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Iran’s imprisoned conservationists need scientists to speak up

Only science can check Iran’s crackdown on environmentalists, says Kaveh Madani

Kaveh Madani

EARLIER this year, nine Iranian conservationists were arrested by the country’s Revolutionary Guards on charges of espionage. Members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, they are accused of using camera traps to monitor Iran’s ballistic missile programme, collecting sensitive data for “hostile nations”.

One of them, Kavous Seyed-Emami, died in prison in February. It was reported to be suicide, although his family strongly disputes that. Four have been charged with “corruption on Earth”, which can carry the death penalty under Islamic sharia law.

I am an environmental expert myself. At the government’s invitation, I returned to Iran after 14 years to serve as deputy head of its environment department. But just seven months later I went into hiding with my wife, after being arrested, detained and interrogated many times.

I was called a bioterrorist, water terrorist and spy for MI6, Mossad and the CIA. The Revolutionary Guards even claimed I was manipulating the weather to create a drought. They criticised me for supporting the ratification of the Paris Agreement on climate change, saying it would limit economic growth.

“The Revolutionary Guards claimed that I was manipulating the weather to create a drought”

Biodiversity losses, soil erosion, drying rivers and wetlands, deforestation, desertification, air and waste pollution, and dust storms are just some of the environmental problems facing Iran. They did not arise overnight, but after decades of short-sighted development policies.

Iranians who were unhappy about the economy, politics or human rights could once vent their anger by speaking out on environmental issues, without fear of reprisal. But as these worsen, the voices are becoming more strident and environmental groups are being suppressed.

I have learned that if I spoke out, academics, journalists, activists and ordinary citizens found the courage to be more vocal. To rescue the imprisoned conservationists, we need the world’s scientists to challenge the ridiculous narratives of a radical, powerful minority in a country of 80 million people.

If the scientific community does not act, what is happening in Tehran today could happen elsewhere tomorrow.

This article appeared in print under the headline “Radicals running riot”

 

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