The Fight To Save Iran’s Ancient Almonds
By: Bijan Jobrani
This story begins over twenty-five years ago, when Iran was at war with Iraq. The Iranian armed forces had set up a training field out in the high desert in Charmahal & Bakhtiari. They had the first generation of combatants dig long trenches like the ones on the battlefield. The area was used for target practice and other training for soldiers from all over Iran. The soldiers would get basic training there for a month or so and once deemed ready they were sent over to Khuzestan next door, where the war was raging on the plains.
This simulation battlefield was situated a few miles north of a small village and immediately south of a mountain-range, on the foothills. The whole area is still more or less heavily littered with shell casings from AK47s and G3s, mortar-shells, detonators, and loads of other junk.
About fifteen years ago, a young man of 25, was roaming about the desert around his home-town one day and as he recalls it, he noticed bulldozers , working in the distance, turning the mostly still undeveloped desert into industrial-scale peach orchards. Seeing this, he decided to plant a species of very drought tolerant almond (they call it the mountain almond here) on and around the trenches in order to preserve them for future generations. In Iran, the actual trenches on the front-line where battles were fought are considered sacred places by a lot of people. There are even yearly pilgrimages to these places.
These almonds don’t look anything like any cultivated almond varieties, which all look generally the same. This one is a species of wild almond called Amygdalus Scoparia and it is very likely endemic to Iran. Besides this one, there are two other species of almonds that grow wild in Iran, one of them is poisonous. The only thing they all have in common is the flowers, and the fruit, which is always a small bitter almond. The flowers are either white or pink, just like normal almonds, but they’re a lot smaller. All of them are extremely drought-tolerant, in undisturbed habitats, you might find them growing alongside a profusion of other desert-trees and shrubs; the general feeling is a lot like the desert chaparral of California.
As the years went by, the industrial peach farms expanded rapidly, and this man got the idea of planting wild mountain-almond trees over an area of 500 hectares (1 Hectare is equal to about 2 acres of land) so that the natural desert-landscape would be preserved. He knew they would be preserved because it is illegal to cut down trees without a permit in Iran. Today, those 500 hectares are the only piece of untilled, “natural” land in the area. All the rest is now “developed” money-making land. And boy do they make money: just add peach trees + water +chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, etc and you have instant gold. One can make up to 100,000,000 tomans per year from 1 hectare. That’s $30,000USD this year. ($100,000 in terms of the exchange rate before the recent round of sanctions.)
This area has a very rich soil and plenty of water in the form of qanats., and the Zayandeh river flows close by. Twenty years ago, the old qanat-fed orchards were the only type of agriculture in the region. But since then, the government has been supporting agricultural development projects, pumping water from the river and irrigating the highlands around the river valley.
These projects have resulted in great wealth for the people of this village and even for people from other places.
After the war, some of the soldiers who had spent a lot of time training here, came back and got a permit to develop one of these projects. Originally it was about 50 hectares. Once they got their water running, they sold the project and walked away. The people who bought it were from another village a short distance away, but the land isn’t adjacent to their town. They, like all other villages and towns in the region, are quite envious of our town for all its wealth and orchards and they all feel they deserved to have modern agricultural projects too, even though they don’t have enough land or water rights. So, the numerous new industrial orchards around our village which amount to 2000 hectares at the very least are owned by out-of-towners as well as locals. Some of the projects are entirely composed of outsiders, like the one mentioned above. It’s called the Ahrar project, and the owners are pushing for a Phase 2: which would be another 350 hectares.
Around 4years ago, I was with Omid, who planted the mountain-almonds one night, when he got a call from another friend telling him to get his ass up there fast. Bulldozers were destroying the almonds. We drove up there right away. While it only took us ten minutes, we arrived to find a crowd of around 30 people had gathered already. Now, this place is far away from town, so it’s not as if anyone would notice what’s happening there. However, as it turns out, when the first guy noticed he called everyone he knew.
When we arrived, the two bulldozer-guys were shaking in their boots. There must have been 20 motorcycles and 6-7 cars and trucks parked there that night. They kept the bulldozers from leaving until Omid arrived. One of the drivers was really shivering with fear as he told us “They keep talking about this Omid. They won’t let us leave until he gets here.” So, Omid talked to them a bit and showed them some of the trees and convinced them never to come back there no matter who hired them. Omid thought it was a good time to plant some more almond seeds, since the army was already there. Five of us stayed until morning when all our bags of seeds were empty.
