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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Loez s’in­téresse depuis plusieurs années aux con­séquences des États-nations sur le peu­ple kurde, et aux luttes de celui-ci.