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Ecological Devastation in Ahwaz: A Story of Iran’s Colonial Exploitation

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In a broader sense, colonialism exercises control and brings destruction to societies, both individually and collectively, and to their surrounding environment. Within the scope of this discussion, our argument does not primarily focus on the direct harm inflicted upon the colonised population by colonial rule. Instead, We aim to demonstrate how colonialism adversely affects a community by degrading its environment and land – the very core of the people’s communal existence.

In the heart of Ahwaz, a land with a rich history and vast natural beauty, a story of devastation has unfolded. Throughout its tumultuous past, Ahwaz has experienced invasion, occupation, and the loss of its independence. Today, the region faces a different sort of oppression – colonialism. Ahwaz, now under the control of the Iranian state, is being subjected to destructive policies that exploit its land and resources.

The consequences of these policies are far-reaching, particularly in terms of the environment. The once-pristine Ahwazi marshlands, a natural haven teeming with life, have been drained to make way for oil-prospecting expansion. This act has destroyed wetlands, wiped out animal and fish species, and forced rural communities in the area to leave their homes. These communities, who relied on the marshlands for their livelihoods, have now lost their primary source of income – fishing, hunting, agriculture, and livestock rearing.

 

 A History of Colonial Conquest

 

Historically, Ahwaz underwent distinct colonial phases during the past 98 years. Initially, Ahwaz was invaded and forcibly occupied by Persia’s self-appointed Shah. Subsequently, the Persian state toppled the Ahwazi emirate’s indigenous rulers and forcibly incorporated it into Persian territories. The last emirate to be annexed was the emirate of Arabistan, which was invaded and occupied and saw its rule destroyed before being absorbed into the Persian state.

Arabistan, or ‘Land of the Arabs’, was led by a series of tribal dynastic rulers from the 1400s up until 1925. Arabistan was not the only such emirate, with much of modern-day Iran’s coastline consisting of a patchwork of Arab-majority emirates running from the Shatt Al- Arab waterway down to as far as Bandar Abbas at the edge of the Strait of Hormuz. 

In the first quarter of the 20th century, these Ahwazi emirates were stripped of their independence, conquered and annexed one by one as part of Greater Persia by Tehran’s increasingly expansionist rulers. Before the fall of the Emirate of Arabistan in 1925, the emirate of al-Maraziq, which consisted of what are now the provinces of Hormozegan, Bushsher and Bander Abbas, was annexed by Persia in 1922.

 

Tragic Consequences of Oil Activities

 

The current and ongoing phase the Ahwazi people and their homeland are experiencing can be characterised by colonialism, resulting in a range of destructive policies. One particularly noteworthy aspect of this policy is the exploitation of Ahwazi lands, leading to severe environmental destruction.

 The story of ecological devastation in Ahwaz is deeply intertwined with a history of colonial exploitation. Once upon a time, in the ancient land of Ahwaz, where the Ahwazi Arab peoples lived in harmony with the natural wonders around them, there existed a pristine ecological paradise known as the Ahwazi marshlands. This natural wildlife sanctuary flourished, with its vibrant wetlands, teeming with diverse life forms – from a vast range of fish swimming through glistening clear waters to all kinds of birds and aquatic creatures sharing this verdant, unspoilt haven. This beautiful life did not last, however, with Iranian colonialists arriving and viewing the local Ahwazi people and their lands solely through a lens of exploitation

In addition to the critically endangered Euphrates tortoise, once found in vast numbers in the Hor Azim and Falahiyeh wetlands, and the Karoon, Karkheh, Dez, and Jarahi rivers, along with their tributaries in Ahwaz, various other species are also teetering on the brink of extinction. This tragedy can primarily be attributed to the rapid drying up of Ahwazi rivers and wetlands. Similarly, the Hor Azim wetland, which serves as the primary habitat for one of the rarest otters globally – the smooth-coated, ‘Maxwell’s otter’, faces devastation due to Iran’s heedless expansion of oil fields, pushing the species to the verge of extinction.

