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Features

Fury Over Uprooted Palms Exposes Systemic Failure to Protect the Environment

November 12, 2021
Maryam Dehkordi
7 min read
The head of the National Date Association confirmed that palm trees are being exported to other countries in the Persian Gulf
The head of the National Date Association confirmed that palm trees are being exported to other countries in the Persian Gulf
Qatar and Kuwait are said to be the biggest purchasers of date palms
Qatar and Kuwait are said to be the biggest purchasers of date palms

Environmental activists in Bushehr in southern Iran have appealed to the government to stop the sale of palm trees to Qatar and Kuwait, insisting that the practice of uprooting the trees for profit is having a detrimental effect on the local habitat.

But officials have claimed the tree felling has had no impact on the environment. Yaser Heydari, the prosecutor for Dashtestan near Bushehr, denied the sale was going ahead, saying the palms had been uprooted because they were in poor condition and not suitable for sale.

"The owner of these palm trees sells about 18 trees for approximately 1.5 million tomans each because they are so poor in quality,” Heydari said. “And experts at the Agricultural Jihad Organization have also confirmed the palms are of poor value and not economically viable."

Climatologist and environmental expert Nasser Karami told IranWire there had been a lot of confusion and misinformation about the trees. He said people were furious following rumors that Iran’s neighboring countries purchased the trees for green public spaces, including in planted areas being developed in Qatar in the run up to the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The trees, he said, were being damaged because of long-running failure to protect the environment, but that they weren’t “useless” as some officials had claimed. 

"We have been shouting for years that the waters of the Karkheh and Karun rivers have become salty and more than 1.5 million palms in southern Iran have been damaged and are dying because of high saline levels and drought, but no one has listened. Now people are saying that a number of trees, perhaps a total of about 60, have been sold to Qatar or Kuwait, prompting huge outcries. In the area where this happened, every house might have 200 or more palm trees in their yard; most have at least 60 palm trees. So if these trees were as fruitless as they said, selling them would definitely be better than keeping them on dried-out land and irrigating them with salty water."

According to Karami, Iranian authorities have showed no interest in the Bushehr plains palm controversy. "The significance of this matter is so small compared to the large-scale regression of the environment, the salinization of the water and land, and the damage done to the palm trees in the cities of southern Khuzestan. This controversy is very strange. It’s like a smoker asking how much impact he is having on air pollution! The fact is that a car pollutes the air several times more than any smoker can."

Karami says that although in general he would never condone the destruction of vegetation or uprooting trees, if it is done under controlled conditions, it doesn’t cause any damage.

Uprooted Plants and Soil Erosion

In an interview with the Iranian Labour News Agency, Mohsen Rashid Farokhi, President of the National Date Association, confirmed that the Iranian palms export would go ahead and that he had asked the Ministry of Jihad and Agriculture to address the issue before such export deals become a dominant trend. "If palms are being uprooted and exported amid claims of increased levels of saline of water in the area, it is the ministry’s job to intervene and take action to solve the problem,” he said.

Farokhi challenged the Dashtestan city prosecutor’s about the trees not being productive. "Palm trees can adapt. So the insistence that these trees are dried out and don’t produce fruit is fundamentally untrue."

Civil society activist and environmental expert Azam Bahrami said the environmental crisis had been brought about by a combination of destroyed vegetation, forests and pastures being used as agricultural land, wells being dug and improper pumping of water from underground sources. "Soil erosion is also an important factor," she told IranWire. "But in the case of the palm trees, we are not talking about cutting down trees but relocating them, and the species is an important part of the area's ecosystem. And palm trees need between five and 10 years to mature. So planting a tree in its place isn’t really a solution.

“There are some areas in northern Iran where trees are planted so that their wood can be used as an industrial resource. But this is not what happened in this case — these trees were not planted to be exported or sold. On the other hand, although palms can adapt to low humidity, the richness and mineral levels of the soil must be taken into account. If it’s about running a business, it must be done with careful expertise and with the relevant priorities in place."

A Pattern of Degradation

Although activists have appealed to the government to stop the export of the palms, in an interview with Rokna News Agency, the deputy head of the Bushehr Agricultural Jihad Organization reminded the public that the practice was entirely legal. Khosrow Omrani said that over the past three and a half years, about 4,000 Iranian palms have been exported from Bushehr to Qatar. "Bushehr province can also benefit from this opportunity."

Bahrami said she has seen this pattern of Iranian officials making contradictory statements about environmental damage and benefits before. "The Soil Protection Act — which is also relevant to palm mining and exports — was approved in parliament after 14 years, and yet soil is being exported from Hormozgan and no one opposes it. The Agricultural Organization, the Governor's Office and the Environment Organization all could have intervened and demanded that more detailed and comprehensive studies be carried out about these mechanisms and processes, as well as about how many sales take place and what the financial implications are. But unfortunately we are seeing what happened in Hormozgan and in the Persian Gulf regarding trawl fishing with trees in Bushehr."

The Palm Farmers Forced to Leave

Raouf, a palm grower in the village of Abushanak in Abadan district, told IranWire he had cried when he heard the news of the palms being sold. "My ancestors had palm trees. It feels as if they’re  buying and selling our children. The palm is our existence and our life, not just a tree. For the past 10 years, the fields have deteriorated due to the high saline levels of the water and because of wastewater from the Mirza Kuchak Khan sugarcane complex. Government officials, who should have been careful not to let this happen, should now be held accountable."

IranWire also spoke to Mehdi Hashemi, a data analyst and statistician who focuses specifically on the ecosystem, climate change and demographics in Khuzestan. “A large amount of the region’s palm trees were destroyed during the Iran-Iraq war,” he said. "Water supply projects and dam construction, including on the Karun, Karkheh and Dez rivers, which started way back in the Pahlavi era and carried on into the presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in the 1990s, destroyed the palm groves and agriculture in the region.

"One erroneous analysis at the time was that fresh water was being dumped into the sea unnecessarily. This was a complete falsehood. The construction of a dam upstream prevented water from reaching the fields and groves. From there, seawater advanced into the ground. Then devastating plans for sugarcane meant toxic effluents were released into rivers, resulting in an even bigger catastrophe."

"The water is so salty that cows won’t even touch it," Raouf told IranWire. “We are some of the lucky ones since we still have the money and the ability to buy water. But many people sold their houses and land and moved to cities. There are people who did not even sell their property; they just left. Maybe we will all have to sell the palms and leave."

According to unofficial statistics, nearly four million date palms in the southern regions of Khuzestan are at risk. Declining river levels, seawater inflows into rivers and lands and shoddy water transfer schemes have all made the lives of palm growers desperate. They have done everything they can to save the palms and to continue making a living, while the government has done nothing to support these environments or the people who live there.


Related coverage: 

Calls for Environmental Activists to be Released as COP26 Begins in Glasgow

Lake Urmia is Dying

Iran’s Water Crisis: Will Isfahan be Uninhabitable in 10 Years?

The Water Crisis in Iran's Khuzestan Province

Gotvand Dam: An Environmental Disaster

"Iran Could End up Like the Horn of Africa"

Shadegan's Wasted Palm Forests

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