Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Poverty & SDGs

ENVIRONMENT-IRAN: Turning Ancient Forests Into Deserts

Saloumeh Peyman

TEHRAN, Sep 7 2005 (IPS) - Northern Iran’s famed rolling meadows and charmed forests, close to the Caspian Sea coasts, are rapidly turning into history as a result of commercial lumbering and degradation caused by less than eco-friendly tourism.

”It is my fate that where I was once in charge of protecting these forests, I now drive poachers, timber smugglers and well-to-do youngsters from the city into these areas so they can hasten the destruction,” said Ahmed Jebelli, 60, who earns a living by driving a taxi, after retiring from the Iranian Forestry and Pastures Organisation.

Where natural beauty, veiled by the hanging mists of the ancient Hyrcanian forests once reigned supreme, ugly high-rises, condominiums and massive villas owned by Tehran’s new elites, now dominate the scenery that unfolds as Jebelli’s taxi bowls along, heading for the northern provinces of Gilan, Mazandarin and Golestan.

>From a distance, there is still the unspoiled, deep blue of the Caspian Sea and dense forests that still cover the slopes of the Alborz mountains, which also support lush paddy fields and citrus plantations that are a magnet for city dwellers and tourists.

However, closer inspection of the yet thick undergrowth, nourished by the damp mists that roll in from the Caspian and the carpet of fallen leaves, reveals an assortment of discarded plastic bottles, empty cigarette packs and just plain garbage, biodegradable or otherwise.

Pausing for tea at the foot of the gentle Hasan Abad hill, Jebelli blames the steady despoliation on the population explosion since the 1979 Iranian revolution, which saw the ouster of the Shah of Iran and the installation of an Islamic Republic. ”The population doubled over the last two decades and the new generation does not care for environmental issues.”

”This is a generation that is short-sighted and thinks only of standing in queues to get subsidised milk and staples and does not give a damn about whether the forests are polluted with their trash,” Jebelli rued.

Naser Karami, who holds a doctorate in climatology and works as an eco- tourism instructor, has a more expert view of what has been happening to Iran’s fabled forests. ”The absence of sound land-use laws is what is shrinking the area under forests and woodlands and causing the steady desertification of the Iranian plateau,” he said in an IPS interview.

”Politically and economically-powerful people or their close relatives manage to get hold of the licences to exploit the forest resources, particularly timber, and do as they please,” said Karami.

”At stake now are the Caspian ( ancient Hyrcania) forests covering the Alborz mountains, the central woodlands and the thin Arasbaran forests, on the slopes of the Zagros mountains, and also the coastal forests of the Persian Gulf,” Karami explained.

Indeed, the Caspian Sea (the world’s largest land-locked lake), famed for its sturgeon stocks, is itself gradually turning into a vast cesspool for the littoral states that litter it- Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. A petroleum rush, in the ecologically sensitive Caspian region, has only worsened the situation.

In Iran, according to satellite images released by the Rome-based, Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), of the 18 to 21 million hectares of forests and woodlands at the beginning of the Islamic revolution, only around 12 million hectares now survive, Karami pointed out.

”Going by FAO standards, ‘genuine’ forests in Iran now cover barely seven million hectares (mostly in the north, littoral to the Caspian sea),” Karami lamented.

”Until two years ago, some two million cubic metres of lumber used to be extracted annually from Iran’s forests by legally authorised companies, but thanks to protests by non-government organisations (NGOs) and environmentalists, the exploitation has dropped to less than one million cubic metres,” said Karami.

While the foresty department claims that up to 78 percent of the continuing lumber extraction comes from re-afforested areas, experts like Karami believe that the actual damage caused to ancient forests, wreaked in earlier years, has been irreparable. ”In the absence of independent assessments by, NGOs for example, who can verify the claims of officials anyway?”

Before the formation of the present Environment Department, several authorities were in charge of game and fishing as well as forestry and pastures, and they strictly enforced rules of conservation designed to safeguard both flora and fauna across Iran.

In contrast, the poor, underpaid wardens of the Environment Department are not only ignored but are also at risk of being shot and killed with impunity by poachers with contacts.

Testimony to the government’s callous attitude to the environment are piles of empty cartridge shells that greet visitors, who care to stroll through the Kanvir National Park in the centre of Iran, discarded by the army which uses the once- carefully protected reserve for war games.

A survey (written in Farsi), conducted by the well-known Iranian environmentalist Hoshang Zeaee, says that more than half of the wildlife that once existed on the Iranian plateau has now become extinct.

Species wiped out since 1978, according to the survey, include the Jebeer Gazelle ( Gazella Dorcas Fuscifrons) Persian Wild Ass ( Equus Hermionus) Alborz Red Sheep ( Ovis Ammon Orientaliss) Asian Cheetah ( Acinonyx Jubatus) Persian Fallow ( Dama Mesopotamica) and Goitered Gazelle ( Gazella Subgutturosia).

”The tragedy of gradually losing our ancient stands of yew forests ( Taxus Baccata, also called English yew trees) in north and west of Iran, whose origins go back three million years, along with the wildlife they supported, is a subject fit for national mourning,” said Karami.

”While most Iranians are preoccupied with other things, this country is going the way of neighbouring Afghanistan and Pakistan which once had plenty of green pastures and flourishing forests but are, now, mostly covered by barren land and deserts,” Karami observed gloomily.

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