In post-earthquake Ercis, the trade sector struggles

When a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck Ercis on October 23rd, it had a crippling effect on the city of 75,000 that drew nearly all of its income from private local trade.

By Emiko Jozuka for SES Türkiye in Ercis -- 20/04/12

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It is Thursday afternoon and trade is slow to pick up in Ercis' cheese square. A cluster of cheese sellers, wheat merchants and millers wait for customers in a rundown coffee house, while others sit perched on wooden stools in front of their shops.

''I’d been renting a small shop and warehouse for the last 12 years, but those buildings completely collapsed and I lost half of my wheat,’’ Suleyman Barkış told SES Türkiye, describing the day the 7.2-magnitude earthquake crippled his hometown of Erciş, killing more than 450 people. ''I had to keep on selling what I saved from the rubble throughout the winter in the open air. What other choice did I have?’’

Six months later, Barkış, is still outside, selling that salvaged wheat, he laments, so mixed with dirt it is 'fit only to be sold on as chicken feed.'

Doggedly refusing to give up, Barkış is part of a private sector of merchants, tradesmen and businessmen who have contributed independently to Erciş's growth over the years. Yet currently, in the heart of the cheese market where Barkış is located, customers are few and far between and rumours and speculation about the government’s plans for the city are rife.

''No one knows anything for sure about what will happen to Erciş. We're all waiting to find out. People are still trying to pull their businesses together, and apply to the government credit scheme so that they can make ends meet and support their families,'' Fikret Taş, a local cheese merchant, told SES Türkiye.

A consultation and information dinner conference held by the local council on April 8th in Erciş, aimed to inform the 5,000 local tradesmen present about the forms of government support available to them and to explain the ‘urban renewal’ plans intended for Erciş.

During the meeting, AKP MP Fatih Çiftçi stressed the importance of thinking 30 to 50 years into the future, and spoke of turning the harrowing earthquake experience into an opportunity to make Erciş a ‘more liveable’ city that would be ‘the most developed’ in the region.

Although Çiftçi reiterated the necessity of reviving the local trade sector throughout the evening, he skirted the issue of how exactly the sector would be bolstered. Instead, his speech focused on future ‘urban renewal’ plans for Erciş and the importance of tackling the city's infrastructure problems.

Çiftçi mentioned the possible creation of a cultural centre, more green spaces, plans for a 200-bed hospital, a new bus terminal, wider asphalt roads, the 5,000 TOKİ houses available to residents, better sewage systems, continued work on the Morgedek dam and hopes of introducing natural gas to the area.

As it stands, the Turkish government has entitled all tradesmen to a 30,000 TL credit withdrawal from the bank -- free of charge during the first year -- then subject to monthly repayments over a two-year period. In cases of severe damage or complete loss of a shop and goods, the person is entitled up to 100,000 TL worth of credit.

However, in reality, procuring this credit is not as easy as it seems. Discontent is pervasive among tradesmen over the lack of government support in the form of compensation for goods or property lost. Some note that monetary donations were given to farmers by the Ministry of Agriculture, yet nothing similar has been done to compensate losses racked up by people in the trade sector.

''The government announced that the credit would be given unconditionally. But when my application was processed by the Small and Medium Enterprises Development Organisation (KOSGEB) and I submitted it to the bank, they asked me for two guarantors -- one tradesman and one civil servant -- and one warrant. The government just wanted to look good to the public, and everything they said turned out to be just rhetoric,'' said Taş.

In the wake of the earthquake, Abdulkadir Arslan, the managing director of the Ercis Chamber of Commerce and Industry, established a commission that determined that the total amount of damage caused to the property and goods of local tradesmen, registered with ETSO, amounted to 86m TL.

''The tradesmen were the most hard-hit by the earthquake. But so far, only 20% of those who applied for credit from the government have received it. Around 1,500 shops are closed and many people are unemployed. It will be difficult for these people to receive the credit because they have lost everything which they can show as a guarantee to the bank,''Arslan told SES Türkiye.

''If the government can give us the 86m TL as a grant, or at least allow those who receive the credit to make repayments to the government over a ten-year period, instead of back to banks, the trade sector in Erciş will be able to stand back up on its feet again. If not, won't rise back up."

Zulfikar Arapoğlu, Erciş AKP local council president, told SES Türkiye that the state intends to leave no tradesman in difficulty, and added that geological studies of Erciş’ topography are under way so that a town centre plan could be released by May, followed by a general plan by July.

However, with an estimated 5,497 buildings still scheduled to be knocked down -- and rebuilding banned for a year -- critics of the government credit scheme question the chances of homeless, jobless tradesmen generating enough income to start repaying borrowed credit after a year -- that’s if they are allowed to borrow it -- on top of paying for the state-built TOKİ homes after a two-year period.

Despite being a strategically located town at the crossroads of major cities such as Van, Bitlis, and Ağri, and towns such as Çaldıran, Patnos, Muradiye and Adicevaz, little has been done yet to develop Erciş’ farming and trade potential.

Apart from a single state run sugar factory, the rest of Erciş is composed entirely of small shops and privately owned businesses -- a situation that provides few employment opportunities, forcing youths to migrate to western Turkey in search of jobs.

Given its close proximity to Iran, Iraq and Azerbaijan, Arslan highlights the possibility of greater development potential for Erciş if border trade was opened up and more factories established in the region.

For the last four years, talks of establishing an organised industrial region in the Van province have been under way, and Arslan commented that this, along with the government’s recently announced investment incentive programme, may finally draw more national and international investors to Van.

The revised plan, currently in effect, classifies all Turkish provinces under six categories, starting with the most developed and ending with the least. Van, along with 14 other provinces in southeastern Turkey, is currently ranked in the 6th and least developed category. However, its sixth category status allows potential investors greater benefits, such as various tax breaks, customs tax exemptions, government support towards paying employee insurance premiums, land and interest rate support.

If the benefits of the plan are seized by potential investors, Van could see greater economic and trade development in the years to come. Yet while the powers that be hold their discussions and outline plans for Erciş, trade problems remain unresolved in the city centre.


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