Ecology as a space for political protest in Rojhelat


The Kurdish population in Rojhelat, a part of Kurdistan occupied by Iran, numbers approximately 7 million people, eking out a difficult subsistence.

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While the Kurdish language and culture are not prohibited there as they are in Turkey, the Iranian regime exercises a ferocious repression on every political opposition and any wish for autonomy, and denies all political existence to the Kurdish people. It has reined in the region’s economic development, introducing no industries there and orienting production solely on those resources of interest for the central part of the country. Unemployment is endemic, given the lack of job opportunities. Rojhelat can be understood as a margin, in the sense described by Brigitte Prost: “The margin would consist of the gap (in a surface, in time, in functional intensity) between a “plus”, which is to say an organized territory, functioning according to rules established progressively over time, and a “minus” involving a space, a period, a given type of activity, no longer respondinf to the norms of the system to which it is attached, whether this unresponsiveness be brutal (rupture) or progressive (modification, transition)”.

The colonial management of the Kurdish margin by the central Iranian State has a direct impact on the environment. Thus, ecology becomes one of the rare areas where protest is possible. The State is well aware of this and ecological activists pay a heavy tribute to their struggle. Two of them, Goran Ghorbani and Fateh Hoshmand, for example, have been in detention without trial with the regime’s security forces for several months now. In early 2019, ten ecological activists were arrested under a fallacious excuse following their actions in favor of the environment. They were only released after several months of detention.

What follows is an interview with one of the members of the ecological association, whose identy will not be revealed, obviously. For security reasons, the interview was carried out in a third party’s home. Setting foot in the offices of the association is impossible without provoking a reaction from the authorities. Showing interest in ecology – as is the case with involvement in women’s association, in politics or in any other activity questioning the regime – leads to exposing one’s self to heavy sanctions for foreigners as well.

• What does you work consist of?

In Iran, associations are forbidden from expressing a political point of view. Generally, there are three aspects for the protection of the environement on which we have worked:

The individual aspect: each one of us is responsible for the protection of nature.

The socio-political aspect: we are necessarily dealing with a political force and this force is the principal cause of everything that impacts on the environment. Therefore, we must meet. On some projects, these meetings occasionally wind their way to the Iranian parliament.

The industrial aspect: we have managed to prevent the installation of certain destructive industries in the region. For instance, the government wanted to set up a small oil refinery but we did not allow it because it was close to lake Zribar1and would no doubt have caused damage to it. Of course, this was not easy work, the trial lasted almost two years, and for this, we were in contact with the regime’s main core.

Lake Zribar in Mariwan, Kurdistan e Rojhelat, Iran, July 2019. Lake Zribar is a natural space with a rich ecosystem. Ecological associations are fighting to preserve it against policies of the central State that do not take the environment into account, such as, for example, the project – since abandoned – of building an oil refinery next to it.

• Why do you carry out environmental activities?

The environmental problem is both regional and world-wide. Undoubtedly, the environment in Kurdistan has its own specific characteristics. What led us to these activities was the fact the government paid no attention to nature in this region. For example: it was said that every year, close to 5 000 birds of 56 different species lived around Lake Zribar. We formed a group of ornithologists to research this area, and we finally managed to list  257 species by name and counted more than 80 000 birds showing up around this lake each year. This research led to the international convention on water listing Zribar as an international laguna. This was one of our main preoccupations.

Lake Zribar in Mariwan, Kurdistan e Rojhelat, Iran, July 2019. 

Fire is another problem. It happens that the lands and trees burn. At first, we fought against the fires ourselves. Then we taught others, the villagers, how to extinguish the fires in their regions. Now, in many villages, there are groups responsible for extinguishing the fires.


Hawraman region, Kurdistan e Rojhelat, summer 2019. Fire in the mountain.

