While the world is watching and mourning the death of 176 victims whose plane was shot down by Iranian regime forces, with this incident continuing to receive daily worldwide coverage, other tragedies are afoot in Iran, which also deserve the attention not only of humanitarians, but also environmentalists. Indeed, this crisis should horrify any decent person since it is another very deliberate man-made catastrophe being used to persecute a whole population – the Ahwazis.
Most of the Ahwazi villages affected by this new crisis are close to rivers; despite this, however, the farmers whose ancestors farmed these lands for generations are now facing devastation, with the regime denying them water to irrigate their crops, instead damming and diverting these rivers to other areas of Iran. Since the regime began its massive dam-building and river-diversion projects, the Ahwazi farmers have relied on the rainy season to save their crops and protect their livelihoods from ruin; the lack of rainfall, other than periodic flash floods, and the long-term drought in the past five years have left the farmers and their families on the verge of destitution.
Many are so desperate to irrigate their crops that they’ve set about digging irrigation channels by themselves using antiquated implements and without any support from government or other authorities. As if farmers’ suffering were not already horrendous enough, local farmers from Susa (Shush) told DUSC that the regime authorities have also increased water tariffs for them for each hectare of agricultural land. Unfortunately, due to their lack of engineering expertise and lack of proper excavation equipment, their efforts failed. Worst of all, the farmers are fully aware that the regime’s refusal to help them with this task is not simply down to the leaders’ usual indifference to citizens, but is another deliberate and cruel policy to force them to give up their lands which it will then sell to Persian settlers at rock-bottom prices.
This policy appears to be working; adding insult to injury, the regime provides no advanced engineering advice, irrigation systems, effective fertilisers and agricultural machinery to the indigenous Ahwazi farmers.This blatant discrimination is intended to put further pressure on rural Ahwazis, making them so desperate and hopeless that they will be left with no choice but to abandon their lands, which the regime will then swiftly confiscate and pass to Iranian settlers in pursuit of its demographic change project.
Meanwhile, the Ahwaz region’s supply of water is dwindling significantly due to the aforementioned diversion of water from the rivers of Ahwaz to other parts of Iran. Deliberate actions like this by the regime have directed resulted in the gross mismanagement of water resources and consequent increases in desertification and pollution and destruction of palm trees.
This pollution comes from various sources; firstly from the oil and gas wells across the Ahwaz region that explain the regime’s determination to control it and to drive the indigenous people out (Ahwaz contains over 95 per cent of the oil and gas resources claimed by Iran). Another primary source is the deliberate discharging of environmentally devastating levels of saline effluents and wastewater from the massive sugar refineries that the regime has constructed beside the region’s rivers, which use the water from them for the refinery process before discharging it, along with the toxic chemicals downstream.
This untreated chemical-laden saline water has already seeped into the agricultural lands at the riverside, making large areas barren and unusable, as well as killing off most of the marine life in the once-teeming rivers that previously sustained generations of fishermen, and making the water that’s the main source of household water for the region undrinkable. The regime’s upstream damming and diversion project means that this pollution has become more concentrated; as a result, the water that emerges from people’s taps in the area is often a foul-smelling brown effluent unfit for humans or even for livestock. It should also be noted that the settlements provided for Persians in the region are provided with their own separate water supply so they don’t have to use this.
In combination, these repressive and environmentally devastating policies comprise a genuine physical assault on rural areas of Ahwaz. When the regime launched its loss-making ‘Khomeini Sugarcane Project’, establishing sugarcane plantations and refineries across the Ahwaz region, these were very calculatingly established in the east and west Shoaybiyeh areas and on both sides of the Karoon River, on the roads linking the capital city, Ahwaz, with Muhammarah, and Abadan. The regime confiscated massive amounts of lands from farmers and residents of rural areas for the project without prior notification or any reimbursement, with Ahwazis also denied all but the most menial jobs in the refineries; as in the oil and gas industry, employment is reserved for Persian Iranians transferred from other regions.
