Iran: Communities Conquer Dust and Drought, Helping Themselves and the EnvironmentJun 6, 2017
Once famed for their natural beauty, Iran’s rangeland plains have become seriously degraded through unsustainable use and drought. Intensive cattle-farming has stripped the land of vegetation, leaving bare soil that the wind stirs into dust. Forests have been cut by people seeking wood for fuel, leading to further decline, air pollution as the wood is burned and the destruction of valuable biodiversity.
For people in the rangelands, a place of beauty has become a hostile environment—and may only become more so with the heat and drought expected through climate change. Water shortages are acute; agricultural livelihoods no longer sufficient. With few other options, many people have left, choosing uncertain futures as migrants in search of work.
Yet a growing number have also found hope that, in working together, they can reverse the tide of desertification and restore the beauty of their homeland, and in doing so cultivate new livelihoods.
“Involving communities is essential to give them a sense of ownership,” said Dr. Prabhu Budhathoki, Chief Technical Advisor to the United Nations Carbon Sequestration Project. “It makes them feel like they can take their destiny into their own hands.”
“Nothing for us without us”
Dr. Budhathoki spoke in 2003, when setting up the project with Iran’s Forest, Range and Watershed Organization, the Global Environment Facility and UNDP. It was the start of an enduring partnership to help not only ‘green’ the rangelands but also sustain the livelihoods of people living there.
The effort began in 37 villages in South Khorasan Province, an area that is among the most impoverished in Iran. Annual rainfall is so minimal it is measured in millimetres.
Bordering Afghanistan, the province has been the destination for refugees fleeing conflict there. Nearly 40,000 livestock, owned by both local people and Afghans, have stripped away most vegetation, making the region a ‘hotspot’ for wind erosion. When the project began in 2003, so many people had moved away that the population had become increasingly sparse. Those left behind were way below national averages for literacy and life expectancy.
The project built on the premise that it was not enough to simply help restore the local environment through reforestation. Poverty and unemployment had destroyed the rangelands through excessive reliance on them to feed livestock and supply fuel for cooking and heating homes. Planting more trees without addressing these issues would only lead to people cutting them down once again.
It was also clear that people needed to come together and learn about how to sustainably manage local resources, and then make decisions in line with their collective interests. This would strengthen the sense of community and empower people to work together on solving their problems.
In each village, the project set up a village development group to start tackling environmental and economic challenges. Following the philosophy of “nothing for us, without us,” they began crafting village development plans that identified common priorities—such as ready access to potable water, availability of employment and protection from dust storms.
Based on the plans, the project began providing agricultural extension support to improve productivity. It guided local discussions around options for more sustainable livelihoods and offered new forms of vocational training as well as topics such as legal rights and insurance.
Central government institutions stepped forward to improve infrastructure, such as by constructing water reservoirs and improving schools and health care facilities. Early on, the groups got involved in selecting plants that could halt desertification, and organized community members to take part in planting and irrigating saplings and shrubs.
In parallel, the project set up microcredit mechanisms offering highly subsidized loans for people to improve their livelihoods. One type of mechanism, managed by the village development groups, pooled small savings from group members and disbursed them based on agreed protocols. Another type drew in contributions from UNDP, the government and other organizations, and offered larger sums, under the management of specially created cooperatives. The cooperatives also supervised loans made by the village development groups.
A majority of loans went to help people improve their livelihoods, such as through investment in new kinds of agricultural production, and better packaging and marketing of local goods. Around 40 percent went towards projects improving community welfare as a whole, such as through the installation of solar water heaters and facilities to desalinate water.
While resources for restoring the rangelands have come mainly from the central government, loans also helped communities invest in equipment to participate as subcontractors. Training has helped them acquire relevant skills, and assisted many local women in establishing small nurseries at home to cultivate seedlings. The process has provided 21,000 days of employment for local people, while shaving operational costs for the government by about half.
A national transformation
Today, life in the 37 villages has been transformed. The villages hum with activity. The wind that once stirred up clouds of dust now powers irrigation pumps that push water to crops and livestock. Women bake bread in modern stoves for sale in local markets, and seal locally grown dried barberries in attractive, colorful packages destined for shops in urban areas. Greenhouses shelter young plants, and clean, safe playgrounds resound with the cries of happy children.
Across the villages, all basic dimensions of human development have noticeably improved—at double the rates found in similar areas over the same time period. Education has increased, life expectancy has grown and income has climbed.
“My family was about to migrate to the city nearby in search of a living,” recalls Zari Sa’adati, from the village of Hassan Kolangi village. Instead, she used a microloan to set up a small herbal extract workshop. “We now have enough income to stay in our own village,” she says.
Around the villages, the once barren landscape is covered with swathes of plants that both stem desertification and provide resources such as herbs and berries used by local communities. The project has regreened 15,000 hectares, which has not only cut erosion, but also boosted the rate of absorption of carbon emissions to rise from 60 kilogrammes per hectare in 2006 to 1,500 kilogrammes per hectare by 2012.
Because people have new economic options, the number of livestock has fallen to 32,000, reducing pressure on the rangelands, and fuelwood collection has dropped by over 80 percent.
By the end of 2015, the project, once a pilot for 37 villages in 1 province, directly covered 261 villages in 18 provinces. Strongly endorsed by central policy makers, it is now a national model for rural development. Coverage and restoration of areas located in over 2.8 million hectares of land is expected by the end of 2017, and tens of thousands of rural Iranians will no longer face the agonizing choice of abandoning their homes to the desert.