 To make oil prospecting expansion cheaper, the Iranian regime decided to drain the Ahwazi marshlands in the search for oil. This devastating act of ecological vandalism resulted in the destruction of wetlands and the massive loss of fish and animal life, and forced rural Ahwazi communities in and around this area to migrate. With the drying up of the marshlands, the local communities lost their primary sources of livelihood, which included fishing, hunting, crafting, and rearing livestock, primarily cattle and buffalos. 

Other Ahwazi wetlands have already vanished entirely, leaving behind only pieces of fish bones, other animal remains, and shells as tangible proof of their existence. Among these lost wetlands was the renowned Sohein wetland, situated to the west of the Karkheh River. Tragically, the construction of a dam along the riverbed led to the irreversible desiccation of this once-vibrant ecosystem.

 

Iranian Sugarcane Project

 

 The second example of an ecologically devastating project involves a sugarcane project implemented by the Iranian government. In this project, vast areas of fertile agricultural land owned by the Ahwazi people were confiscated, with the government establishing numerous large sugar companies to use this land for cultivating and refining the sugarcane crop. In an act of ongoing ecological hooliganism, these companies have taken vast quantities of water from the region’s rivers for this process, causing severe and critical water shortages for the Ahwazi population.

Additionally, the companies’ refining process discharged untreated toxic wastewater into the rivers and farmlands, resulting in the contamination of the groundwater, poisoning the land and leading to toxic salinity levels. As a result, the date palm plantations, whose crops have been a significant source of sustenance and income for Ahwazi communities for centuries, have been destroyed, with approximately five million palm trees dying in recent years. This devastation has forced more Ahwazi people to abandon their lands and relocate to impoverished areas on the outskirts of cities, where they exist in conditions of poverty and deprivation.

Although the Ahwaz region possesses more than 40% of Iran’s water resources, millions of Ahwazis are deprived of their fair share of water due to the Iranian regime’s actions. Rather than ensuring this natural resource is used to provide safe drinking water and ensure prosperity, the regime redirects most of the water from Ahwaz’s rivers to other areas of Iran. This policy further intensifies the poverty, deprivation, unemployment, marginalisation, and migration among Ahwazis by destroying the agricultural sector, which is the lifeblood of the majority of the population.

Reports indicate that the 1.2 million Ahwazi people are dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods. In Ahwaz, the Iranian regime again pursues destructive policies that alter the course of water resources through massive river-damming and diversion programs, redirecting most of their waters towards Persian cities. This has resulted in ecological and social disaster in Ahwaz, leading to the drying up of agricultural lands, extensive pollution, and worsening impoverishment of the already marginalised local Ahwazi people.

Ahwazi people constantly protest at Iran’s weaponisation of water as a tool of control against them and at the related severe and worsening water shortages they face; the protests in the Ahwaz region have been due in part to this feeling that, after decades of the Iranian regime attempting to forcibly assimilate the Ahwazi people through the suppression of language, cultural identity and denial of access to the economy, the regime has opened a new phase in its war against the Ahwazi people, namely denying them their own water.

 

 Iran’s Demographic Engineering Attempts in Ahwaz

 

Although the issue of water is seen as a potential tipping point, the ongoing oppression of the Ahwazi community by successive Iranian regimes has been a long-standing concern for nearly a century. The ongoing actions by the central government in Tehran to undermine the social and communal fabric of the region now indicate a larger plan to forcibly remove the native Ahwazi population and ethnically cleanse the area in order to have absolute control over its valuable resources. 

Ahwazi protesters’ concerns have been expressed through the slogans they’ve chanted, popularised during demonstrations that have grown in recent years, emphasising the vital importance of their lands in preserving their identity and dignity. The Ahwazi protesters have chanted: “No, no to forced displacement”, “No more Persian settlements”, “With our souls and blood, we protect Ahwazi lands”, and “Ahwazi lands are ‘our existence and dignity”. These sentiments align with Frantz Fanon’s perspective in his book, The Wretched of the Earth, in which he highlights that, for colonised people, the land holds immense significance as it provides not only sustenance but also a crucial sense of self-worth and dignity.