Yet another problem: there is a lot of hunting. In a small town like Mariwan, there are more than 17 000 registered firearms, and it is said there would be over 35 000 other unauthorized weapons. This count is quite high and has caused problems for humans but for animals also. This is an important topic in this region of Kurdistan because, according to the environmental director in this province, the variety of species is equal to that of all the species on the African continent. But some are being led to extinction. Some species are originally from Kurdistan such as the Kurdish salamander. The habitat of some species is endangered, they must be protected.

Industry is the final problem. According to government statistics, Kurdistan comprises 12% of the population of Iran. Yet, there is less than 2% of economic development there. In some areas of Kurdistan still further from the center of the country, industrial development even sinks to 0.02%. The government introduces extremely polluting industries in the region, such as the cement industries in Dabandzil and Ouraman, or like the planned refinery near Zribar. Instead of allowing for industries in keeping with the geographical and environmental makeup of the region. We have resisted against this, and occasionally obtained some successes in this area.

All of these concerns led us to act in the area of environment. On the more individual aspects of the question also. For instance, people paid no attention to the environment and threw their garbage everywhere. The transition was too rapid from the traditional world to the contemporary. In the traditional world, people ate nuts, for example, and threw away the useless parts, and this was not a problem because the refuse was natural. But in the contemporary world, you eat a cookie and you throw away the plastic wrapping in nature, plastic is not a natrual substance and will cause problems. So we must inform people in this area. We have begun and, happily, we are seeing a lot of progress. I can say this thanks to statistics, for instance in the plain of Belu which is a renowed picnic area near Marivan, where every year more than 20 tons of garbage were gathered. More recently – even including a few other picnic areas – less than 2 tons of garbage are collected annually. Thus, these activities had a positive cultural result at the individual level. As humans, we must act responsibly toward our environment.

• How does the government consider your activities?

The Iranian government’s overall point of view concerning the environement closely resembles that of its point of view about women. If anything is done in these areas, it is solely for appearance’s sake. For example, women have practically no role in Iranian politics. But a woman serves as director in the environmental sector. Because the environment isn’t important for the government, it hands the responsibility to a woman as a way of maintaining its prestige in the eyes of the outside world. So as to say that Iranian women belong in politics just as men do. This particular woman isn’t very gifted for this responsibility but that doesn’t matter for the government, since only appearance matters. Consequently, the situation of the environment is not good in Iran.


Kurdistan e rojhelat (Iran), summer 2019. The Kurdish regions are among the richest in water in Iran. But the government has built dams in order to direct water toward the desert regions. Consequently, the ecological struggle in Kurdistan is a sensitive topic, several ecological activists have been sentenced to heavy prisons terms, or even sentenced to death.

The government is not kind at all with us. We are imprisoned. At the moment, some of my friends are in jail. Obstacles are constantly raised against our activities. For the government, the environment is not a priority in its planning of projects. Questions regarding the building of dams are purely political, with no attention paid to the environment. Plans concerning water and forest use are political and do not serve the population’s interests. What the Turkish government is doing with the waters from the Tiger and the Euphrates, the Iranian government is doing with the waters of the Sirwan and other water sources crossing other countries. They take advantage of these waters and don’t allow them to flow on to neighboring countries. Here’s another statistic: the province of Kurdistan is 6th or 7th in terms of lands suitable for agriculture. It holds second place in terms of water resources. I think Khûzistân is the 4th or 5th province in terms of agricultural lands, and the first in terms of water resources. Thus Khûzistân is the first agricultural producer in Iran. Given these statistics, Kurdistan should stand in 3rd or 4th place for agricultural production in Iran, yet it is in 19th position. Agriculture in Kurdistan is very poorly managed. The waters of Kurdistan go to the neighbouring provinces. Kurdistan is disadvantaged compared to Khûzistân. For example in Khûzistân approximately 17 000 workers are employed by the sugar cane industry, but in Kurdistan, not even one industry or factory counts 1 000 workers. This has led to the emigration of Kurds toward other regions in the country in order to work,  even when it comes  to serving as engineers in industry. Because they cannot find work in their province.

