In Iran, Green is Sometimes Safest
In Iran, Green is Sometimes Safest
By Narges Bajoghli
This past summer, I sat in a small conference room in central Tehran with a group of activists who were excitedly planning for their next project. The recent election of President Hassan Rouhani, who ran on the promise of offering greater space and protections to civil society, had energized their efforts, and both seasoned NGO activists and fresh university graduates were eager to move ahead with their organization's latest effort. Gathered around a table in the airy office, they discussed how they could safeguard the jungle habitat of the endangered Persian Leopard, around the Caspian Sea. Their most recent project had expanded the Golestan National Park in the north of Iran to provide a refuge for the endangered leopards, and the activists were eager to extend their efforts to other regions of the country.
The civic energy of the Khatami years was palpable in the room, but the activists now had the added experience of how to survive under extremely inhospitable conditions, and continue to thrive, unnoticed. For those activists who stayed in Iran during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency and continued to work on social issues, many shifted their focus to the environment. Working on green issues enabled them to keep up their civic activity while warding off official intimidation, during a time when social activism of any kind was dangerous, often resulting in expulsion from university, harassment of family members, or imprisonment.
Most of the activists I spoke to for this piece asked not be named due to the lingering sensitivity around their work, and they are quoted by first names pseudonyms. For those who chose to be named, their names appear in full.
“Our NGO had to close its doors under Ahmadinejad and it became too difficult to continue my work on women’s issues and youth issues,” says Hamid, an activist since his days in the reform movement at the University of Tehran in the late 1990s. “But working on the environment allows us to be active on social issues without drawing much notice from the authorities.”
After Ahmadinejad’s election, many civil society organizations shut down after the president enacted restrictions and suffocated civic engagement in the country. Environmental NGOs were not affected as harshly as organizations that dealt with human issues. Although Ahmadinejad’s administration cut formal support for environmental NGOs, activists continued working on issues such as rampant water shortages, deforestation in the north of the country, pollution, wildlife preservation, and cleaning up natural habitat.
Shirin, a 25-year-old who recently returned to Iran after earning a masters degree in Environmental Science in Europe, began working for an organization that focused on the protection of wildlife. The organization’s staff works tirelessly from morning until late at night, planning projects and activities to raise awareness about the dire conditions of wildlife in the country. “My friends and family often look at me like I’m crazy. They ask: how can you spend so much energy working for animals when we have so many social problems?” she says. “But we have to make sure we raise awareness in the country that environmental issues are critical here, and we’ll face a true crisis shortly if we don’t start paying more attention.”
Her NGO works to protect endangered animals, including the Persian Leopard, the largest leopard subspecies in the world that is native to northern Iran, the Caucasus Mountains, eastern Turkey, and southern Turkmenistan. The Persian Leopard, much like the endangered Baluchistan Bear in Iran and Pakistan, is threatened by poaching and loss of habitat due to deforestation and infrastructure development. Her organization works to raise awareness about these animals and expand protected zones.
Leyla, Shirin’s co-worker, adds: “There’s very little public knowledge in Iran about the dire circumstances of endangered wildlife animals. Environmental issues as a whole are not given much importance here, and since Iran has been shut off from the international community, we have no international support for our work.” She looks at her colleagues, smiles, and shrugs it off: “It’s okay though, we’ll keep working on this and eventually people will start paying attention. Plus, it’s the only work we can do right now: everything else is just too dangerous in this climate.”
Activists complain that there is little public awareness about the environmental issues the country faces. With the independent press also suffering from increased censorship during the Ahmadinejad years, publishing news about environmental issues became increasingly difficult.
Mehdi Chalani, an environmental scientist turned documentary filmmaker, decided to pick up a camera and bring environmental stories to life. Chalani taught himself filmmaking, and with a small budget, set out to create films about the endangered Baluchistan Bear and the Persian Leopard.
