Conservation NGOs have been closed or so suffocated that they’re as good as dissolved. Activists and experts have been threatened into silence—or worse. A community that had until recently mostly escaped the fate of much of the region’s civil society has suddenly fallen afoul of the authorities. Its plight mirrors the difficulties faced by environmentalists worldwide. Globally, 197 environmental defenders were killed in 2017, according to the UN Environment Programme, a fivefold increase from a decade ago.
There’s little mystery to why this is happening. Debilitating droughts, worsening pollution, and soaring temperatures have contributed to severe resource scarcity in the Middle East and North Africa in recent years. And as environment-related unrest has proliferated, with protests in at least a dozen regional countries, people who were previously viewed as largely harmless “tree huggers” have been reappraised as spy-gear-wielding, frontier-traipsing, data-sharing threats. In a sad repetition of the security-state playbook, they, too, must now be co-opted or crushed.
“The intelligence system now feels that environment is a space that they need to be afraid of, because it can unite a lot of opposition voices, a lot of anger,” Kaveh Madani, a senior fellow at Yale University and a visiting professor at Imperial College London, told me. Madani served as deputy head of Iran’s Department of Environment until he was arrested and then fled the country last spring. “Over the years, they’ve seen the problems increase and felt that things were getting out of control.” [Continue reading…]