The establishment of the Khomeini Sugarcane Project in the Shoaybiyeh district in Toster (Shushtar) resulted in the construction of many more roads solely for the use of refinery personnel, also constructed on land confiscated from the indigenous people, who, in addition to losing their lands, were subjected to the additional indignity of having to make massive detours, often for distances of between four and ten kilometres simply to get around the heavily guarded sugarcane plantations and refineries to reach the main roads that lead to the cities of Ahwaz and Shushtar.
Travel for the local people in their own land is also made difficult by a lack of basic infrastructures such as bridges and roads which mean some rural areas are isolated and unreachable especially during the flash floods that characterise the rainy seasons; despite the billions of dollars the regime obtains from the region’s resources, the deprivation in Ahwaz itself is horrendous. For one example of these transport difficulties, the Shoaybiyeh rural region is situated between the Karoon and Dez rivers. When local people want to go to Ahwaz city, they first need to go to Shushtar city to reach the road leading to Ahwaz. In recent years, the absence of any bridge crossing the two rivers and the fact that the only available routes are dirt tracks which turn into muddy impassable trails in rainy season has effectively cut them off, with the lack of any local clinics meaning any medical emergencies, such as pregnant women suffering from complications or people with heart problems or diseases requiring urgent access to treatment have died due to ambulances’ inability to reach the area. This is a significant problem for many of the remaining villages whose residents are bravely resisting the regime’s efforts to forcibly displace the population and enduring untold hardships simply to remain in their own homes. The list of injustices to which rural Ahwazis are subjected by the regime is a litany of wrongs, including being deliberately deprived of communication amenities, transport facilities, subjected to racial discrimination, denied employment, and many other privations that make their daily lives a struggle.
Confiscation of agricultural lands owned by Ahwaz villagers
These policies are, unfortunately, not a new development, but a continuation of the inhumanity shown to Ahwazis by the regime since it came to power in 1979. Following the end of the 1980-88 war between Iran and Iraq, most of the cities in Ahwaz, which lies on the border, particularly Muhammarah(Khorramshahr), had been destroyed in bombardment. Almost the entire Ahwazi indigenous population was displaced by this bombardment and moved to Iranian provinces like Isfahan and Fars for the duration of the war. Despite the total destruction of infrastructure in Ahwazi cities, the Iranian regime has made no effort in the 32 years since then to carry out repairs or reconstruct these facilities, with the billions of dollars earned from the vast mineral wealth extracted from Ahwazis’ land never used to benefit its people in any way. Indeed, rather than help to carry out repairs to the areas devastated by that war, the regime has accelerated its ethnic cleansing policies in those Ahwazi areas which survived it.
The ‘Khomeini Sugarcane Project’ was one of several so-called national development projects devised by the regime for the Ahwaz region, especially around the Karoon River, during Hashem Rafsanjani’s presidency, with the sugarcane project alone leading to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people in a massive swathe of land stretching from Toster to Muhammarah city.
Those whose lands are seized by the regime, whether for the sugarcane project or for the construction of the massive oil and gas refineries and related processing plants or any other purpose, receive no prior notification or consultation and have no right of legal appeal or reparation, simply being issued with orders to leave their homes and surrender their lands, which are their only possessions and source of livelihood, often being passed down through generations for countless centuries. Since 1990 until the present day the continued confiscation of massive areas of farmland and villages has extended from Susa to Abadan, devastating many more lives.
With no compensation, the dispossessed peoples are left destitute, forced to move to shanty towns that have sprung up around cities across the region. Any effort to resist is met with lethal force, with regime troops shooting or arresting anyone refusing to leave. Often their lands are handed over to Persian settlers almost immediately after their departure.
