Environmentalists in Iran’s Kurdish areas have had a tougher year than usual, battling drought, forest fires and loss on Green Mountain.
The Green Mountain Committee is a non-governmental organization established 22 years ago in Mariwan, Kurdistan Province. To this day, it is the most active environmental group in Iran’s Kurdish areas.
In June, 15 members of the group were en route to Baneh to hike with another environmental group. They never made it to their destination, with four of their members – Shu’la Qadri, Arsham Azizi, Dawud Bakhish, and Kawa Khosrawpenah – perishing in a bus accident.
It’s not the first time tragedy has befallen them. On August 25, 2018, Sharif Bawajor and Omed Konaposhi died as they were trying to control a forest fire with two members of the forestry police just outside of Mariwan.
“All environmentalists in Rojhelat [Iranian Kurdistan], especially members of the Green Mountain, are volunteers,” Simko Azimi, a member of the organization, told Rudaw English from the funeral of his colleagues in June.
But they don’t sign up to perish.
“Working as an environmentalist is not easy, you face many barriers. Unfortunately, in the past years, our colleagues have been responsible for extinguishing all fires,” Azimi said. “Our colleagues are the victims of this…all those involved in destroying the nature are indirectly responsible for the lives of our colleagues.”
As his fellow volunteers were laid to rest, smoke rose from forests around the city, with some mourners leaving to fight the blaze.
Later, a group of tired environmentalists sat sipping tea in a city square, resting outside a shop adorned with photos of another colleague fallen in the fight to protect nature. Many had faces blackened with smoke.
“I have been working with Green Mountain extinguishing fires for the past 13 years. We have never seen fires start so early. We’ve had fires since the start of spring this year due to the lack of rain,” said Salar Azeri, his cheeks covered in smoke and dirt.
“Every year, there are many fires in this region. There are years where we have had 700 fires,” he said. “I personally find nothing more rewarding than when I control a fire. When I see a tree burn, it wrecks my soul.”
In late May, Abas Nezhad, head of Iran’s forestry and natural resources ministry, told the semi-official Mehr News that between 260 fires took place across western and southern Iran between March 21, and May 21.
Zhiwayi Pawa, in Kermanshah’s Paveh city, is another organization that has actively participated in extinguishing fires in Paveh and the Hawraman region during the summer. Their work has also come with sacrifices.
On the night of June 19, 2020, three of their members, Mukhtar Xendani, Bilal Amini, and Yassin Karimi died while trying to control a fire.
Shaho Mustafai, 27, has been working with Green Mountain for 11 years. He said the volunteers face many problems, not just fires.
“Another big problem of ours is the invasion of public spaces by certain people and the emergence of tree mafias in the area who cut down the trees in broad daylight and sell them,” he said. “The invasion of public property is very dangerous for some people take it and claim ownership to it, which is more dangerous than the fires.”
“The fires do not harm the forests as much as these invasions. Governmental natural resources authorities, who are responsible for this matter, have no stance,” he said. “This is very hard for environmentalists. The authorities’ negligence on the matter has led many environmentalists to suffer from mental issues for not being able to do something about the matter.”
Despite the risks, he says there is no other option but to continue working.
“The responsibility of preserving nature in Mariwan has fallen on the shoulders of Green Mountain. If we waited for the government and authorities, no forests would be left now.”