Kurdistan e rojhelat (Iran), summer 2019. Village in the region of Baneh.

Kurdistan e rojhelat (Iran), summer 2019. Village in the region of Hewraman.

Sine/Sanadaj, Kurdistan e rojhelat (Iran), summer 2019. Small farms of this type sell fresh vegetable to individuals. But they receive no governmental aid because they are not part of its plan.

In our interventions, we are not at all comfortable with the government. As a rule, the government does not believe in activities aimed at protecting the environment, and opposes them. For instance, when we went out to plant trees, we were surrounded by police forces as if we were committing a crime. Or again, sometimes we obtain an authorization but, in the end, they do not allow us to proceed. They do not want these activities to spread among the people but we carry on, and people are more than willing to participate. Recently, we invited the public to a festival called “A day for Zribar”. More than 10 000 people came to this two-day festival. Or yet again, more than 30-40 thousand people participated in the funerals of two of our members who died while putting out fires in a forest near Mariwan.

We also asked villager to totally clean their village on the last Wednesday of every year. This year, 204 villages did this simultaneously. The government doesn’t like this because these are organized activities and it fears that these activities and this organization will spread to other areas, and that this will turn against it.

• Does the Iranian government manage agricultural production and impose certain crops?

 In order to answer this question, I must first talk a bit about the history of agriculture in Iran. When the regime came to power in Iran, it set up agricultural specializations for the various regions. For example, citrus in  Northern Iran, wheat and grain for the center and for Kurdistan. This was what existed in the country; now, farmers are freer to grow what they wish. But the government grants certain aids to those who grow what it demands, as an encouragement. But these aids are not based on research and they are not ecological, they are solely based on demands. For example, Khamenei says we want to be self-sufficient in wheat. Therefore a vast quantity of underground waters is extracted to that aim, solely so we can claim we are self-sufficient in wheat production. This is not ecological. In Iran of 600 existing plains, 270 are totally dry and impossible to cultivate, as a result of the abusive use of underground water. The plain of Teheran shows an additional 30 centimeter subsidence every years (sinking of the ground level due to removal of underground substances, mainly water). The drying out of the land has reached Hamadan and I’ve been told it has reached the plain of Lailakh in Kurdistan. This shows that the level of water resources has diminished substantially. In every country in the world, a maximum of 20% of the water reserves must be utilized, and only in the most tense of situations. Two countries have utilized more than these limits. One is Egypt that has used 46% of its underground water resources, following recent wars and tensions in the country. The other country being Iran that has utilized close to 80% of its water resources. This leads to a serious and worsening crisis for Iran. Agriculture in Iran is undergoing a crisis and the plains will become deserts: some plains in the Khorasan, the Khuzestân, the Hamadan, Teheran, Yazd, Kereman, Ispahan. Water will be a crucial problem for the future of Iran.

Baneh, Kurdistan e rojhelat (Iran), summer 2019. Some residents prefer filling their jerrycans at this source, the water being of better quality than the public water supply.

We need environmental studies on each region of the country in order to know which produce to grow there and improve yields. But there are not enough studies of this kind conducted in Iran. They should be done with the greatest of care because the earth of each region has its own characteristics, for instance the earth in Hewraman may be different from that in Mariwan. It is unreasonable to say you must grow wheat or rapeseed across the country because we need oil and want to be self-sufficient. Even those studies that were conducted were rather centralistic, for instance when applying to central and Northern Zagros results of a study done in Southern Zagros since the lands are totally different. So for some regions, this may be a proper technique, and catastrophic for others. As with the Touba project where the government prohibited the raising of goats because many goats were raised in Ispahan and they ruined the trees. The government forbade the raising of goats in all parts of Zagros, which has proven catastrophic in Kurdistan.

Rojhelat – July 2019-07-20

Baneh, Kurdistan e rojhelat (Iran), summer 2019. Village in the region of Baneh.


Translation by Renée Lucie Bourges
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