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Last Updated: 09/27/2013
Movement: Women, desertification, participatory democracy, mobile pastoralists, and Iran
Sierra Ramirez

In Iran, desertification is the backdrop to some of the most important social issues of the day. Sierra Ramirez analyzes its connection to new democracy movements, nomadic cultures, gender relations, and more.

Alireza Javaheri

The biaban nucleus

Beyond the Iranian hinterlands resides the desert, in Persian, the biaban.The world encompassing the expanding biaban functions much like an atom. The central element is the desert itself, the feature to which every other component orbits in deference and carefully balanced chaos. The electrons swirling around this nucleus are myriad and include the social constructs of the tribe, of class, ethnicity, gender, the state, the individual; of democracy, autocracy, control, liberation, and the broad social roles of the mobile pastoralist and the denizen of the abadi, or settled, inhabited places. The nucleus is also surrounded by a spinning network of physical entities like oases, grasslands, rural towns and villages, distant cities, wild and domesticated animals and plants, and human beings.

In this paper I will endeavor to examine this atom by looking at the role of a few of the electrons in relation to the nucleus. In doing so, I will focus first on the local history of mobile pastoralists and their relation to the Iranian state, then on a new participatory democracy movement, and conclude with the analysis of the tense underexplored intersection between women in these mobile pastoralist societies and the encroachment of the desert itself. I will do so because at the heart of these intersections is a relatively new element: liberation ecology, a framework that expands from the body to the planet in scope.[1]

Liberation ecology is difficult to define succinctly, but generally it is considered to be a radical dialectic that observes how domination and the economic premise of scarcity lead to individual, social, political and environmental degradation. It asks how that reality might be shifted to one of ecologically balanced social interdependence and potential, which could then be said to to represent a state of “liberation.”[2] Institutional structures, individual decisions, and various other phenomena may then be analyzed with respect to the extent to which they contribute to movement toward or away from justice and liberation. The dialectic provides an excellent opportunity to examine real-world dynamics at work between political ecology, environmental history, environmental justice, and ecofeminsim. The specific case that shows how these concepts and tensions are emerging in the Iranian desert is that of the participatory democracy movement developing among several subtribes of the nomadic Qashqa’i. In analyzing the movement, I will describe the tribe’s rocky path to a liberation that aspires to both affirm the dignity of their community and reverse the degradation of their homeland.

Background: Desertification and mobile pastoralists

Desertification is characterized by the degradation of land in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas.[3] It functions as a “gradual process of soil productivity loss and thinning of vegetation cover caused by human activities and climate change.”[4] And it is a problem in Iran. In a report for Human Ecology, Esmail Karamidehkordi explains:

Studies [...] show that the drought has caused significant reduction of crop, livestock and fisheries production, severely impacting farmers’ livelihoods in Iran […]. Rainfed wheat production, for example, declined from 5.2 million tons in 2006–2007 to only 200 thousand tons in 2007–2008 [...]. It has also decreased landcover vegetation, causing degradation and run-off, as well as increased pest and diseases on farms and orchards. Livestock farmers, especially nomads, have also been affected by fodder shortages, animal diseases, and the early sale of the livestock.[5]

A number of studies investigating desertification in the region see mobile pastoralists as key players in the phenomenon. Karamidehkorki states that Iranian rangelands are depended on for 24% of the meat required by the country. However he goes on to point out that due to population distribution, not only are rangelands being drastically overburdened by livestock use, but production has also been outpaced by regional population growth:

[Over] 46 million extra AU [animal units] are provided by grazing in the rangelands and the current number of animal units is 2.25 times of what the rangelands can sustain in the long term. The existing number of households dependent on rangelands is also 5.7 times more than the standard numbers of livestock for which rangelands can produce sufficient resources […]. Thus per capita AU numbers are not enough to meet the household requirements. [...] Studies show that due to degradation, the food produced from rangelands costs more than its market value. The same studies also show that the overpressure on rangelands is different in different parts of the country. For example in the Bazoft Watershed the current number of animal units is almost eight times the rangeland capacity, while in the area of Tarom in the Zanjan Province it is just over 1.5 times. In the Zanjan District rangelands it is two to three times in excess of estimated capacity.