“I got tired of doing the research and having it fall on deaf ears. I thought that at least with films, I could try to show people in the cities what was going on in far off places,” Mehdi said, on a return trip to Tehran. He was off in a few weeks to Baluchistan for a six-month stint to film a new story about petroleum trafficking and the hunting of black Asian bears. Despite his efforts, he has not been able to screen his films on Iranian state television.
The widespread problem of pollution in Iran’s major cities has been one of the only environmental issues addressed in the press.
“We either have to focus on the fact that pollution is suffocating our large cities, or we have to figure out a way to connect the issues we work on to something surrounding national and historical interest. Otherwise, people won’t care,” says Kamran, head of public relations at one of the environmental organizations.
“People care when they hear that the construction of a subway system in Isfahan may potentially endanger historical sites, or that the great salt Lake Urumieh is drying in northern Iran. But other than that, they don’t care about what’s going on to the environment. We have a public relations problem when it comes to our environmental issues.”
Environmental activism began in the 1970s in Iran, when figures such as Iskandar Firouz directed the Environmental Protection Society of Iran. After the 1979 Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, however, President Rafsanjani (1989-1997) led an era of reconstruction, encouraging growth and the creation of factories in the country. With the construction of factories and manufacturing plants all over the country, often without any consideration for their environmental impact, an environmental crisis began to form in Iran.
Activists trace the root of the crises they work on today to the post-war policies of the Rafsanjani era: haphazard dam-building throughout the country, mining, factories destroying air quality, and the destruction of jungles in the north of the country to manufacture paper, among other products.
After the war, social organizations began to reemerge, breathing new life into civic engagement in the country: Mahlagha Malla created the Women’s Society Against Environmental Pollution, followed by mountain climbing groups at the universities in big cities such as Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz.
But, it wasn’t until the election of the reformist president Mohammad Khatami in 1997, that Iranians became on active on a large scale and environmental activism took on renewed importance.
Ali, a veteran NGO activist, recalls how large groups of students would gather at the universities to travel to northern provinces of Iran to pick up trash and raise awareness about environmental damage. “The more we got out of the major cities and traveled together in large groups to the provinces, the more we all became aware of the huge environmental damage taking place in the name of industrialization.”
Ali and his friends would leave their classes at their respective universities and go to the offices of the Green Party (Jebhe Sabz) in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “All these students would gather there every day after classes, and we’d discuss the various projects and plan. It was an incredible learning place and it also helped create all the networks of people that became so important in leading the protests during Khatami’s time and again in protesting the results of the 2009 presidential elections when Ahmadinejad was supposedly reelected.”
Although environmental activists are encouraged by the election of Hassan Rouhani as the new president, they remain wary about the future. “Anything is better than Ahmadinejad,” says Hamid. “We were completely suffocated under him and barely survived.”
In a positive turn of events, the U.S. Department of Treasury announced last month that it was issuing a general license to support humanitarian aide in Iran, which includes environmental and wildlife conservation efforts. “We hope Rouhani makes things better,” Hamid says. “But we also have the bitter taste in our mouths of Khatami leaving us all alone to fend the lions. We’ll keep working. It can’t get worse than the Ahmadinejad years.”
Although Rouhani has indicated that he will ease restrictions on civil society in Iran, the activists who have worked on environmental issues in the last decade are determined to stay in this field: “There’s just too much to be done and the environmental crisis in Iran is growing by the day,” says Ali.
Chalani, before his departure to film in Baluchistan, told me he believes his work will have lasting impact on the country. “Environmental issues are bigger than politics, that’s why I continue to work in this field.”
In a common refrain by the young generation of environmental activists in Iran, Shirin says: “I’m so tired of day-to-day politics. Yes, I’m happy Rouhani is now the president, but I’m so cynical. I’d rather pour all my energy in conserving the environment in this country. The environment, if we’re able to protect it, will outlive the Islamic Republic.”
Narges Bajoghli is a Ph.D student in anthropology at New York University, and director of the documentary film, The Skin That Burns (2012), about survivors of chemical warfare in Iran.