Iran’s IRNA news agency carried a statement from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on 7 September, the UN’s International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies, revealing that air pollution causes an estimated seven million premature deaths worldwide every year.
There was no mention in the IRNA report of the suffering and high death rates among the indigenous Ahwazi people of the south and southwest Iran due to the choking pollution caused almost wholly by the Iranian regime’s policies, both deliberately and due to negligence, which makes the region one of the most polluted in the world.
As home to over 95 per cent of the oil and gas reserves claimed by Tehran, Ahwaz is dotted with vast oil and gas fields, none of which impose even the most basic environmental protective policies, along with massive refineries which similarly pump out immense quantities of toxic smoke into the atmosphere, along with noxious chemicals used in treatment, which also seep into the local water supply and groundwater. None of the billions of dollars earned from these resources goes to the Ahwazi people, whose communities are among the poorest in Iran and the entire region. A common bitter joke among Ahwazis is that the only part of the vast oil and gas wealth they’ve got from the resources on their land is an abundance of pollution and disease.
Massive regular fires that have burnt out of control across different areas of the Ahwaz region have wreaked havoc on the already battered region, adding to the choking pollution from the oil and gas fields and the related refineries, with Ahwazi environmentalists and human rights activists stating that many of these fires are deliberately set by the regime as another way to force the indigenous Ahwazi people from their homes and land in order to claim it for redevelopment or oil and gas exploration; activists have produced at least one video that appears to substantiate these allegations, while a senior regime naval commander has openly threatened to burn Ahwazi fishermen’s boats.
In Bushehr province south of Ahwaz region, the fires that broke out on May 25 consumed large areas of the forests of Jabal al-Aswad (Kuhe-Syah in Farsi), burning for days with no effort by the regime to extinguish them. While local people frantically tried to fight the blazes with the limited equipment available to them, the size and ferocity of the fires, along with the inaccessible nature of many of the rough mountainous areas where they broke out, defeated their efforts,
In Abadan in northern Ahwaz more recently, around 12 hectares of date palm orchards were destroyed by a massive blaze before firefighters, helped by local people, were able to extinguish it after several hours of strenuous effort. The area, renowned for its dates, has already been suffering in the economic downturn, with the latest blaze striking another blow at farmers’ efforts to keep going.
The regime, meanwhile, has no plan to help the struggling people whose suffering has been increased by the fires affecting the region. Speaking to the Farsi-language edition of the regime’s Tasnim News Agency about the fires that destroyed the palm orchards, Naji Shuhaibzadeh, who was the director of the Agricultural Department in Abadan, said: “We are not responsible for extinguishing fires in the palm groves, and this matter is the responsibility of the owners,” adding, “We do not have any plan to provide fire insurance service to the owners of palm groves.”
One of the Ahwazi farmers in the area who lost his date palms in the blaze accused the Iranian officials of the Arvand free trade zone of being involved in deliberately setting the fires in an effort to drive the people out after the residents of these villages refused to sell their agricultural lands for another of the regime’s settlement projects, in which it ‘resettles’ people from ethnically Persian areas of Iran in the Ahwaz region as part of its effort to bring about demographic change and make the region majority-Persian.
Residents of the villages of Abu Shukr, Abu Ghazlan, Al- Khazaleya, Abu Aqab, Kut, Kut Shenouf, Abu Khudrawi, Abu Deira, Salim, Al-Afadeleh and Abu Hamid, all in the Al-Maniouhi district, all of which lost palm crops in the fires, depend mainly on palm cultivation to secure their livelihood.
The area is famed for its date palms, which are exported across Iran, with the total area of cultivated land given over to palm trees estimated at around 12, 800 hectares housing approximately 2.5 million palm trees, and producing more than 70,000 tons of dates annually. These palm groves are distributed in villages and towns along the banks of the Karoon river, and Shatt Al-Arab waterways, including Al-Maniouhi, Seliach, and the city of Qasabah.
Similarly, massive fires whose cause is also unknown devoured large areas of palm groves around the village of Khanafereh in Falahiyeh, with the renowned palm orchards here also exporting thousands of tons of dates annually.
Locals in the village share the scepticism of their fellow Ahwazis in Abadan, with one saying, “What raises our suspicions was the delay in the arrival of emergency vehicles and civil defence and firefighting teams to the location of the fire – the village is only a few kilometres away from the city’s centre, but fire engines only arrived after several hours have passed since the fire began.”
Other fires, again believed by many locals to have been deliberately set by regime personnel as a way of driving Ahwazis out in order to seize their lands, consumed more than 3,000 hectares in the Hor al-Azim wetlands, a vast natural reserve in the west of Ahwaz, with the fires burning for several consecutive days with no move by the Iranian regime to douse the massive conflagration and no fire brigade attempting to extinguish the blaze.
Ahwazi activists from the Ahwazi Centre for Human Rights have obtained video footage reportedly from a member of the regime’s so-called Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) showing IRGC personnel deliberately setting the fires in the Hor Al-Azim area, with one bragging to his colleagues, “That’s the way that fire should be done!” The fires are seen as being another means by the regime to force the indigenous Ahwazis off their land and seize it for oil and gas exploration.
The Hor Al-Azim wetland, which covers approximately 307,000 hectares, spans a vast expanse of the coastal area in the far west of Ahwaz and in the Maysan region. A third of the wetland area – about 125,000 hectares – falls on the Ahwaz side, but due to the worsening drought crisis caused by the regime’s construction of massive dams near the source of the Karkheh River – the main river feeding the wetlands – has reduced the wetland area to around a quarter of its original area – approximately 29,000 hectares. Environmentalists fear that the area, a natural reserve that once thronged with all kinds of birds and marine life, maybe completely destroyed if the regime continues with its current devastating policies.
Similarly, fires that broke out on Sunday 31 May this year in the Sarkah forest, which are again believed to have been deliberately set by regime forces, resulted in the burning of about 50,000 trees covering an area of 50 hectares. Reliable sources stated that the fires burnt out of control for at least two days before firefighters, helped by local Ahwazi people, were able to extinguish them.
The vast quantities of thick smoke from the forest fires in Khasraj and Sarkah and the Hor Al-Azim wetlands, which blanketed the region also added to the already choking levels of air pollution in Ahwaz, which has been classified by the UN as among the most polluted areas on earth. The smoke reduced visibility to such a degree that a multi-vehicle pile-up took place on the Salehiyeh road (Andimeshk in Farsi), a major thoroughfare in the regional capital, Ahwaz city, since drivers could only see a couple of metres ahead of them, with a number of the drivers and passengers killed or injured as a result of this and other accidents with the same cause.
The story is no less grim for Ahwazi fishermen in the Bandr Moagham area in Hormozgan province, most of whom make their living fishing in the coastal waters, with their boats regularly and suspiciously catching fire whilst the owners are absent. Whilst the regime usually prefers to be covert about its sabotage, an Iranian regime naval commander recently openly threatened to destroy the fishermen’s vessels, saying, “We [Iranian military forces] will burn all the fishing boats with all their belongings.”
This rare admission by a senior regime official that the regime is engaged in a deliberate policy of sabotage and destruction to force Ahwazis from their homes and lands suggests that the regime is growing more and more confident that the world simply doesn’t care about its increasingly overt programme of ethnic cleansing. The naval commander’s statement came as the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered the seizure of three more islands in the Arabian Gulf for colonisation, with his military henchmen beginning their latest expansionist project by burning the Ahwazi fishermen’s boats.
By Rahim Hamid
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. He tweets under @Samireza42.