Iran has only two navigable rivers- one of which is the Karoon River, which runs throughout the length of the Ahwaz region, with its headwaters located in neighbouring Chahar Mahall and Bakhtiari Province. This river is a major source of water for all of Iran and comprises about 33% of Iran’s total water resources; the Iranian regime has dammed the river upstream, diverting much of its water to ethnically Persian provinces in the country’s interior, such as Kerman, Yazd and Esfahan.

These dams also provide significant hydroelectric power to the country, although the supply can be fitful. With the Ahwazi people denied the right to employment in the region’s lucrative oil and petrochemical industry or any other profit from the vast natural resources found in or under their lands, farming and agricultural work are often the only options available to them.

Most Ahwazis now believe that the regime is deliberately damming and diverting the region’s rivers and transferring their waters to ethnically Persian areas of Iran to destroy the Ahwazi people’s ability to survive on their land. The only conclusion left to the people, who’ve seen thousands of acres of farmlands turned to barren desert and their vast marshlands reduced to a heavily polluted area with barely any marine life left, is that the Iranian regime is embarking on a renewed strategy of demographic engineering in order to ensure its continued iron grip over a portion of territory vital to its own survival. This is ethnocide by any other name. Even those Western media who do mention the water shortages talk about climate change, but not about the regime’s very deliberate redirection of water resources. 

 This is not the first time that Iran’s central government has attempted to forcibly change the demographic character of the Ahwaz region. Both the former Pahlavi monarchy and its successor, the so-called Islamic Republic regime, have consistently pursued negative and intensely damaging policies towards Ahwazi farmers. For example, in 1963, the Shah’s regime issued legislation euphemistically entitled ‘Land Reform in Iran’, through which it confiscated more than half of Ahwazis’ agricultural lands, which were then ‘given’ to ethnically Persian settlers and regime military institutions. Ahwazis, then as now, were denied any right of redress or complaint. This led to the mass displacement of tens of thousands of Ahwazis from rural areas in Muhammarah, Abadan, Susa (Shush), Tester (Shushtar), Quneitra (Dezful), Salehiyeh, Ramez, Khalafiyeh, Abu Shaher and Jambron. Moreover, there is strong evidence that Iran’s regime is currently orchestrating a systematic and ultra-nationalist policy to confiscate more agricultural land to displace many of the remaining Ahwazi farmers. 

In the context of Ahwaz, the Iranian government is enacting policies that result in the marginalisation and displacement of the Ahwazi people. They have actively encouraged Persian settlers to relocate to the Ahwaz region while simultaneously engaging in discriminatory practices against the Ahwazi Arab population. These practices include ecocide, land confiscation, forced evictions, cultural assimilation efforts, employment discrimination, and limited access to resources and services for the Ahwazi Arab community, all aimed at pushing them off their lands.

Furthermore, the Ahwazi lands continue to bear the scars of the Iran-Iraq war, with mines and other explosives still posing a threat. Every year, Ahwazi people suffer casualties and injuries due to these remnants.

This highlights the oppressive nature of the relationship between the Ahwazi people and Iranian colonial rule, with the government in Tehran displaying little concern for their wellbeing and allowing their lands to remain contaminated. Consequently, the Ahwazi people are often compelled to abandon their lands, which the regime subsequently clears and seizes for its own projects. This systematic approach aims to gradually reduce the Ahwazi population and establish a new demographic composition, according to which Persian immigrants will become the majority while the Ahwazi people become a minority or scattered communities in their own homeland.