There must be at least 100,000 of these almond trees out there by now, age 1-15 years old. At first Omid used to go there alone but soon other people were joining him and they were pulling all-nighters every week planting seeds. They had to do it at night so as to not arouse suspicion and to keep it low-profile.
The changing climate has been bringing earlier springs and with it the almond blossoms. Instead of late March, which is the standard date for Almond bloom over here, the trees were in full bloom exactly on February 21st two years ago. Last year, by contrast, spring started exactly a month late: the trees woke up around April 21st. I believe both these years were unprecedented.
A few months ago Omid was called to court on account of two complaints filed against him.
Omid is a rural guy. He’s 40 years old, with a wife and three sons. He is the caretaker of a large private farm, which belongs to an old man from the city. The owner has a large villa on the farm, where he used to live most of the year. But the past year he’s been feeling too old so his visits are infrequent. The whole place, all 65 hectares, is in Omid’s care now, because nobody in the owner’s family is able to care for it. Omid receives a relatively small monthly income from the old man, plus whatever he can grow off the land each year. The owner doesn’t care about making any money off the farm for himself, he just wants someone to care for it and keep it alive and green. The arrangement works for both of them.
Omid also has a really good hand for pruning fruit trees, especially peaches. The trees he works on always bear plenty of fruit the following year and a lot of people in the area are aware of this. He’s an expert, and much in demand. So, every winter he has a lot of work pruning trees. He even works for some people out of area. He does a lot of other agricultural work whenever the opportunity arises. This is how he gets by, because he doesn’t have any land of his own. It’s very rare for someone in this village to not have at least 1 hectare in one of the many new “projects.” Omid was cheated out of his share by his townspeople.
Omid’s father, grandfather and uncle were all ‘Kad-khoda’ of the village. That’s what the tribal chiefs were called in Iran back when they still existed. Each village or town used to have an arbab (lord) and a kad-khoda (chief) and a dasht-ban. (Police chief, or literally translated: watcher or guardian of the fields)These three were the most powerful people in any village in Iran, prior to the Islamic revolution when centralized power wasn’t as powerful and extensive as today.
After the revolution, the new leadership encouraged the peasants to kick out the lords and tribal chiefs. They said “The money and resources that are rightfully yours have been taken by the Shah and his Lords. You must throw them out, for your country and for freedom! And we are with you. And Allah is with you.”
So, Omid and his family aren’t very liked in town. And when the town’s Islamic Council was signing people up for the new agriculture-projects, they conveniently forgot about him.
The past 15 years, he has devoted a lot of his time to planting the mountain-almonds as well as some other drought tolerant desert-trees out in the desert, on the foothills of a mountain exactly north of the farm where he works. A lot of other people have also helped him plant seeds all these years. According to him, 30 people have helped in one way or another. All for free, of course. Neither Omid nor any of his helpers were ever expecting any reward, monetary or otherwise. They just did it to preserve a piece of the intact, virgin desert around their home-town, and so that one day perhaps a wild jungle might spring up. (Mountain almonds grow to be very large and dense bushes, at least 10-12 feet high)
A few years ago, Omid discovered that it was possible to transplant a bud from pretty much any fruit tree of the family Rosaceae onto these wild almonds, and that many of them would bear perfect fruit without requiring any irrigation, out in the desert! Sweet almonds, apricots, plums and some others have been confirmed to bear fruit so far. This special species of almond has roots that penetrate the soil to inconceivable depths. A specialist from the city once visited this little jungle of ours, and claimed that the roots of this species can easily go down 30 meters deep.
As in all farming, all the modern fruit-tree plantations in the area use inordinate amounts of water, which they pump up from the river. Peaches for example, need to be watered once every 6 days during the hot season. And they consume vast amounts of water in the desert where there is no rain at all from May to October. The scorching sun turns white people into black people.
Omid was called to court because the owners of the Ahrar project had complained that he was obstructing the progress of their development plan. A shepherd who had rented the area (for his sheep) from the Ahrar owners, and was kicked out by Omid, claimed that his sheep were poisoned. He claimed that Omid had piled chemical fertilizer on the land, which his sheep ate and died.
