News ID: 3165
Publish Date: 17 October 2013 - 11:04
The recent election of President Hassan Rouhani, had energized the efforts of seasoned NGO activists and fresh university graduates eager to move ahead with their latest environmental efforts.
Zistboom/ Narges Bajoghli: The recent election of President Hassan Rouhani, who ran on the promise of offering greater space and protections to civil society, had energized the efforts of seasoned NGO activists and fresh university graduates eager to move ahead with their latest environmental efforts. 
Gathered around a table in a Tehran office, they discussed how they could safeguard the jungle habitat of the endangered Persian leopard, around the Caspian Sea, reported. 
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 former President Mohammad Khatami’s 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. 

Environmental NGOs 
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. 
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 name pseudonyms. For those who chose to be named, their names appear in full. 
After Ahmadinejad’s election, many civil society organizations shut down after the president enacted restrictions. However, 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 natural habitat cleanup. 
Shirin, a 25-year-old who recently returned to Iran after earning a Master’s 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. 
Her NGO works to protect endangered animals, including the Persian leopard,Panthera pardus ciscaucasica, the largest leopard subspecies in the world. 
This leopard 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.” 

Public Relations Problem 
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,” he said, on a return trip to Tehran. 
Chalani was off in a few weeks to Baluchistan for a six-month stint to film a new story about oil 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, the head of Public Relations Department 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 Orumieh is drying in northern Iran. But other than that, they don’t care about what’s going on to the environment,” said Kamran. "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 headed the Environmental Protection Society of Iran. 
After the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the 1980-88 Iraq-imposed war, however, President Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-97) led an era of reconstruction, encouraging growth and the creation 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. Mahlaqa 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, Khatami, in 1997 that Iranians became 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,” he said. 
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 US Treasury Department announced last month that it was issuing a general license to support humanitarian aid in Iran, which includes environmental and wildlife conservation efforts. 
"We hope Rouhani makes things better,” Hamid says. 
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. 
In a common refrain by the young generation of environmental activists in Iran, Shirin says, "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.” 
(Narges Bajoghli is a PhD 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.)
Source: Iran Daily
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