One notable example of such policies is a confidential letter written by former Iranian Vice President Seyed Mohammad-Ali Abtahi in 2005. The letter outlined a plan to transform the demographic makeup of Ahwaz from predominantly Arab to predominantly Persian. Upon the leak of this letter, the Ahwazi people staged a massive uprising that reverberated throughout the entire Ahwaz region. The letter proposed a ten-year timeframe to complete the ethnic restructuring program in Ahwaz, intending to displace Ahwazi residents, including farmers, and replace them with members of ethnic groups loyal to the regime, primarily Persians and Lors.

 

 Diseases Surge from Contaminated Water and Air

 

Most of the Ahwazi population residing in both rural and urban regions live in close proximity to numerous oil fields, emitting millions of tonnes of unreported emissions through gas flaring.

The act of flaring natural gas, a process of burning excess gas released during oil production, has resulted in dire consequences for the local Ahwazi population. Specifically, there has been a significant increase in various types of cancer, including leukaemia, among Ahwazi children, with flaring being attributed as the underlying cause. Notably, Ahwaz now holds the unfortunate distinction of ranking first in cancer rates due to air pollution from these oil fields.

According to Ahwazi health professionals, there has been a significant and alarming increase in the prevalence of kidney failure and chronic lung obstruction diseases among the Ahwazi Arab population. Furthermore, there are concerns that this rate could triple due to worsening water and air contamination. This issue has persisted for several years, but its impact is now becoming more pronounced, particularly with the recent steep rise in kidney failure and other respiratory illnesses among Ahwazi people.

The contamination of local water sources is not solely caused by the oil and gas industries but also by regime-run regional corporations such as the sugarcane companies and the Razi Yeast and Alcohol Company. These companies release untreated toxic waste into the Karoon and other Ahwazi rivers, which Ahwazi Arab people use for drinking and washing. As a result, in addition to the surge in kidney failure and cancer cases, there is increasing concern among Ahwazi Arab citizens about the outbreak of respiratory problems and skin diseases.

Dr Khojsteh Hosseininejad, the head of special diseases at the vice-chancellor of Jundishapur University of Ahwaz, has announced the rapid growth of dialysis patients in Ahwaz. He stated that between 60 and 70 people are being added to the number of dialysis patients in Ahwaz each month, which is a significant and concerning statistic. That means around 700 Ahwazi persons every year suffer from kidney failure.

The cause of such diseases is directly linked to the pollution of the water supply and air. For example, during the sugarcane cultivation season, sugarcane companies engage in the practice of burning the cane. This burning process emits a significant amount of smoke, which forms a massive cloud that lingers in the air for weeks. Unfortunately, this smoke has adversely affected the respiratory health of the local Ahwazi population. Many Ahwazis experience breathing problems and respiratory difficulties due to inhaling this polluted air.

This crisis is not isolated to Ahwaz City alone. Other cities in Ahwaz, including Falahiyeh, Ma’shour, Asaluyeh, Abadan, Khafajiyeh, and Howeyzeh, face unusually high incidences of skin, heart, and kidney diseases. The Iranian authorities have made no efforts to address these pressing issues.

The state hospitals in Ahwaz are ill-equipped to handle the situation, with a shortage of doctors and medicines, resulting in an unacceptably high death rate. Those who can afford it are forced to seek treatment in central Iranian cities like Shiraz and Isfahan. However, the majority who cannot afford the exorbitant costs are abandoned to endure their suffering alone, neglected by the Iranian regime authorities in their struggle facing a slow and agonising death.

The ongoing release of fumes from gas flaring, which emit carbon dioxide and other dangerous pollutants such as PM2.5, ozone, NO2, and benzo(a)pyrene (BaP), has also resulted in severe consequences for the Ahwazi people. Medical professionals and health officials in Ahwaz have observed a noticeable rise in the prevalence of ailments like strokes, cancer, asthma, and heart disease among the population, directly attributed to prolonged exposure to these pollutants. This man-made pollution and complete disregard for the wellbeing of the Ahwazi people clearly exemplify the flagrant violation of their rights by the officials of these companies, who continue to act with impunity and face no consequences.

