Finding Permaculture in Iran

Despite what Western media commonly reports, there is permaculture in Iran.

Despite what Western media commonly reports, there is permaculture in Iran.

by Kali Morgan

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A traditional water storage building, qanat (water canal), and fields in eastern Iran (June 2019)

Chances are, you have read some news about Iran this year. It’s likely been negative. After all, it’s been an extremely rough start to 2020 here in Iran: a beloved general was assassinated by a longstanding enemy resulting in numerous threats of war; mourners died during mismanaged funeral processions; a civilian plane was erroneously shot down during retaliation, all lives lost; international flights were cancelled resulting in the Iranian tourism industry largely being destroyed; then coronavirus arrived, which has had very high infection and mortality rates, likely due to inadequacy of the medical system and international sanctions.

Being an American woman, you would think I would hightail it out of here as soon as possible. But there is another side of the story that gets little media coverage. Despite what Western media constantly reports about Iran, there is a lot of good going on here, too.

I have been here during international standoffs before. I have never been treated differently due to my nationality or background. Rather, I have always been treated with incredible kindness and generosity, so much so that I don’t want to leave, despite the current circumstances.

The Iranian Dream

My husband is originally from Iran. I have dual citizenship because that’s how things work here (marry an Iranian man, get citizenship). I’ve visited numerous times over the past 6 or so years but it wasn’t til 2018 that we gave Iran the old college try.

It’s not like Iran is famous for its burgeoning human rights movement. There are plenty of problems here, I won’t deny that. But after testing the waters in a tiny agricultural community in one of the country’s eastern provinces, we found that permaculture ethics are alive and quite well in Iran. This current pandemic has only further illustrated what Iranian people are capable of in a crisis, and we haven’t been disappointed in our decision to stay to date. Our goal is to learn from Iranian farmers about their indigenous agricultural techniques, and to strengthen our own and community’s resiliency through permaculture, regenerative agriculture, and other methods for ecosystem restoration in the drylands.

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Degraded lands in eastern Iran (June 2019)

Permaculture Ethics

Permaculture is a whole-systems design approach characterized by specific principles and ethics. Many have summed up the three main ethics to be “earth care, people care, and fair share.” I like another spin on the ethics to be “people, planet, and parity”, as Heather Jo Flores of the Permaculture Women’s Guild has interpreted them. For the purposes of this article, I will equate parity with meaning equity for all species.

People Care

As I mentioned earlier, kindness and generosity are in abundance here. I can’t begin to count the number of times my relatives or new friends have sent food to our home, sent me gifts of clothing unannounced (the items I had were inadequate for winter — surprise! Iran is not all hot desert!), or helped in times of need. I have a foreign friend who doesn’t have any relatives in the country and her neighbors have all surprised her with home-cooked food, gifts for the Persian New Year, and more during this time of self-isolation. Technical schools for impoverished Afghan refugee children have also been set up by Tehrani residents, and I have a relative who used her inheritance to build a school for children in a province she will never live in, despite the uncertainty of the economy and future. As for behavior during this pandemic, I know of many customers lending or giving their local stores and service shops money to help keep them open. Of course, the list of examples of ‘people care’ in Iran that I have personally experienced is incredibly long — it would equate to several books’ lengths if I wrote them all down (maybe I should).

The villagers in the town we stayed in never thought about this element — it was just ingrained. Some attribute this charitable, people-focused behavior to Islamic beliefs and values. Others say this is how Iranians have learned to live due to decades upon decades of political, economic, and internal pressures. Others say this is just part of the culture, and it has always been this way, even before Islam arrived. We heard from friends in the village we used to stay in that once the pandemic hit, the people made sure every single household had alcohol, gloves, and masks. When someone came back to town from another city, the townspeople made sure that person was given the same supplies, too.

It’s not just that one town, either. Care of people is seen all over Iran in every community. Sharing food, sharing resources, giving donations of money, labor, or goods, taking time to visit one another, and taking care of the elderly in one’s own home are just a few manifestations of this ethic.

