Sun, Jun 25, 2006 - Page 9 News List

The thankless task of looking after your country's environment

Iran has oil and money; Burkina Faso has little of anything. While the two countries are worlds apart, their respective environment ministers have a lot in common

By John Vidan and Wil Chou  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Massoumeh Ebtekar appeared almost nightly on the world's televisions in late 1979. Indeed, she had a star role in one of the world's longest-running political soaps: the 444-day siege by students of the US embassy in Tehran. Dubbed "Sister Mary" by the Western media, she was a revolutionary 19-year-old student who became the hostage-takers' spokeswoman and was reviled by the Americans.

That was at the height of the Islamic revolution. Forward 27 years and Ebtekar, now a professor of immunology at the University of Tehran, has recently been in Singapore collecting a prize from the UN Environment Program for her work as the environment minister in the last Iranian government -- where she was also the country's first female vice-president.

Until President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- alleged by some to be among those who planned the siege -- was elected last year, Ebtekar had led an astonishing but barely remarked seven-year reform agenda to address Iran's rapidly worsening environment.

Even as Iran was industrializing, and its major cities were suffocating in some of the world's worst urban air pollution, Ebtekar was trying to clean up the oil industry and drive polluters off the streets. She brought in new environmental laws, banned the logging of ancient forests, created national parks, and linked the environment in the public mind with reform and progress.

small steps forward

Iran is still an environmental mess, hovering near crisis in many areas, but because of Ebtekar's actions, there are now 2,000 buses and 100,000 cars running on cleaner natural gas, and the numbers will double in a few years. There is still deforestation and desertification, carbon emissions have almost tripled in 20 years, and there is overfishing in lakes and rivers -- but standards everywhere are higher and laws are tighter.

The qualities needed to be a revolutionary student and an Iranian environment minister are the same, Ebtekar suggests -- passion, intellect and information. "I was an environmentalist at a very young age," she says, "My father was the first head of the department of environment after the revolution [against the Shah]. He was a professor of mechanical engineering and worked on the conversion of petrol to natural gas -- I didn't know that later I would lead an anti air pollution campaign. When Iran's new constitution was being written, he insisted on the inclusion of an environment clause."

"I said: `Dad, we're in the middle of a revolution and you are talking about the environment?' He said: `I have a long-term vision that one day the environment will be very strong,'" she continues.

Article 50, which he devised, now reads like legal poetry: "Protection of the environment, in which present and future generations should enjoy a transcendent social life, is regarded as a public duty."

One of the first things Ebtekar did in power was to encourage non-governmental groups. "When we started in 1997, there were seven," she recalls. "By the time I left last year, there were more than 450.

"We thought that they would only be interested in poverty, but even in the remotest parts of the country they were wanting to set up groups about the environment. They were very strong. They even put me on trial, saying I was not doing enough for the environment. It was a revolution in itself," she said.

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