In court Omid explained that the chemical fertilizer was for his trees, and that he had warned the shepherd, whose sheep had previously destroyed a lot of the smaller almonds as well as some of the ones with the fruit-trees transplanted onto them to keep his flock away from the trees. He further explained he showed a lot of them to the shepherd, very patiently, and asked him to keep the sheep away from the trees. Whether the shepherd actually lost any of his sheep is doubtful at best. But what is sure is that he was backed by the Ahrar people.
On the second count, Omid told the judge his story and emphasized that there are countless trees out there, wondering how the judge could legally order the destruction of his almonds. The judge requested that a single specialist/expert visit the site and report back if there are in fact trees out there.
Now, there is a certain organization in every city where court-approved experts in different fields are employed. Because the complaint was filed by the Ahrar people, they were responsible to pay for the specialist.
Omid states that he never saw this expert at all. The court documented one day that the specialist had visited the site and had found no trees there, just empty desert. Omid was fined $500 and told never to set foot in that land again. He was told that if he did, he would pay another fine and go to jail this time.
Hearing this, he requested that a team of experts be sent to the site again for a re-examination. A team of three specialists were appointed to the case for which he had to pay $250. Omid states that this team (which he paid for) never even showed up, but they announced their conclusion and it was identical to the first expert’s opinion.
One begins to see the corruption in the government and law of Iran. Since these specialists are all employed by the same agency, they are all acquainted with each other, and when they have to go examine a site that’s been examined before, they usually ask the first guy’s opinion. If he tells them there are no trees out there, for example, the others might not even bother visiting the site at all. Whether this is what happened, or they were paid off by the Ahrar people is uncertain. Either way, it is apparent nobody did their job.
Frustrated beyond measure, Omid requested that the judge accompany him to the desert and see for himself whether there are in fact any trees or not. The judge countered by having someone sent to the area with a camera to get some footage of the trees. Hence, a police officer and a guy with a camera were sent to the site. They managed to capture footage of every square foot that did not contain trees, but left out the trees altogether.
Countering this, Omid hired a camera-man and got some of his trees on film. Then he went back to court armed with the CD. The judge, as soon as he saw Omid, exclaimed “It seems like this little war of yours won’t end, unless I give you a hefty fine and some quality prison time, Mr. O.”
Omid gave them the CD and told the judge that as he understood it, the entire case was based on the idea that there are no trees out there and his film proves that there are. If this is true, the people who filed the complaint have no case. But as always, the judge just looked at him like he was crazy.
He reports that’s how the judge and everyone else in the courthouse view him. Either this or they think he wants to take that land for his own and that’s why he planted some lame desert-trees out there. The judge thinks he’s absolutely insane for trying to prevent “real” development because of some stupid bitter, wild almonds. Omid has come to the opinion he can’t win this case. He knows the Ahrar group have a lot of money and he feels like the judge is in their pocket.
When I saw him a few days ago, he was totally depressed and ready to give up, even though the thought of losing his almonds was driving him mad. I thought the only thing he could do to save his nature reserve which has been his life’s labour is to physically stop the Ahrar people every time they send their goons (bulldozers, tractors, sheep, etc.) if their bulldozers succeed even once, it’s all over. I thought, and told him, that relying on the court to settle this fairly was complete stupidity. The court would vote in favor of the side with the most money, as it always does.
Omid is currently thinking about talking to a lawyer to see if he has any chance at all. And he’s looking for someone in an environmental protection agency who would be willing to help him out. But since he’s a barely literate guy from a rural area, it’s going to be very hard for him to make contact with someone who is in a position of power, and who would care enough about the environment and understand what Omid is trying to do.
The real problem, and the reason we should all be concerned is because valuable and sustainable resources are being lost due to backroom deals and handshakes between people’s whose only goal is riches. The heritage of Iran does not matter to them. Neither does being able to sustain people without overusing pesticides and fertilizers. Like so many other places in the world, the future of humanity is being sold for a quick buck by modern day carpet baggers, whose only interest is making money and moving on.
As it turns out, Omid for all his labour of love for the history of Iran ended up convicted and ordered never to set foot on the land again. The judge summarily told him to throw away the deed to his land because it is worthless.
When we think of places across the globe as being uncaring of their environmental impact, we must remember this is not necessarily so. The people care. People like Omid. It is those who would rape the land and leave it that are at fault. These people are present in every culture. Yes they too have families to feed and bills to pay. However, looking forward to the future, is it worth losing ancient culture and resources to do so?
In the high desert of Charmahal &Bakhtiari, a fight is raging over the old and the new and an ancient resource.