Planet Care

It’s no secret that Iran is going to be hard-hit by the effects of climate change. 20% of its land is exposed to desertification, and 18 provinces are threatened by deserts. Numerous carbon sequestration and ecosystem restoration projects are already underway; the United Nations Development Programme is leading a joint project with Iran on restoration, conservation, and sustainable use of Iran’s land and water resources while engaging with 8,600 women to get the job done. Less planet-damaging practices of traditional methods of agriculture, nomadic sheep grazing and integrated animal husbandry are still present, though in some places abandoned in favor of modern destructive practices like monocultural farms, pesticides, CAFOs, GMOs, among others.

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Monoculture farm vs. Polyculture farm in eastern Iran (June 2019)

There are numerous projects focused on water conservation, restoration, and sustainable agriculture (often involving training women) being conducted by the government and in cooperation with various UN programmes. Yet, it could be a lot better here — as sanctions choke the country’s economics and improper land management leads to desertification, flooding, drought, etc., people in their desperation move to larger cities in hopes of better work, taking any job no matter the commute to make do. As a result, oftentimes land is abandoned and becomes degraded. The air pollution in the capital, Tehran, is atrocious and so bad in the winter that schools are often shut down. Trash pollution is also terribly common, particularly near tourist hotspots. I do enjoy seeing travelers bring their own plates and cups and washing up after meals, as that is a common habit among picnic-loving Iranian families, but I’m worried as disposable items become more popular, the wide-spread effects of this modern ‘convenience’ could be horrific.

It is worth noting the practices of saving greywater and dumping it outside several times a day, crocheting one’s own wash rags for dishes and bathing, making natural soaps, growing plants in the yard and in the home, and largely cooking from scratch as opposed to buying prepackaged convenience foods (although these do exist) are still commonly practiced, particularly in traditional villages. However, it is the older generations who are the true stewards of their ecosystems. There are pockets of younger generations attempting to return to more natural ways of living, but the allure of modern convenience tends to win over most. Tizmaghz of Barzigardi discussing nature-focused ways of living in Iran at TEDxParsUniversity

Fair Share & Parity

Fair share, or sharing the surplus, is a common interpretation of permaculture’s third ethic.

Agricultural practices of sharing the surplus are extremely common. One day, a woman came to our door with a giant bucket of freshly-picked fruit. She had come twice to finally catch us when we were home — all she wanted to do was share with us as we had no farm of our own and make us feel welcome. We had never met her previously. When there was a white mulberry (toot) harvest, our friends invited us to come and help. We brought home so many mulberries as our share, I haven’t been able to eat any since. Other women would show up at our door with fruit, eggs, and other items, especially when they found out my husband was out of town and I was alone with the kid.

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Enjoying white mulberry (toot) after harvesting into a blanket made of upcycled flour bags (June 2019)

In a highly desertified and arid region, water is the most valuable commodity. A system is in place to ensure that all residents in each town have access to water. In the village setting, a central office manages the dispensing of water for the fields. You get a certain amount of water per month and have to show up when it’s your time or trade with another if you don’t need it. In this way, all farms have access to water.

Consideration for other species (parity) is also evident: our farmer friends in the village talked about how they quit pesticides after they were introduced decades ago, as they noticed that all the bees had left. One of my husband’s friends has talked at length about his beloved Hana Khanom (Ms. Hannah), the family’s milk cow they grew up with. He understood from his childhood that their cow’s quality of life was essential to their nutrition and they all took great care of her. After he left and went to college, he found himself calling home and asking first how Hana Khanom was doing. This care for animals I found in most of the villagers we encountered; one family would set aside a couple bags of their grain harvest just for the birds in winter and took great joy throwing the seeds and watching them gather to eat the grain all winter long. That family also commonly placed leftovers of dinner or lunch outside for the birds and cats to eat — it was common to hear cats yowling outside the door during a mealtime and them calling out, soon, soon you will eat!

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Neighborhood cats expectantly waiting for lunch (January 2019)

Room for Improvement

Of course, that doesn’t mean that all people practice these ethics all of the time. But the vast majority follow the people care and fair share/parity ethics in their daily lives. As an American coming from a highly individualistic society, this has perhaps been the strongest lesson I have had impact me while living here. It’s always WE, not just ME. This is why I have hope despite the current conditions, that Iran is a place where permaculture can and does thrive, and that investing our time, energy, and hope here will lead to beautiful stories for years to come.

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