Some consider the population’s herding practices to be a driving factor in desertification, while others see such practices as resulting in a lighter footprint than sedentary livestock management techniques. In a 2004 meta-analysis by Geist and Lambin, nomadic grazing was found to be a key proximate cause of desertification in Asia, and was a proximate cause twice as frequently than was the case in Africa.[6][7] In contrast, the mobile pastoral method historically developed in a manner meant to conserve rangeland resources. Farouk El-Baz thus takes issue with those who would blame those living the desert for its condition. He explains the traditional balance when he states, “[if] a spot of land is not as fertile as they had hoped, or if it loses its fertility due to declining levels of rainfall, they move on to more productive pastures. When water levels in wells drop, they trek to where they can tap better aquifers. This wisdom helps to keep nomads alive and the land viable.”[8]

In both cases, mobile pastoralists are clearly central to any possible solutions.

Mobile pastoralists and the state

As key actors in rangeland resource management, tribes like the Qashqa’i should have long been active participants in the development of strategies for combatting desertification. However this has not been the case. Report after report highlights the degree to which they have been marginalized and cut from participation. Manjusha Misra relays generations of state policies that led “to the systematic alienation of indigenous pastoral communities from their traditional land and resources.”[9] From the turn of the twentieth century, European colonial powers (namely Great Britain, France, and Imperial Russia) were a political and social influence on the Persian government, and even after their dominance waned, colonialist myths about the the backwards nature of pastoralism and pastoralists remained.[10] With that tone set, the 1906 constitution implicitly affirmed government control of all domestic territory. Then successive regimes further centralized control, resulting in nearly twenty years of sedentarization policies (1925-1941), and the formal nationalization of rangelands in 1963. Misra explains the environmental impact of of these policies, stating that, “pastoral lands that were under the management of a clan were divided and allocated based on herd sizes, severely disrupting mobility patterns and resource access and leading to resource conflicts. This has led to overgrazing of rangelands, illegal grazing in forests, and widespread conflicts.”[11] Perhaps then it is not mobile pastoralism itself that has lead to land degradation in this case, but misguided efforts on the part of the Iranian state.

Prior to 1954 the Qashqa’i were united as a confederacy with a number of other tribes. That year, these policies resulted in the removal of the confederate leader (the ilkhani) from office.[12] In 1962 all the other tribes’ leaders within the confederacy lost their political authority as well.[13]

This kind of hard-line policy toward nomadic people is nothing new, nor is it relegated to Iran or other authoritarian governments. Political ecologist James Scott argues that states’ “legibility” is threatened by non-sedentary populations. When domestically powerful states prioritize control and legibility over inclusion and mutuality the stage is set for generations of social engineering schemes. He says that this sense of threat results in rarely successful “perennial state projects” to force such populations to settle.[14] In viewing sedentarization policies from a liberation ecology perspective, we can thus see no liberatory or emancipatory potential.

When nations and organizations negotiate over and apart from the very populations they wish to “manage,” they fundamentally lack vital knowledge and expertise that would make such organization functional or equitable. Scott uses the Greek term metis to describe these skills which are cultivated over generations and finely tuned to specific environments. When cultures develop in harsh contexts, metis develops in order to ensure survival. Nuances of the expertise involved will always be beyond individuals existing outside that context. In this case, the success of anti-desertification plans, as well as a shift toward liberation and ecological balance, will only be possible when when populations with relevant metis are involved.