 

Nuclear Power Plant in Ahwaz

 

As if these problems were not enough, the Iranian regime in 2022 has announced its ongoing construction of a new nuclear reactor – the Darkhovin Nuclear Power Plant– in the Ahwaz region on the Karoon river, with some of the construction already completed.

Given the Ahwazi people’s existing suffering from poor health caused primarily by pollution and environmental degradation due to Iran’s unregulated petrochemical industry in the region, it is very concerning that the Ahwazi people could now be subjected to potential nuclear waste and other horrendous environmental side effects as a result of the operations of a nuclear power plant under a regime that cuts corners, does not value the lives of the Ahwazi people, and would not bother to alert the local populace, should an accident occur at the plant.

 

Inequality and Segregation

 

Moreover, the oil and gas companies, sugarcane companies and petrochemical companies responsible for polluting the air and water in the Ahwazi areas further add insult to injury by unjustly denying employment opportunities to the local Ahwazi Arab populace on their lands. Instead, most positions, from regular labourers to high-ranking officials, are predominantly occupied by Persians brought to the region where they live in exclusive, well-equipped settlements.

This unequal treatment has further exacerbated the divide between Ahwazi Arab residential areas, which suffer from severe deprivation of essential services, and the affluent settlements inhabited by Persians enjoying a luxurious lifestyle. Such a situation has led to the creation of a segregated geography, accompanying the stark contrast between the impoverished conditions experienced by the Ahwazi people and the privileged lives of Persian settlers in their designated settlements. 

This situation of unequal treatment and segregation in the Ahwazi region aligns with theories of colonialism, as discussed in academic literature. One example of such a theory is found in the work of Frantz Fanon, a prominent postcolonial theorist. Fanon argued that colonial powers create and maintain hierarchies based on racial and cultural divisions, leading to the marginalisation and subjugation of the colonised people.

In the case of the Ahwazi people, the presence of oil fields controlled by external forces highlights a parallel to the dynamics of colonialism. Despite more than 90 per cent of the major oil and gas deposits in Iran being located within the Ahwaz region, the Ahwazi Arabs continue to be one of the poorest, most resource-starved communities in Iran, with the Balochi community likely the only one more impoverished and more disenfranchised than the Ahwazis. 

The employment disparity, with the landowner Ahwazis being denied opportunities while Persian settlers occupy positions of power and privilege, mirrors the experience of colonisation, where colonised people are marginalised and excluded from participating in their own economic and social development. The segregated geography, with distinct and unequal living conditions between the Ahwazis and Persian settlers, further exemplifies the colonial pattern of spatial segregation and control, reinforcing the power dynamics between the colonisers and the colonised.

As the people of Ahwaz struggle to reclaim their land and their rights, they face the ongoing effects of Iranian colonial exploitation. The destruction of the environment, loss of livelihoods, and marginalisation of Ahwazi communities are all indicative of a region under the grip of colonial oppressors. Ahwazi people’s fight for justice and the right to self-determination continues amidst their struggle to preserve their homeland’s natural wonders and reclaim their national and cultural identity.

 In conclusion, the article highlights the devastating effects of the Iranian colonial rule in Ahwaz on the Ahwazi community and their environment. The Iranian state’s exploitation of Ahwaz’s land and resources has resulted in the destruction of the once-pristine marshlands, loss of animal and fish species, and forced displacement of rural communities.

The article also discusses the impact of destructive policies, such as the sugarcane project and water diversion programs, on Ahwazi communities and their agricultural livelihoods. Additionally, the article addresses the deliberate demographic engineering and segregation imposed by the Iranian regime, as well as the health consequences of pollution, including high rates of cancer, kidney failure, and respiratory illnesses among the Ahwazi people. The construction of a nuclear power plant further raises grave concerns about potential environmental hazards.

 

By Rahim Hamid and Mostafa Hetteh

Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi freelance journalist at the Dialogue Institute for Research and Studies.

Mostafa Hetteh is an academic researcher at York University and the Dialogue Institute for Research and Studies.

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