The Symbiotic Relationship Between Healthy Ecosystems and Society
Combatting the Environmental Crisis in Iran
Conservation science is more important than ever, and Niloufar Bayani should be out continuing her research on threatened species. Instead, she is imprisoned by the Iranian Guard Corps for the research she did to secure the future of our environment. Sharing her work is now necessary not only to demand justice, but also to advocate for her conservationist cause.
Earlier in her career, Bayani turned to her home country of Iran to research Bayani independently authored “Ecology and Environmental Challenges of the Persian Gulf,” which passionately narrates the extensive ecological damage that has been caused by urbanization and oil extraction in Iran, and how the destruction might be stopped.
“Iran has a lot at stake in the degradation of its marine and coastal environments,” she writes at the beginning of her study. “However, it is not too late to put a stop to further degradation. This article recommends a number of targeted actions at the local, national, and regional levels to address the threats to the Persian Gulf ’s environment and protect this important renewable resource.”
The Persian Gulf is a particularly unique region, bordering on anomaly. Cutting out the Eastern side of the Arabian Peninsula, the Gulf is surrounded by eight different countries, including Iran, all of which rely on its coasts for food, trade, and increasingly, oil. Its mouth, the Strait of Hormuz, is a narrow extension of the Indian Ocean. This gulf is the essential region that Bayani set her sights on.
The steep temperature fluctuations and high salinity in the Persian Gulf, Bayani explains, has given rise to a set of highly specialized ecosystems and resilient organisms. The Gulf, while shallow, hosts populations of corals, sea grasses, dolphins, whales, sea turtles, commercial shellfish and fish, and porpoises, to name just a few. Its mangrove forests (of which Iran encompasses the majority), coral reefs, and coastal wetlands act as nurseries for migrating fish and birds.
“Many Iranians feel strongly about…the Persian Gulf as a symbol of Iran’s sovereignty and power in the region,” Bayani says. She considers herself to be one of those impassioned people.
For such a biologically diverse water body, the conditions are quite extreme. The Persian Gulf is only 35 meters deep on average (compare to the Gulf of Mexico’s 1,650 m average), and the water is 70 parts salt per every thousand (compare to the ocean’s average salinity of 30 to 40 parts per thousand). Under these conditions, Gulf species have evolved to survive the intense salinity and rapid temperature changes common in the region. The corals and fish are hardy; they’re survivors. And yet, they are dying. Even the extreme conditions of the Persian Gulf, it seems, have not prepared them for human activity.
The Gulf is a major player concerning the material most central to the modern world: oil. 60% of the known oil reserves in the world are located underneath the water body.
The incredible density of oil in the basin, high global demand for fossil fuels, and slow water exchange in and out of the basin creates a recipe for destruction. It takes individual units of water anywhere from 3 to 5.5 years to circulate fully through the Persian Gulf and exit back out through the slim Strait of Hormuz to the Indian Ocean. So when toxic materials get dumped into the Gulf, when tanker accidents spill oil into the water, when boats and dredging stir up suffocating sediments, the problem sticks around. No country bordering the Gulf is free of the effects.
Concerned, Bayani reports the devastating impacts of human activity on the Gulf in her study. The fish and birds now have few mangrove trees protecting their breeding grounds. The corals are losing the bacteria they rely on for food, bleaching out and dying from pollution and rising temperatures. 2 million barrels worth of oil is spilled into the Persian Gulf yearly, slicking down aquatic habitats and poisoning their animal denizens.
The losses for ecosystems represent losses for Iranian people: fisheries are dwindling, ecotourism is struggling to keep the natural systems thriving, and storms grow more destructive by the year without mangrove forests to block the wind and waves. It’s a familiar story of degradation, and it’s unfolding across countries and their ecosystems everywhere. The Persian Gulf is one of the areas most impacted by human activity yet, and it shows.
In her study, Bayani calls for action.
“Countries bordering the Persian Gulf may disagree on many issues,” she writes. “Notwithstanding these political differences, though, these countries have acknowledged the importance of environmental cooperation.” Iran’s scientific presence in marine biology and environmental science grew the fastest out of any country in the world between 1995 and 2009 – something Bayani hails as a result of education and a precursor to environmentalist success.
At the end of the article, she proposes an impressive array of solutions to the onslaught of problems facing the Gulf: creating frameworks for scientists to communicate directly to policymakers, involving coastal communities in environmental activism, and most importantly, coalitions between Iran and other Gulf countries to protect the ecosystem. Marine environments know no borders.
Bayani stresses the importance of international cooperation: “It is now an opportune moment for Iran and other littoral states to extend their cooperation, raise their environmental concerns, and…address the threats to the Persian Gulf ’s environment, and protect it for us and future generations.”
Niloufar Bayani cares for her country and her people. Yet in return, Iranian institutions try to silence her voice. Her conservationist calls for change are perceived as threats; Bayani has been charged by the Iranian Guard Corps with unfounded accounts of espionage and is sentenced to ten years of prison. This, too, is a tragically familiar story around the world, as scientists are silenced and persecuted by governments who feel threatened by their research.
But science cannot be silenced. Niloufar Bayani’s essential work must continue to be shared, for the good of environmentalists, of Iranian citizens, and of the world as we all grapple with deterioration in our natural spaces.
“Though the environment of the Persian Gulf has already suffered signiﬁcant damage,” Bayani insists, “it is not too late to reverse the trend, and to protect and rehabilitate its ecosystems.”
Bayani, Niloufar, and Yves Barthélemy. “Integrating Ecosystems in Risk Assessments: Lessons from Applying InVEST Models in Data-Deficient Countries.” Ecosystem-Based Disaster Risk Reduction and Adaptation in Practice Advances in Natural and Technological Hazards
Bayani, Niloufar. “Ecology and Environmental Challenges of the Persian Gulf.” Iranian Studies 49, no. 6 (2016): 1047-063. Accessed March 24, 2021. doi:10.1080/00210862.2016.1241569.