Esmail Karamidehkordi explains why and how exclusivity in the policy process manifests in Iran today:

Existing policies and strategies in Iran are either production-oriented or conservation-oriented with a lack of integration between these two. These programs, especially watershed management programs, use systematic paradigms, which provide few opportunities for the rural and nomadic communities’ active participation.[...] Conservation programs usually consider rural and nomadic people directly dependent on natural resources to be the main agents responsible for degradation rather than social actors in development who can express their voice and share their knowledge. All these programs have suffered from understanding the networks of different social actors.[15]

Conversely, while tribes like the Qashqa'i normally contribute significantly to the Iranian economy and food system, when tribe members are forced to settle in villages or cities their metis is practically useless. Few if any jobs require their skills.[16] For those who have managed to maintain the traditional lifestyle, incredible distrust toward the national government discourages tribes from cooperating with top-down conservation policy, a dynamic that exists across the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa).[17]

International development and conservation organizations are taking note of the critiques and are slowly starting to make practical adjustments to their programs in order to engage mobile pastoralists as stakeholders in rangeland conservation and other projects.[18][19] In this case, the success of national anti-desertification plans, as well as movement toward social and ecological liberation, will only be possible when when populations with relevant metis are directly involved, not marginalized.

A participatory democracy movement?

If a willingness to engage with mobile pastoralists is evolving on the international development and conservation side, there must be a corresponding movement toward active civic participation and organized advocacy on the pastoralist side. The lack of such a movement would rob the transition of robustness and meaning. Such a partnership might prove useful to pressure the Iranian national government to change its perspective as well. At this point, pastoralists face an uphill battle. For example, Iran’s most recent national communication to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (published in 2010) stated in no uncertain terms that the “settlement of migratory nomadic communities” will continue being a key “capacity building” strategy to preserve arid regions from the threat of climate change.[20]

One Iranian civil society organization appears to be taking strong initiative to work with mobile pastoralist tribes to assist them in resisting their long-standing trend toward sedentarization and cultural decline: CENESTA, The Centre for Sustainable Development. The individuals involved represent a “non-governmental, non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting sustainable community- and culture-based development.”[21]

To fully illustrate just how exemplary of the ideals behind liberation ecology the organization’s methodology is, let me compare a few quotes- first from liberation ecologist Frances Moore Lappé and then from CENESTA’s explanation of their own approach.

Lappé states that liberation ecology demands a “living democracy,” (essentially a highly active participatory democracy) that formalizes the highest values of human cultures, saying that “the crisis of ecology is fundamentally the crisis of democracy.” She also points out that human cruelty is the result of three things: concentration of power, anonymity, and scapegoating. In contrast, the living democracy she talks about “confronts and reverses” each of those negative qualities, by design. She says that the kind of democracy required for liberation is not and must not be prescriptive. Instead, it should be characterized by:

a set of system values that permeate our school rooms, that permeate our cultural institutions, that permeate our political system, that permeate our economic system. A set of values: of fairness, of mutual accountability, certainly those two, and inclusion. So democracy is no longer thought of as something that is finished and done, but is something that is created by us, moment to moment. […] Not denying our capacity for cruelty, but dispersing power, [...] flipping that, if you will.[22]

CENESTA’s principles include the following:

  • Communities define their own approach based on the unique needs and conditions of their environment and society;
  • Outside institutions should be acting in a supportive, enabling and empowering role for community decisions;
  • Externally introduced concepts will be avoided in preference to structures and mechanisms that are deeply rooted in the local culture;
  • Any initiatives must respond to the needs of the local communities as defined by them through their own analytical processes;
  • Gender issues will be addressed within the greater context of community and cultural issues;[23]

Fundamentally, these principles are tied to principles derived from the nomadic communities the organization works with. The principles are described as:

  • Equity and justice
  • Participation
  • Accountability
  • Sustainability[24]

Looking at CENESTA’s model, we can immediately see immense liberatory potential. And going back to Scott’s work, Seeing Like a State, we can also see that this kind of movement presents a fascinating juxtaposition with his assertions that a) nomadic populations are a thorn in the side of the state and that, b) the failure of large-scale social engineering schemes (and the resulting descent into human suffering) relies on a “prostrate civil society” that lacks capacity to resist such plans and provides leveled social terrain on which to build. Time will tell what kind of long term impact a strong nomadic civil society will have for the national political landscape and future projects.

