Forests in Southwestern Iran Are Being Destroyed to Grow Opium Poppies, Scientist Warns

Opium poppy crops are replacing woodlands in parts of the southwestern province of Fars, the Tabnak news site reported earlier this month, citing Dr. Parviz Kardavani, a professor of eremology (the systematic study of desert features and phenomena) at Tehran University. 

“Some people are deliberately destroying woodlands in Fars province to cultivate opium poppies,” Dr. Kardavani, the founder of the Center for Desert Research at Tehran University, said. “They use gasoline and urea to kill oak trees in the Zagros mountains range [stretching from southeastern Turkey to southwestern Iran].”

Dr. Kardavani explained: “It takes a few months for the chemicals to kill the roots of the trees, after which they cut down the dead oak trees with the permission of the Forests, Range and Watershed Management Organization of Iran. Sometimes they plant opium poppies to replace the dead oak trees.”

“Woodlands and forests create natural barriers against floodwaters and prevent landslides. Deforestation on a large scale poses real threats to villages and cities during rainy seasons,” Dr. Kardavani warned. “Grazing livestock, gas pipelines, mining and construction of roads and highways have also contributed to massive deforestation.”      

Ali Akbari, a member of the Agriculture, Water and Natural Resources Committee of the Majlis (Iranian Parliament), differed with Dr. Kardavani’s assessments. 

“The problem is not as severe in Fars Province as some people have claimed,” said Mr. Akbari, who represents the city of Shiraz in the Majlis, according to the Tejarat News online site. “No one is systematically destroying the woodlands in Fars to plant opium poppies. According to the authorities, the poppies are grown among the trees. Burning trees to produce coal poses a greater threat to the forests in Fars than cultivating opium poppies.” 

Akbari explained: “The opium poppy crops are in remote areas deep inside the forests, which makes it difficult for the authorities to monitor the situation closely and more effectively. There are also disagreements among the relevant agencies over what role each must play in protecting these forests and other natural resources in the province.” 

The Zagros Mountains forest steppe spans 11 provinces and covers an area of 6 million hectares. It forms 40 percent of Iranian forest cover. The steppe is home to 400 species of plants and trees, 75 percent of which is oak. According to recent reports, 1.4 million hectares of Zagros grassland has turned arid because of severe drought in recent years, which has killed many species of plants.

Iran’s porous eastern border with Afghanistan and Pakistan has turned it into a significant transit country for illicit drugs. Besides opium and heroin, Iranian authorities have seized high-purity crystalline methamphetamine, known as shisheh, in the country in recent years.

“Iran seizes 800 tons of narcotics every year. Sanctions have made it rather difficult for the Islamic Republic to patrol its entire 4,000 miles of land border,” Moj News reported, citing Brigadier General Eskandar Momeni, the director of the Iran Drug Control Headquarters. 

Commander Momeni made the comments during a news conference on June 11, marking the forthcoming UN International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking on June 26.

He added: “According to the 2017 annual report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Iran seized 75 percent, 61 percent and 17 percent, respectively of all the opium, morphine and heroin in the world. In the past 30 years, the Islamic Republic has carried out 41,000 operations which have resulted in the seizure of 12,000 tons of illicit drugs. Iran seized 21 tons of drugs in 2017 alone, which was nearly six times the total amount of narcotics discovered in the whole of Europe in the same year.” 

[Translated from Persian by Fardine Hamidi]