Who Cares About Green Issues in Iran?

TEHRAN, Iran, July 18, 2008 (ENS) – Environmental campaigners in Iran are deeply pessimistic about the authorities’ commitment to protecting natural habitats. But some hope is offered by grassroots initiatives where local communities have taken it upon themselves to look after wildlife.

The religious and political leaders who have governed Iran since the 1979 revolution have always stressed the importance of nature conservation. But environmentalists say that in reality, the unchecked squandering of natural resources adds up to a disaster.

Sam is a prominent and controversial journalist who keeps a weblog on environmental affairs. The tone of his blog is completely downbeat. In fact, Sam sees his own work writing about green issues, as a form of protest rather than anything that is going to achieve positive results. All he is doing, he says, is publicizing the activities of those who are bent on destroying Iran’s natural wealth, and who cover up their depredations with talk of protecting the environment.

Sam sees himself as part of Iran’s reform-minded opposition. Nasser, on the other hand, is a journalist more closely connected with the conservative press. But he too is committed to sustainable development.

Nasser says that while his country has signed all the international conventions on environmental issues, there are real questions to be answered about the extent to which these documents are honoured in practice.

The largest and most serious group working on environmental issues in Iran is the Art and Nature Club in Tehran, which is supported by the United Nations Development Programme.

A forested hill in northern Iran
near the Caspian Sea (Photo by
Mahdi Ayat)

At one of its recent meetings, the club held a screening of a documentary about the destruction of the ancient forests of northern Iran which skirt the Caspian Sea.

In the final shots of the documentary, the camera zoomed in on a newspaper headline saying “Goodbye Forest”.

Afterwards, an official from the state forestry agency was given an opportunity to respond. He said the film made exaggerated claims, and he rejected the charge that forests were being systematically chopped down.

The audience listened to him in stunned silence. Then the chairman of the meeting told the forestry official that while his statistics were all very interesting, they did not reflect the real situation reported by observers. This riposte met with hearty applause, reflecting the profound discontent felt by Iranian conservationists.

The conservation department at the forestry agency says about a thousand forest fires are recorded across Iran every year. About a hundred of them occur in the Caspian and Hirkan forests in the north of Iran.

The agency says these fires cause immense damage, but its calculations are based only on the value of the timber lost, and ignore the environmental and historical value of these forests.

Ninety-five percent of forest fires are started by human activity.

Some environmentalists are convinced the fires are the work of land-grabbers who want to clear trees from areas they want to develop. In his blog, Sam encourages journalists to watch out for new buildings that spring up in the middle of forested land. If there is a fire, the owners of such buildings should be the number one suspects, he says.

The Hirkan forest stretches from Golestan province in Iran into the neighboring country of Azerbaijan. It is one of the most valuable wooded areas in the world because it is a relic. There are species of trees that have been growing here continuously for the last 40 million years. The older European forests date back just 11,000 years.

But now the Hirkan forest is under threat. Developers have won planning permission from the government to build a road through the forest.

Iran’s Abr forest (Photo by Hamid
Hosseini courtesy Summit Post)

Meanwhile, green campaigners are trying to get the Abr forest, part of the Hirkan area, listed as a natural heritage site by UNESCO.

Under Iran’s last president, Mohammad Khatami, the government made it a requirement that no major new construction projects of this kind could be approved unless they passed an environmental assessment.

But all too often the appraisal is not done properly. Sam claims that environmental assessments have merely generated an army of consultant engineers and ecologists who make a fat living by producing positive reports.

In some cases, the assessment is knocked together in a matter of days, and so-called experts take bribes in return for defending the construction project when it goes before the committee that decides whether to approve development.

Some people say the Abr forest is doomed to obliteration because it is located in Semnan province. That is where the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, comes from, and many believe he would be reluctant to oppose a development scheme that would create jobs and prosperity there.

One reason why there is so little public scrutiny of the way environmental laws are observed is that Iran lacks strong, independent media. That means there is no outlet for the views of the green movement. Meanwhile, the state media are not really interested in informing and leading public opinion on environmental affairs, and their reporting is superficial.

A second reason for the lack of attention paid to green issues is that Iranians are so caught up in economic and other concerns that they do not have time to worry about less immediate things. Either they are vaguely concerned about the fate of the environment, or they are not interested at all.

Even the middle classes, who might be expected to be more engaged, are often so busy making sure they don’t get left behind in the property development race that they don’t spare a thought for the land that is being flattened.

Yet sometimes, with a little education, Iranians are prepared to spend time and energy conserving the natural habitat and wildlife around them.

Demonstrators protest the drying of
Lake Bakhtegan in front of the Department
of Environment building in Tehran. August
26, 2007. (Photo courtesy Charter of
Human Responsibilities)

Take, for example, the case of Lake Bakhtegan in southwest Iran. When villagers living around the lake recently found that the water in their wells was getting more and more salty, it was apparent the area had a water crisis on its hands.

The dilemma was whether to let more water flow down dammed rivers to feed the lake, or to keep the sluicegates closed to maintain reservoir levels and ensure the villagers had plentiful supplies of fresh water. That placed human needs in direct confrontation with those of the thousands of flamingos that live on Lake Bakhtegan. The birds were already under threat because the water in the lake was becoming so salty.

Conservation officers made an attempt to move flamingo chicks to less affected parts of the lake by catching them with fishing nets, but this has failed as a method.

But villagers found a different way of helping the flamingos. In the course of one night, a thousand young birds were herded from the salt-marshes where they lived to Ali Yousef Island, located on another expanse of water where environmental conditions were better and the water fresher.

This marathon walk set an unprecedented example for environmental work in Iran. Environmental officers, green groups, and local communities found themselves working together productively, and managed to save thousands of flamingos.

{This article originally appeared on Mianeh Reports, a website run by the [url]Institute for War and Peace Reporting[/url] for Iranian journalists and writers at: mianeh.net.}

By Adel Andalibi

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