In the shorter term, reports suggest that the participatory democracy approach is working to achieve the complementary goals of CENESTA and those of the tribes they work with, including the Qashqa’i. Manjusha Misra, in her analysis of the history of Iranian nomads and CENESTA’s work within that context, says “the work of CENESTA [...] in assisting pastoral tribes to build their capacity for articulating their role in the conservation of rangelands and in proposing systems for their participation in national policy planning on an equal basis with experts of the TBR [Technical Bureau of Rangelands] has been remarkable.”[25]

Her report, as well as reports from CENESTA, detail how they have been supporting subtribes of the Qashqa’i in incrementally working to re-establish tribal confederacies through participatory action research and other projects.[26][27] Other successes include revitalising ten Councils of Elders in the Qashqa’i and Shahsevan tribal confederations, establishing a link with international experts on NEE (non-equilibrium ecosystems), convincing the Iranian government to accept an in-depth investigation into its current resource management policies and their comparison with traditional practices in NEE contexts, identifying a community-conserved wetland “protected by the nomads since time immemorial,” bringing the government onboard to recognise it as a possible prototype for other similar projects, initiating a legal support program for nomadic pastoralists, and reviving the concept of mobile services for nomads, to include health, education, and veterinary services.[28]

Peet and Watts inform us that liberation ecology centrally involves a politics of scale, “from the body to the locally imagined community, to state and intra-state struggles, to new forms of global governance.”[29] In viewing social movements and institutions in this light, we must examine how decisions impact each level of scope. We have seen how strategies within CENESTA’s approach speak to community and state struggles, but what about the impact on the individual? While the participation democracy movement may indeed promote the interests of marginalized communities in environmental decision-making and risk/benefit bearing --a classic environmental justice goal-- what about the politically marginalized within that community? For the final analysis, the last set of electrons in the atom, I will look within the Qashqa’i culture itself to discuss one very important subpopulation, women.

Environmental justice vs. ecofeminsim: A conflict within liberation ecology?

Under the very broad umbrella of liberation ecology, one finds values associated with both environmental justice and ecofeminsim. As alluded to before, the environmental justice perspective typically focuses on the dynamic between marginalized communities and local, regional, or national governments. Around the world, the most disadvantaged communities (generally those of ethnic minorities and low relative economic status) bear the brunt of the negative consequences of pollution and environmental degradation. The goals of the movement are to equitably distribute both risks and benefits of changes to the environment, and to work toward active engagement of all parties affected.[30]

Environmental justice work tends to be grassroots oriented, clustering around individual communities in relation to local power structures (although acknowledging solidarity with struggles in other communities). It focuses on the role of ethnic and racial hierarchy, and to a lesser extent, economic class, in domination.[31] By contrast, ecofeminsim focuses on the role of gender within all larger social contexts. This role is examined in relation to environmental systems, resulting in a philosophic foundation that sees the domination of women and the domination of nature as interconnected and originating from the same patriarchal societal structure.[32]

Viewing CENESTA’s approach from the environmental justice side of liberation ecology, it proves to be exemplary for all of the same reasons discussed in earlier portions of this paper. However, looking at it from the ecofeminsm side, the liberatory potential of the approach, not to mention of liberation ecology itself, becomes slightly more grey.

Inherent to CENESTA’s principles is the concept of working within the community value system. As such they state, with regard to their work with the Qahsqa’i:

Gender issues will be addressed within the greater context of community and cultural issues. Experience in traditional Muslim societies has shown that this often entails employing creative and sometimes counter-intuitive approaches and working at the pace of the community, for example by involving only men during the initial phases of a project until trust has been built between the community and the project team and women can be included with the support of the entire community.[33]

The organization has demonstrated an overt and long-standing commitment to improving the lives of women as well as their access to political power. In reading their reports on other projects (with sedentary communities), one may conclude that while traditional communities in Iran indeed want to become more equitable in a formal capacity, such a change is quite significant, and will not happen overnight. The extent of women’s participation in the workings of the tribe will be ultimately up to the tribe as a whole. Thankfully, it does seem that CENESTA in no way obfuscates from communities the fact that they support the expansion of women’s rights, including into the political sphere. This acknowledgement from the start serves to, as CENESTA reports puts it, “sensitize” the community to the possibilities for expanded roles for women.

