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 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's going to achieve positive results. All he's doing, he says, is publicising 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.
At one recent meeting, 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 didn't reflect the real situation reported by observers. This response met with hearty applause, which showed the level of discontent felt by Iranian conservationists.
The conservation department at the forestry agency says there are about a thousand forest fires recorded across Iran every year. About a hundred of them occur in the Caspian and Hirkan forests in the north.
The agency says these fires come at a high price, but its calculations are based only on the price of timber and ignores the environmental and historical value of these forests.
Ninety-five per cent of forest fires are started by human activity.
Some environmentalists are convinced the fires are the work of land-grabbers who want to clear an area of trees. In his blog, Sam encourages journalists to watch out for new buildings that spring up in the middle of forested land. If there's 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 neighbouring country of Azerbaijan. It's one of the most valuable wooded areas in the world because it is a relic. There are species of tree that have been growing here continuously for the last 40 million years. The older forests in Europe date back just 11 thousand years.
But now the Hirkan forest is under threat. Developers have won planning permission from the government to build a road through the forest.
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 these 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 project when it goes before the committee that decides the matter.
Some people say the Abr forest is doomed to obliteration because of its location 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's so little public scrutiny of the way environmental laws are observed is that Iran lacks strong media that are independent of government. That means there's no outlet for the views of the green movement. Meanwhile, the state media aren't really interested in informing and leading public opinion on environmental matters, and their reporting is superficial.
A second reason for the lack of attention on green issues is that Iranians are so caught up in economic and other concerns that they don't have time to worry about less immediate things. Either they are vaguely concerned about the fate of the environment, or else they're not interested at all.
Even the middle classes, who might be expected to be more engaged, are often so concerned not to be left behind in the property development race that they don't spare a thought for the land that's being flattened.
Yet sometimes, with a little education, Iranians are prepared to spend time and energy conserving the natural habitat and wildlife around them.
Take, for example, the case of Lake Bakhtegan in southwest Iran. When villages around the lake recently found the water in their wells was getting more and more salty, it was apparent the area had a water crisis on its hands.
The obvious solution was to open up the upper hand dams to flow more water to feed the lake, or keep the water at dam so the villagers would have a more plentiful supply 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 largely failed as a method.
But villagers found a 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 an island on another expanse of water, called Ali Yousef ireland, 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.
Adel Andalibi is a researcher in the field of communications, based in Tehran
This article is an abridged and translated version of the full original text published on the Farsi pages of Mianeh, with editorial adjustments agreed with the writer made to provide clarity for English-language readers.
About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (iwpr.net) the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic society that is Iran today.
... Payvand News - 07/31/08 ... --