In the Ahwaz region of southern and southwestern Iran, the Ahwazi people find themselves confronted with a dire situation that amounts to existential threats – the Iranian colonial government’s relentless pursuit of economic gain at the expense of both nature and the local population’s well-being. This exploitative approach, centred around the reckless extraction of natural resources, has resulted in severe environmental degradation and widespread health consequences for the Ahwazis. Tragically, diseases like cancer, lung obstructive illness, and breathing problems are pervasive, with certain areas impacted by extensive pollution experiencing a shockingly low life expectancy of only 48 to 50 years.
The Iranian authorities present the Ahwazi people with two options: forced land confiscation or the pollution of their lands, which leads to soil contamination and renders the land infertile and barren. Those who choose to resist the confiscation of their lands and resultant displacement have to endure continuous pollution, resulting in various serious diseases among the population, including cancer. As a result of these policies and actions of the government, the lands belonging to the Ahwazi people are being gradually taken away, displacing them from their ancestral territories.
At the core of the Iranian colonial government’s actions lies an insatiable thirst for exploiting natural resources for the benefit of the regime and its associates. This includes the reckless over-exploitation of Ahwazi lands, rich with valuable resources such as oil, gas, water and fertile soil. The relentless quest for profit has led to the indiscriminate extraction of oil and gas and the diverting and contamination of water and soil. The Ahwazi people, deeply connected to their ancestral lands, suffer the consequences of this exploitation.
A primary goal of the Iranian colonial government is to dispossess the Ahwazi people of their territories. Through various means such as forced displacement, job exclusion, and land confiscation, the authorities systematically erode the Ahwazi people’s possession of and connection to, their ancestral lands. By doing so, the government seeks to weaken Ahwazi claims of ownership or entitlement to the region, further consolidating the government’s control.
Cancer in Ahwaz: The Deadly Legacy of Environmental Degradation
The Iranian government is using the deliberate destruction of their environment as a weapon against the Ahwazi people: By introducing irresponsible practices and ignoring environmental regulations, the government has caused massive pollution of air, water, and soil in the Ahwaz region. Such pollution not only harms the natural resources that the Ahwazi people heavily rely on for their livelihoods – farming and fishing are core traditional economic activities – but also jeopardises their health, leading to an increase in diseases, including cancer.
By far the worst and most lethal of the long-term medical effects from the air and water pollution, however, is cancer, with lung, skin and bladder cancers appearing at far higher levels in Ahwazi areas than elsewhere in Iran and indeed than most of the world. According to the head of the Center for Studies on Cancer and Environmental Pollutants at the Academy of Jondishapur, the rates of cancer in the Ahwaz region have become frightening.
The most shocking statistics come from the head of Shifa Hospital in Ahwaz, the only dedicated cancer treatment facility in the region, who revealed that the cancer rate in the Ahwaz region has risen by 500% in the last decade.
Interviewed by the state-run Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), Farkhunde Shafii, an atmospheric pollution specialist based at the Ahwaz Health Center in the regional capital, Ahwaz City, revealed that in 2021 alone, “the Ahwaz region witnessed the deaths of eight children under the age of five from acute respiratory infection, 78 deaths from chronic pulmonary obstruction, 65 deaths from lung cancer, 2,063 deaths from heart disease,” with air pollution cited as a primary factor in all these cases. Without urgent action to reduce the pollution, the situation will only get worse, Shafii warned.
Oil Fields and Environmental Injustice: The High Cost Paid by Maligat Village
Haj AbdulMajid, a 68-year-old Ahwazi Arab farmer, resides in the village of Maligat, situated 35 km away from Ahwaz city. Haj AbdulMajid is overwhelmed by profound sadness as he sits alone outside his house, perched on a bench in the street and engaging in whispered conversations with himself. His mind is consumed by the precious farmland that serves as his family’s sole means of sustenance. He is thinking of selling this land to fund his cherished wife’s cancer treatment. The arduous and emotionally draining process of seeking medical aid and consultations with healthcare professionals and hospitals has exacted a heavy toll on both him and his spouse, inflicting immense distress upon their weary hearts and troubled minds.
