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Green Or Gone

Rumblings Inside Iran's Environmental Movement

Helped by access to social media, environmental activists are calling for efficient measures against the scourge of pollution and degradation. A whiff of Western-style protest in the air.

2010 An Iranian girl wears a mask on a street in Teheran
2010 An Iranian girl wears a mask on a street in Teheran
Ghazal Golshiri

TEHRAN — The call to demonstrate was made on Iranian social networks at the end of May. "Go out into the parks, all over the country, and wear a white breathing mask to say no to pollution! Join us on June 5 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m." Their goal? "Voice the concerns of the citizens on the destruction of the environment and on pollution."

On the event's Facebook page, residents of several cities around the country have published photos of their rallies. Even before this recent nationwide demonstration, other gatherings had been organized in cities such as Zanjan, Arak and Shazand over the last few months — all demonstrating about air pollution, a serious health issue that affects all Iranians.

But the environment is not the only issue for many of these activists. One young woman named Parissa (not her real name) is campaigning for animal rights. Feeling outraged after "always hearing information about the poor treatment of animals in circuses and zoos," she decided to take action in January when she learned that one of the last Iranian leopards, named Alborz, was severely wounded by poachers.

"Vets said they couldn't do anything," she says. "The day before it was euthanized, I made a expand=1] video to tell its tragic fate. I then called on people on Facebook to protest against the condition of animals outside the Iranian Department of Environment, in Tehran, on Jan. 5." The video was shared more than 2,000 times, and her appeal gathered 150 people demanding "the end of hunting permits."

Since then, along with her friends, Parissa has created several Facebook groups in defense of animals. The members share information and decide on initiatives to undertake. Together, they planned another gathering for the protection of the environment earlier this month.

Activism on social networks

Like Parissa, who has a middle-class background and comes from the capital, Iranians are making the most of a rapid breakthrough of social networks to drive environmental and other issues forward.

[rebelmouse-image 27088060 alt="""" original_size="1024x768" expand=1]

Dark smoke from a gas freestanding chimney near Ahvaz Photo: dynamosquito

This environmental awareness is not limited to large cities or to the middle or upper classes. In many small villages across the country — including Marivan, Kamiaran and Bukan, all in the Iranian Kurdistan — men have broken apart their weapons or burned cages to renounce hunting, which is endangering rare species.

How can environmental concerns take root in a country where the population is exposed to a difficult economic reality?

"The environmental problems and the inadequate political responses have become so striking and serious that a lot more people have started seeing them," explains Ali, a 40-year-old Tehran resident who regularly takes part in environmental protests.

During the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presidency (2005-2013), several significant environmental violations deeply affected public opinion. "Lake Urmia in northwest Iran has now completely disappeared," says renowned environmentalist Esmail Kahrom. "The Anzali Lagoon norther Iran has partly dried up, and its size today is half of what it originally was, just like Lake Parishan in Kazerun southwest Iran." Kahrom blames the "misguided politics" of the former ultraconservative head of state for these "disasters."

During his presidency, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had aggressively pursued NGOs, reducing their number from 800 to fewer than 400.

His successor, the more moderate President Hassan Rouhani elected in June 2013, seems more inclined to hear out environmentalists and other activists, leaving them greater room to maneuver. New environment protection groups have thus been created, and their numbers continue to grow.

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Geopolitics

Why The 'Perfect Storm' Of Iran's Protests May Be Unstoppable

The latest round of anti-regime protests in Iran is different than other in the 40 years of the Islamic Republic: for its universality and boldness, the level of public fury and grief, and the role of women and social media. The target is not some policy or the economy, but the regime itself.

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