Furthermore, if we take an ecofeminist perspective on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we can see that men and women in Qashqa’i culture are situated on different levels, and therefore are attempting to satisfy entirely different needs.[34] While men tend to be closer to the top of the pyramid, seeking esteem and self-actualization, women are still struggling to maintain a firm grasp on the physiological, safety, and social belonging levels. This is not to say that communities cannot or do not wish to satisfy every need on the hierarchy, nor is it to say that it is impossible to work toward satisfying multiple needs at once, but simply that there are different immediate priorities motivating different groups.

Within the cultural context of the Qashqa’i, there have been substantial gains. There has been increased participation of women in meetings with international conservation and development collaborators, effective support of women-organized workshops, the active participation of women in “problems and priorities” meetings, and the initiation of a community register of medicinal herbs in collaboration with women in other nomadic pastoralist tribes in the region.

The reason that these projects have seen a good deal of success is due in large part to traditional Qashqa’i gender dynamics. Not an especially gender-segregated culture, the nature of their nomadic lifestyle and sub-tribal structures encourages community members to work and ride side by side the majority of the time.[35] Certain activities, especially more formal political and economic interactions with the wider society, have been traditionally claimed by men.[36]

In light of these historical realities, we can see how activities which are viewed as being “day-to-day” represent a good opportunity to work with the community to enhance women’s role. In the long run, this kind of progress will see Qashqa’i women move up Maslow’s hierarchy to the point that their formal political voice will be able to evolve organically. On the other hand, we can only guess at the kinds of social-structural and ecological changes that will have taken place by such a point.

Not having a formal role in the higher levels of decision-making from this point will likely result in some challenges in the future, as any shortchanging in the present becomes institutionalized into new political frameworks. And just as plans at the national level are worse off for the lack of mobile pastoralist metis involved, this indigenous participatory democracy movement (and the new structures that result from it) may also suffer for the lack of metis offered by women. It is simply less “participatory” as a result. This should not be construed as a criticism of CENESTA, nor of the Qashqua’i, but only as an observation, and a reminder of the challenges and limitations of a grassroots approach. In the absence of a framework that would indicate how to immediately transform human interactions and erase intra-community domination, this is the most just and effective approach. A final word from CENESTA that speaks to these issues:

Our objective does not advocate turning the clock back, nor freezing pastoralists in their current state. It advocates for appropriate policies, legal mechanisms, and support systems in order to allow self-evolution of pastoralists towards economically, socially and ecologically sustainable livelihood systems.[37]

Crisis and Opportunity

For all of its ideals and strengths, the pursuit of liberation ecology cannot accomplish all goals at once. Justice, liberation, and environmental sustainability develop in fits and starts. After a shift in paradigm, more and more just decisions will result, and the path to liberation will continue to be traversed. The only question remaining is, will it all happen soon enough? In Iran, the threat of climate change creates a crisis and opportunity that demands the rapid transformation of resource management and social structure. In the end, we must all wait and see. In any case, the biaban nucleus remains. The electrons surrounding it continue to swirl.

[1] Richard Peet and Michael Watts, editors, Liberation Ecologies, Second Edition (London: Routledge, 2004) 3-40.

[2] Frances Moore Lappé, “Liberation Ecology: Toward an Empowering Frame to Move from Crisis to Transformation,” October 2, 2008

[3] Chris Edwards, "Desertification." Geographical, 77, no. 2 (February 2005): 44-45. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed December 6, 2012).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Esmail Karamidehkordi, "A Country Report: Challenges Facing Iranian Agriculture and Natural Resource Management in the Twenty-First Century." Human Ecology 38, no. 2 (2010): 295-303, (accessed December 7, 2012).

[6] Helmut J. Geist and Eric F. Lambin, "Dynamic Causal Patterns of Desertification." Bioscience 54, no. 9 (2004): 817-829, (accessed December 7, 2012).