“50% of the 114 graves in the cemetery of this village belong to those Ahwazi Arab women and men who died before the age of 40 due to cancer and respiratory problems.”
Despite living in a village that is rich in massive reserves of oil and gas fields, the local Ahwazi Arab villagers face dire living conditions. They endure extreme poverty and struggle with constant air pollution caused by the ongoing release of toxic emissions from the nearby oil and gas fields, which occurs 24 hours a day. The village of Maligat has a population of nearly 1000 people; 50% of the 114 graves in the cemetery of this village belong to those Ahwazi Arab women and men who died before the age of 40 due to cancer and respiratory problems. Maigate village is one of the environmentally devastated villages of Gheyzaniyeh Rural District, a rural district comprising 83 villages—the area is home to 900 oil fields.
The Maroon Petrochemical Company: A Tale of Pollution and Health Crisis in Maligat Village
The Maroon Petrochemical Company, located in Maligat village, is a prominent global gas and oil facility. The company operates various facilities, including a petrochemical refinery and a gas pressure-boosting installation. The operation of these facilities has resulted in significant air, water, and soil pollution. As a result, the residents of the village have been faced with numerous health issues, including very high rates of lung and pancreatic cancer.
Additionally, near the village, the fuel supply facility of South Oil Company plays a vital role as a significant fuel provider for Iran. However, just a few meters away, the Ahwazi Arab villagers lack necessities such as drinking water and household gas for domestic consumption.
Desalination facilities and other Karun Oil and Gas Company facilities are situated near this village. None of these companies have addressed the basic needs of the village, leaving the local Ahwazis increasingly to live in poverty and to suffer. The walls of their homes have turned grey due to the continuous smoke emitted by these facilities, which fills the sky with thick, suffocating clouds. The local population, already struggling with poverty, is further burdened by the contamination of their remaining farmlands through frequent oil leaks that irreversibly pollute and damage the soil.
Mismanagement by wholly unregulated oil companies, without limit or oversight, led to the environmentally catastrophic spread of 140 million cubic metres of highly toxic gas leeching into the soil and water in these areas.
Negligence in one regime oil prospecting project alone caused vast quantities of oil to leak into 300 hectares of land of Maligat village and other villages of the Gheyzaniyeh. These farmlands may take generations to recover from the ecological devastation caused by pollution from similarly unregulated petrochemical companies. These repeated incidences prompted the head of Ahwaz’s environment preservation body to label oil companies as the worst polluters of Ahwazi areas.
All these policies demonstrate that the Iranian leaders who seized control of Ahwaz have always had strong colonial mindsets. They are colonisers who have hijacked the resources of the areas they have annexed, not to rebuild or develop these regions, but to plunder them till the whole resources are exhausted and the area rendered barren.
Despite the establishment of the National Drilling Fluids and Acid Reservoir Storage facility in the village, acid pollution persists. Irresponsible disposal of hazardous chemicals and waste from different factories into the village’s lands has led to the contamination of farmlands and pastures. As a result, the villagers have suffered immense losses, with their agricultural lands destroyed and their livestock falling victim to poisoning from consuming polluted plants and vegetation.
Compounding the issue, the village is now hemmed in by concrete walls built by various companies, while dark clouds of acidic fumes from gas flaring darken the village sky. The release of harmful toxins, such as hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid, acetic acid, formic acid, and others, has created severe health issues for the residents of this and other Arab villages. Due to the constant inhalation of these dangerous substances, the air quality in the region has become extremely unhealthy, leading to irreparable health problems.
Haj AbdulMajid says, ‘ Despite the wealth generated by companies on our lands, all we have gained is diseases. My wife has been diagnosed with cancer, specifically pancreatic cancer. Shockingly, she is the 38th person in our village to be afflicted with this illness. It used to be something we only heard about in the news, but now it is becoming a looming daily reality in our community.’