The regime offers Persian settlers from other areas of Iran many incentives to move to the region in an effort to change the demographic balance there, constructing modern ethnically homogenous settlements provided with every amenity which are strictly off-limits to the Ahwazis. The settlers are provided with financial inducements, jobs, advanced educational and cultural institutions, and a wide variety of services, and well-equipped institutions designed to attract only Persian speaking families. There have even been expensive advertising campaigns offering favourable mortgage terms and inexpensive properties to attract the ethnic Persian and Lor people to live in these settlements.
Since 2005, the regime has stepped up its campaign to confiscate Ahwazi lands, approving a program entitled the ‘Free Agricultural Zone’, which saw a further 550,000 hectares of the remaining agricultural lands in the area confiscated from its Ahwazi owners for the creation of a large-scale farming project which is reportedly set, as always, to employ only non-Arabs. The confiscated lands extend from the far north of Ahwaz in Musian to Ras Albahr (Sarbandar city). The Iranian government announced that for this project, a massive annual budget estimated at more than 2.4 billion dollars has already been allocated, with joint Iranian-Chinese funding providing an additional 613 million dollars. The northern Ahwaz area already produces around 14.5 million tons of various agricultural crops annually including one million tons of wheat, but in recent years, the Arab farmers have faced numerous problems because of obstruction by government projects intended to drive them from their lands which can then be confiscated by the regime.
Speaking to Dur al-Untash recently, a number of former farmers living near the banks of the Karoon River in the area between Ahwaz – Muhammarah, reported that they have lost their livelihood after their agricultural lands were confiscated by the Amir Kabir sugar cane project, a part of the, ‘Khomeini Sugarcane Project’. Some of the farmers added that, soon after the end of the 1980-88 war, the Iranian regime had deliberately opened the gates of dams upstream in order to flood their homes and destroy their crops in an effort to drive them from their lands. The farmers recalled that their agricultural lands had been submerged several times in this way, leading to the destruction of infrastructure of their villages. In addition, they said, the soil erosion of fertile lands had forced the displacement of many Ahwazi families. Other Arab villagers also reported that, during the rainy season, the absence of effective flood defenses meant that the Karoon River had burst its banks often, with heavy floods affecting their villages and destroying their crops.
Meanwhile, the estimated total losses sustained by Ahwazi farmers in last year’s floods, exacerbated by the regime opening the dam gates upstream to leave many areas devastated, exceed 80 trillion rials, with no compensation disbursed for those affected. Although 10 months have passed since the outbreak of the latest floods in Ahwaz, the people affected the floods received nothing which could make up for their losses.
Despite the promises made by the government nine months ago, the Ahwazi farmers did not receive any reparations or even help to reconstruct their destroyed homes, with only a fraction of the grossly inadequate six trillion rials allocated by the Iranian government paid out.
Salman Sayyahi, one of the farmers from Beyuz village in Esmailiyeh rural District, to the west of the capital city Ahwaz, said that 250 hectares of his agricultural lands had been destroyed, but a committee set up to assess losses has compensated him for only 140 hectares. He added that although the judgement was totally partial, he felt he had no choice to accept it; he still has not received any compensation to this moment.
In a related context, while Iranian regime officials claim that the government paid compensation to 80 per cent of those affected by the floods in Ahwaz, Fazel Neisi, head of the farmers and agrarians federation, said that fully half of the affected farmers had received no compensation for the devastation they suffered.
The interviewees who spoke with DUSC confirmed that their requests to regime authorities for help with flood barriers and other emergency aid were simply ignored or even met with dismissive laughter, with many recalling regime officials telling them that their ancestors shouldn’t have built their homes and established farms on flood plains, and that if they didn’t like the conditions they should move elsewhere.
For Ahwazis, this cruelty is not an anomaly, but typifies the callous, inhumane and chauvinistic nature of the Iran regime, which seems determined to continue with its persecution of the Ahwazi people, displacing families, and stealing their lands, while crushing their hopes, dreams and life chances.
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. You can follow him on his twitter account: https://twitter.com/samireza42
The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the Dur Untash Studies Centre.