by Polly Ghazi
(Washington, DC, December 2003) The commonly held image of Iran abroad is of a centralized, Islamic state where women have little public standing and religious leaders exert far-reaching control over political and social life.
Yet, the appearance is deceptive. Beneath the authoritarian surface, significant changes are under way in Iranian society. In recent years reformist politicians have begun a decentralization drive, handing more power and administrative functions to local government bodies. Since 1999, local elections have been held across the country, and several hundred women now sit on local councils.
These changes have not been limited to the political arena. The Iranian government’s desire to halt environmental degradation has also triggered a democratic experiment to involve rural communities in conserving scarce water resources and productive land.
Since the late 1990s, the Sustainable Management of Land and Water Resources Program, based in rural Tehran and Semnan provinces, has developed a model of participatory decision-making that is attracting interest around the world. The results have encouraged the government to replicate the project’s community-led methods to counter natural resource problems such as soil erosion, land degradation, and drought, in other rural regions.
The initiative, jointly funded by the Iranian government and the UN Development Programme (UNDP), targets communities in a 1.2 million hectare region along the Hable River. The program has worked with villagers to identify local environmental problems and solutions in a region rife with over-grazing, desertification, and water scarcity. Results have been slow to materialize in some areas, and highly impressive in others.
The project officially got underway in 1998 with public participation exercises in eight northern villages, followed by similar programs across the region. The most marked success has been in the village of Lazoor, 75 miles east of the capital Tehran.
Four years ago, the mountain community of Lazoor was plagued by routine flooding and land erosion. The 3,000-strong village had only 1,100 hectares of productive farmland, and herded about 12,000 sheep. Overgrazing had degraded local rangelands and triggered landslides. As elsewhere in rural Iran, poverty levels were high and young people were leaving for the cities in search of jobs.
As a result, Lazoor was chosen for the land and water project. The program aimed to equip villagers with the techniques needed to identify, analyze, and prioritize local problems pertaining to natural resources, economic development, and social welfare. They would then be asked to produce solutions, based on their knowledge of the local environment and social and cultural traditions.
This was no easy feat, as all rural planning decisions were typically made by central government officials, and women had little public role. In Lazoor, public village meetings and workshops were organized. A 76-person coordinating committee, including 25 women, was established to filter discussion on the community’s priorities. Every villager was encouraged to attend the public meetings, and female-only workshops were also held to encourage women and girls to take part.
After months of debate, a list of 81 priorities was completed. It included demands for anti-erosion and anti-flooding measures, a micro-credit scheme, a high school, and a women’s clinic. Meetings were then held between villagers and government experts to approve the top priorities for action.
According to Mehdi Kamyab, former UNDP manager of the program, the “whole process was consensus-based, nobody had the last say.” When there was a disagreement between villagers and government project managers about a scheme’s practicality, independent facilitators brokered a compromise.
Lazoor’s residents have helped to build 42 small dams to control flooding, a water reservoir, five silt reservoirs to guard against soil erosion, and miles of anti-erosion embankments and irrigation canals. The community has also planted more than 7,000 fruit trees.
By using rain and rivers more efficiently, Lazoor’s residents are managing water resources more sustainably. They are also creating new opportunities for economic growth. Flood control, for example, has produced opportunities to cultivate new land. The community’s entrepreneurship has so impressed state banking officials that they have opened a mobile bank branch in the village, approving several hundred small loans of $600 to $1,200.
According to Hushang Djazi, one of the independent facilitators in Lazoor, the key to the village’s success is active citizenship. “In the past the government was willing to do something for the villages,” he said. “But since it made its own decisions without paying attention to the people who were affected, the projects failed.”
Shoukat Esfandiar was one of the Lazoor residents chosen to learn about public participation techniques and community-led problem solving. She believes the villagers have not only gained confidence, but are also developing a sense of stewardship over their natural surroundings. “Villagers have become aware of the issues related to the environment and resources, so much so that they are interested in maintaining, protecting, and sustainably using these natural resources,” she said.
Alongside these land management improvements, a social transformation has taken place. Only a few years ago, all village-related decisions were made by a group of elders with women playing no part. Since the project’s facilitators ran female-only meetings, however, women have begun to demand more say in village affairs. Several projects to improve women’s independence and income, such as sewing classes, have been successfully established at their insistence. Mixed group meetings also now take place in the local mosque – where women previously were required to sit separately behind a screen.
Lazoor’s exercise in people-led resource management is not an isolated experiment. The village is one of several hundred actively involved in the land and water program in the Hable River basin, which covers a large swathe of land inhabited by 600,000 people across Tehran and Semnan provinces, south of the Caspian Sea.
Despite the successes, the Hable River land and water program is best described as “partial decentralization.” Although communities are setting priorities to improve natural resource use and devising local solutions to land management and water problems, they do not have complete freedom. Villagers in Lazoor do not control most of the local program budget, and there are concerns that wealthier families dominate the coordinating committee.
Nevertheless, power and decision-making are now essentially split between communities and central government managers. It is clear that the partial empowerment of local communities is giving a voice to people in Iran who previously lacked the right to participate in a meaningful way. (WRI Features, 1055 words)