Mansour, in his fifties, and one of the local villagers arrives and approaches Haj AbdulMajid. He told him he may not need to sell his land because he has talked to local people and other relatives, attempting to gather some money so that Haj AbdulMajid could take his wife to Tehran for treatment.
Mansour reveals that he has five grandchildren, three of whom suffer from chronic breathing problems. He added, “The village’s severe air pollution and the presence of acid particles in the air are causing these health issues. Every person living in this village breathes in these harmful fumes, which are making them sick.”
The rural community of Maligat in Ahwaz is also facing numerous other hardships. They do not have access to clean drinking water and lack basic welfare facilities. Agriculture is impossible due to the lack of irrigation water, which is reserved solely for the use of these oil and petrochemical companies. Meanwhile, the discharged wastewater from the oil companies is contaminating the villagers’ farmlands. The community is deprived of essential healthcare services, such as clinics and hospitals.
Furthermore, they are denied access to the benefits provided by the oil company and are excluded from employment opportunities, which are predominantly offered to and taken up by Persian immigrants, brought in for this reason in a deliberate governmental strategy of colonisation.
Breathing fresh and healthy air is a luxury not available to these villagers, as they find themselves confined within the walls of hospitals – if they can afford the cost of the treatment – battling incurable respiratory diseases, skin allergies, watery eyes, and various types of cancer. This is exemplified by the tragic situation of Haj AbdulMajid’s wife, who is currently in the second stage of cancer. Sadly, her chances of survival are low, and she, like many other Ahwazis, lacks any support or access to treatment. The high prevalence of cancer among the Ahwazi community is a direct result of the air and water pollution caused by Iranian companies.
Resource Exploitation: The Core Aspect of Iran’s Colonisation of Ahwazi Lands
At its most basic level, Iran’s colonisation of the Ahwazi people and their lands is based on the exploitation of their resources. The main objective of the Iranian colonial project in Ahwaz is acquiring land and natural resources, which allows Iranians to thrive economically while disregarding the wellbeing of the Ahwazi people. Under Iranian colonial rule, the colonised Ahwazi people are treated as objects to be controlled or eliminated in order to exploit their resources and ensure unrestricted access to their land.
The wanton destruction of the Ahwazi environment and the merciless exploitation of their natural resources are the main aspects of Iranian colonisation, inflicting severe health consequences on the Ahwazi people. The degradation of their environment continues unabated, showing no sign of improvement or mitigation.
The plight of the Ahwazi people demands urgent international attention. The Iranian colonial government’s actions, driven by the exploitative pursuit of natural resources, have caused irreparable damage to the environment and threatened the very existence of the Ahwazi people. Prioritising profit over environmental sustainability, the government not only displaces the Ahwazi people from their ancestral lands but also inflicts severe pollution and health risks upon them.
In conclusion, it is of utmost urgency for the international community, especially Western human rights and environmental advocacy groups, to acknowledge and address the dire situation faced by the Ahwazi people. The Ahwazis, who have long been marginalised and discriminated against, are confronted with the challenge of protecting their own existence amidst Iran’s colonisation, which goes unrecognised globally.
The support of human rights and international environmental organisations for the Ahwazi people’s pursuit of justice has been sorely lacking. By shedding light on their plight, the international community has the opportunity to condemn Iran’s inhumane and environmentally damaging policies in Ahwaz. This step is hoped to be accompanied by holding the Iranian government accountable for its irresponsible exploitation of the Ahwazi natural resources, which is characterised by exploitative colonisation, resulting in ecocide and grave human rights violations in Ahwaz.
By Rahim Hamid, Leonie O’Dowd, and Maryam Sabetnia
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi freelance journalist at the Dialogue Institute for Research and Studies.
Leonie O’Dowd is a human rights researcher and an editor at the Dialogue Institute for Research and Studies.
Maryam Sabetnia, an Ahwazi human and environmental activist, serves as a content creator at the Dialogue Institute for Research and Studies.