[7] Note: The Asian component of the study should not be assumed to be so broad as to be irrelevant to this analysis. From the report, “Dryland cases from Asia (n = 51) stemmed from the Central Asian desert and steppe region, the East Mediterranean steppe zone, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Thar Desert in India.”

[8] Farouk El-Baz, “Let Deserts Be,” Nature, 30, no. 456(2008), doi:10.1038/twas08.30a; (accessed November 29, 2012)

[9] Manjusha Misra, “Mobile pastoralists in Iran’s arid lands,” International Journal of Environmental Studies, 66:3 (2009) pp. 355-370, DOI: 10.1080/00207230902752512 (accessed November, 29, 2012)

[10] Shiva Balagi, “A Brief History of 20th-Century Iran,” Between Word and Image: Modern Iranian Visual Culture, September 18, 2002. accessed December 7, 2012,

[11] Manjusha Misra, “Mobile pastoralists in Iran’s arid lands,” International Journal of Environmental Studies, 66:3 (2009) 355-370, DOI: 10.1080/00207230902752512 (accessed November, 29, 2012)

[12] Lois Beck and Nikki R. Keddie, Women in the Muslim World, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978) 351- 398

[13] Ibid.

[14] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State : How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

[15] Esmail Karamidehkordi, "A Country Report: Challenges Facing Iranian Agriculture and Natural Resource Management in the Twenty-First Century." Human Ecology 38 (2010): 295-303, (accessed December 7, 2012).

[16] CENESTA, “The role of Qashqai nomadic communities in reducing vulnerability to recurrent drought and sustainable livelihoods development in Iran.” Report prepared for the FAO, February 2004, Accessed December 12, 2012,

[17] Jeannie Sowers, Avner Vengosh, and Erika Weinthal, “Climate change, water resources, and the politics of adaptation in the Middle East and North Africa” Climatic Change, 104 (2011), 599-627


[19] World Initiative for Sustainable Pastoralism, “What is WISP?” October 31, 2012, Accessed December 12, 2012,

[20] National Climate Change Office, “Iran Second National Communication to the UNFCCC,” UNFCCC December 2010, accessed December 12, 2012,


[22] Frances Moore Lappé, “Liberation Ecology: Toward an Empowering Frame to Move from Crisis to Transformation,” October 2, 2008

[23] CENESTA, “Pastoral Stewardship of Arid and Semi-arid Lands in Iran,” November 13, 2005, Accessed December 10, 2012,

[24] Ibid.

[25] Manjusha Misra, “Mobile pastoralists in Iran’s arid lands,” International Journal of Environmental Studies, 66:3 (2009) 355-370, DOI: 10.1080/00207230902752512 (accessed November, 29, 2012)

[26] Ibid.

[27] CENESTA, “Pastoral Stewardship of Arid and Semi-arid Lands in Iran,” November 13, 2005, Accessed December 10, 2012,

[28] Ibid.

[29] Richard Peet and Michael Watts, editors, Liberation Ecologies, Second Edition (London: Routledge, 2004) 3-40.

[30] Luke W. Cole and Sheila R. Foster, From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Movement. (New York: New York University Press, 2001) 1-18.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Greta Gaard Ecofeminism.(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010) accessed December 13, 2012,

[33] CENESTA, “Reviving nomadic pastoralism in Iran: Facilitating sustainability of biodiversity and livelihoods - A learning by doing project” January 15, 2003. Accessed December 1, 2012,

[34] Abraham Maslow, “A theory of human motivation,”Psychological Review, 50 (1943): 370-96. Accessed December 13, 2012,

[35] Lois Beck and Nikki R. Keddie, Women in the Muslim World, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978) 351- 398

[36] Ibid.

[37] CENESTA, “Pastoral Stewardship of Arid and Semi-arid Lands in Iran,” November 13, 2005, Accessed December 10, 2012,

Sierra Ramírez is a dual-Masters candidate at American University and the UN Mandated University for Peace. She writes on the intersections between gender, class, ethnicity, and environment in international relations.