Recently, I had an interview with Hamshahri, the major national Iranian Persian-language newspaper, on our community-based initiative. I tried to talk in a simple language since this was going to be read by general public. It was published on 25 February 2017. Zahra Taalaani, the journalist, interviewed me and prepared the text. I decided to translate the text into English. Here is the text.
We breathe with the earth
Every day, facts and figures on environmental degradation by human beings are published in the media, and officials or activists warn about the protection of environment or natural resources.
They believe that any environmental loss affects human beings more than others, because resources are limited and the life is endangered. Saeid Nouri Neshat, an environment activist, accompanied by a team, are working, more than three years, to empower local people in villages, not only to find a "way" or a "method" for conservation of their environment by them, but they can have a better livelihood. He calls this method 'facilitation'.
The increasing destruction of forests and pastures, excessive utilization of mines and natural resources, drought and the climate change, are happening due to the modern human lifestyle that has eroded the "earth" as our habitat. There are different ways to protect the environment but Saeid Nouri Neshat believes that empowering individuals, especially in rural areas, is the best solution for decreasing the destruction of forests and natural resources.
"I was involved in environmental activities, but then I understood that if people are causing damage to the environment, it is because of their economic pressures in their life", he says. "I found out when they have a better livelihood or a diversification of livelihoods, then the resources are better conserved." In other words, there is a direct relationship between the poverty reduction and environment conservation. Therefore, they started to focus on empowering people in the target areas. They helped them to understand their roots, to recognise their assets and to help each other to come out of the poverty.
He emphasized that the most important issue is to engage local communities and to promote group activities among villagers. It is, however, very difficult and has its special delicacy. There are certain helpful potentials in local culture and Islamic beliefs of rural people. The group sessions are usually held in mosques and hoseiniehs in villages; people are sensitized to the situation of their local communities and become ready to implement a series of activities in their own families or in their own village. In this way, they experience “participation”.
Saeid Nouri Neshat, or as the villagers call him “Uncle Saeid”, says about his special way of entrepreneurship: “it is not only entrepreneurship, it has to encompass other aspects of life. In other words, one cannot be active in economic issues; one cannot expect the situation remains sustainable; people have to think about other social problems that might even be the reasons for the unwanted economic status.” He continues that in one village, the produced chilies were first sold to the salesmen and the dealers – and the people could not earn enough money. But now, they are working on processing their chilies, using the guidance by the local group. In this way, they can earn more. They have held two chili festivals by now. At the present time, the facilitators have been working in eighteen communities in three provinces of Kermanshah, Semnan and Gilan. The provincial NGOs (Tanin Tabiat Tirgan in Shahroud; Hafezan Tabiat Payedar in Anzali, and Paraw in Kermanshah) and their facilitators are assisting in community work and livelihood activities.
Nouri Neshat explains about their methods of intervention and adds: “we try to be among people with a mind free from any imposed pattern or model; we help them to come together, and encourage them to talk about their existing livelihoods and interests. Our major concern is to maintain rural solidarity for achieving the goals set by themselves”. One idea is to establish revolving credit funds or local development funds. In many villages where they are active, such small funds have been formed out of rural savings and these funds are helpful for their economy.
Their colleagues have gained invaluable experience during the past years and this has facilitated their work. “Working at communities is time-consuming and one cannot expect to attain the results exactly at the time once designed in the project”. The experience has proved that the community work goes on slowly. The facilitators have to be patient and have to encourage local people to take the steps of empowerment gradually. Also, they have found out that the women are more inclined to participate in social activities. This is possibly because women have more free time, or they regard “participation” as an important issue or they enjoy participating and group activities more than others. Nouri Neshat says that they tried to form men’s groups too; only in one village, a group composed of men shaped, however, even in this group, the activities were more or less focused on producing handicrafts by rural women. In other villages, there are registered cooperatives with women and girls as their members.