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The Direct Link Between Turkey's Earthquake Toll And Global Real Estate Markets

The shoddy homes that collapse on their inhabitants in Turkey's recent earthquake were badly, and hastily, built as part of a worldwide real-estate fever typically fueled by greedy governments indifferent to safety norms and common sense.

Photo of a person walking in the aftermath of Turkey's earthquake

Aftermath of Turkey's earthquake

Hector Zajac


There is bitter irony in an earthquake striking a zone already decimated by terrorism and war, where the vulnerable must suffer from natural destruction on top of their rulers' cruelty or, at best, cynical indifference. Under such calamitous conditions, how is one to interpret the observation of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the February quakes that killed more than 40,000 were fate's work?

The countries hit, Turkey and Syria, lie on a seismic powder keg. They have shaken before and will keep shaking, and nothing can be done about that. But much can be done to prevent the natural vulnerabilities that threaten so many countries becoming disasters of Biblical proportions. Something can always be done to mitigate the harm of even a 7.8-level quake and its aftershocks striking at the end of a freezing winter night.

Talking of the clash of tectonic plates is confusing, as the scale can boggle the mind. But it refers to the movements of vast plaques, 70 kilometers thick, that rub against each other while shifting in opposing directions. Even without a cataclysm like the earthquakes, such movements can push up the ground a few centimeters a year to form mountain ranges over millions of years.

In this process, rocks on their edges accumulate enormous amounts of pressure that are suddenly released in quakes as they snap, before moving.

Our short time on this planet has amply shown the impact of a shifting earth on our fragile civilization and socio-economic organization.

And while science has evolved and can better predict earthquakes, it has yet to do it well enough to allow for a city's evacuation.

Early warning systems

Globalization of economies and information has in turn had a negative impact on the management of natural threats in developing countries. On the one hand, it is giving societies better information and technologies to make search and rescue operations more efficient and map out dangerous streets and 'trap' zones.

We have seismographs connected to alarms and early warning systems that save lives, not to mention massive expertise in places like Chile or Southeast Asia. There is nothing similar, however, in Turkey or Syria.

A cruel irony is that these same advanced communication systems that connect the world have also globalized demand for investments, and led people to buy land and homes on the other side of the world, driving up home prices and making housing inaccessible to locals.

Photo of search and rescue teams after the earthquake

Search and rescue teams seen on the debris after the earthquake in Turkey

Mehmet Masum Suer/SOPA/Zuma

Law of the market

In those countries where the state has decided to no longer manage access to housing or land and abandoned its role to the pure law the market, vast segments of the population are exposed to harm. While housing access has itself become a source of social conflict, in places like Turkey almost 50% of the housing that is built is reportedly without basic security and construction guarantees. Many of the norms were imposed in 1999, following the Izmit quake that killed 17,000 people.

Greed for real-estate investments trumped the safety norms.

But the dramatic, vertical or sideways collapse of so many buildings in Gaziantep, Antakya and Malatya, have perfectly exposed how greed for real-estate investments trumped the safety norms in Turkey, not to mention consideration for lives or the environment.

Builders, financial agents and the government may have beaten the competition in good years, but their reckless winnings were wiped off the map this year.

In past years, the real-estate sector has become an engine of economic growth for Turkey, which led the state to turn its back on nature. This was a perfect storm in the making. Now, hunting for unscrupulous developers after a disaster means little, when the government showed itself to be indifferent to a simple, moral principle: that money can never come before life.

*Zajac is a geographer, lecturer and environmental consultant in Buenos Aires.

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Migrant Lives

They Migrated From Chiapas When Opportunities Dried Up, Orchids Brought Them Home

An orchid rehabilitation project is turning a small Mexican community into a tourist magnet — and attracting far-flung locals back to their hometown.

They Migrated From Chiapas When Opportunities Dried Up, Orchids Brought Them Home

Marcos Aguilar Pérez takes care of orchids rescued from the rainforest in his backyard in Santa Rita Las Flores, Mapastepec, Chiapas, Mexico.

Adriana Alcázar González/GPJ Mexico
Adriana Alcázar González

MAPASTEPEC — Sweat cascades down Candelaria Salas Gómez’s forehead as she separates the bulbs of one of the orchids she and the other members of the Santa Rita Las Flores Community Ecotourism group have rescued from the rainforest. The group houses and protects over 1,000 orchids recovered from El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve, in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas, after powerful storms.

“When the storms and heavy rains end, we climb to the vicinity of the mountains and collect the orchids that have fallen from the trees. We bring them to Santa Rita, care for them, and build their strength to reintegrate them into the reserve later,” says Salas Gómez, 32, as she attaches an orchid to a clay base to help it recover.

Like magnets, the orchids of Santa Rita have exerted a pull on those who have migrated from the area due to lack of opportunity. After years away from home, Salas Gómez was one of those who returned, attracted by the community venture to rescue these flowers and exhibit them as a tourist attraction, which provides residents with an adequate income.

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