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.
Ebtekar was also involved in the nuclear debate.
"The situation is that Iran has vast oil reserves, the second largest in the world," she says. "But fossil fuels are not beneficial and are not sustainable. They are very cheap, but they lead to air and soil pollution. So we think that we need a different energy mix. We are investing in all hydro-power, solar, geothermal and wind farms, but we need nuclear, too."
She moves on to talk about electricity: "There is a huge increase in demand for electricity. We have had a booming economy. Urbanization is taking place very fast and the population has almost doubled in 20 years. All the villages are now getting electricity. In two years, we will predominantly be an urban society. Lifestyles are changing. People use more electricity but supply is right on the edge. Selling crude oil is not in our interests. We know it is wiser to add value [to make] refined, petro-chemical products. Seen like this nuclear power is rational. The hype about nuclear is all political. The Americans just do not understand what is going on. It seems that they have no talents in that regime."
Of the embassy siege, Ebtekar recalls: "I was 19 and in the student movement. It was the dark point in our history with the US. We were intellectual students. We started a reform movement that included the environment. We thought we should take an unconventional approach [when the hostages were taken]. It was a young revolution. The intentions were good."
And then she remembers: "Actually, nuclear in Iran goes back to the Shah. He had a feasibility study done by Stanford University, which recommended it. It was an American idea that we have nuclear power."
Of all the thankless tasks in the world, being environment minister of a developing African nation must rank fairly high. Western donors expect "green" values to be promoted, but they are also demanding rates of economic growth that can be achieved only through unregulated business. An environment minister may have charge of one of the most respected portfolios but it's unlikely to contain any cash.
Laurent Sedogo, environment minister for Burkina Faso, regards the situation with the grace of a man familiar with the whimsicality of donor policies. "There is currently little money for the environment," he says. "It was different. Before, governments and donors were very interested in the environment. Now they prefer to fund social projects like schools, hospitals."
Sedogo has seen a few false dawns. More than 20 years ago, he served briefly in the administration of Thomas Sankara, the "African Che" who made the Renault 5 the official government car and had an all-woman motorcycle entourage. Despite his impracticality and his rapid political fall, Sankara promoted an interest in the environment and the rural poor that remains an important theme in Burkinabe politics. It is an overwhelmingly agrarian society in which the environment and the economy have always been inextricably linked.
"In Burkina Faso, 90 percent of people live in the villages," says Sedogo. "They depend on farming sorghum and millet. That can't change overnight. Economic development has to include them and their interests."
It's a familiar story. Rapid, centralized investment leads to rural decline, environmental degradation and social problems. Sedogo points out that the capital city, Ouagadougou, has many homeless youths, while the rural villages have a growing problem with HIV. The link between the two factors is environmental management.
providing rural jobs
After the harvest, there is no work for the young, so they swamp the cities and then import health and social problems to their village homes.
"The problem is providing work," says Sedogo. "If there was a rural economy, the boys wouldn't leave home. For that, you need a managed water supply."
But after 30 years in which almost US$1 trillion of aid has been provided, Africa's water and malaria problems have not been sorted out. Few people one meets in Burkina Faso are impressed by the G8 promise of primary education by 2015, or concerned about gender issues.
They need clean water and malaria eradication. Without money to invest, Sedogo's role has been largely educational. There is a good awareness of environmental issues, which has gone some way to stopping the casual depletion of the forests. He is also set on reforming the bureaucracy that has stifled regional development.
"We are continuing with a long process of land reform," he says. "We will give local communities power to decide on how their land is used -- for farming, development or tourism."
Sedogo has been impressed by the microeconomic approach of non-governmental organizations such as the Bristol-based Tree Aid, which funds farming schools, agro-forestry and promotes sustainable local trade. Such activities may generate small amounts when compared with the major urban investments, but they are cost effective and it is money that reaches the rural margins, which is where the off-center heart of African society remains.
In the meantime, the economy is reliant on cotton. The growth rates that the World Bank and IMF applaud have been fueled by cotton exports. But it is a greedy plant that depletes the soil and requires large amounts of pesticides. At least two strains of GM cotton have been tested in Burkina Faso, but the trials are regarded cautiously by many Burkinabes, who fear a future dependence on foreign companies.
Nonetheless, cotton continues to spread. Sedogo points at satellite maps of Burkina Faso on the wall."Look at the white places," he says. "That's cotton."
Unless environmental and economic issues are considered synonymous, the new cotton wealth may simply bring a new desert.
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