” when contacted by this newspaper to counter the Yörüks’ claims.
Unlike many nomads who have chosen to settle, at least partially, Mehmet’s family lives year-round in a goatskin tent. A pattern that the rest of the yörüks seem to follow. This makes them particularly vulnerable to any questioning of their way of life. They live off their animals, making cheese and yoghurts with the milk of their goats, which they sell in the markets of the towns they pass through.
In addition to reduced access to their migration routes, they face limited access to social services such as health and education. Over the past two years, restrictions stemming from the covid-19 pandemic have affected their mobility and the closure of food markets during lockdown has prevented them from selling their produce.
Although the son, Ali, and the two daughters, Özlem and Songül, follow lessons with their phones during the migration, the calendar of the school year is incompatible with their traditions. Trips last up to a month and a half and coincide with the middle of the school year. When asked if the three teenagers, aged 11 to 16, wanted to remain nomads when they grew up, only Ali said yes.
tradition for women
Yeditepe University anthropologist Ayse Hilal, who has studied the Yörük way of life, says women are still bound by traditional values. The reluctance to send them to higher education means that it could be difficult to find regular employment if they give up the itinerant lifestyle, often leaving marriage as their only means of support.
Women do most of the work; they cook, clean and drive the animals to new pastures each day, while the men drive the tractor and water tank between camps. They have fewer transferable skills, such as driving, and would be disproportionately affected by the loss of their livelihoods. “No one finds a solution. For people like us, if we lived in a village, there would be no job opportunities, but life in the mountains also ends,” laments Mehmet. “We feel miserable, but nobody cares about us.”
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