Cultural and Ecological Perspectives from the Turan Program, Iran

By: Brian I. Spooner and Lee Horne

Originally Published in 1980

View PDF


The Historical Significance of Deserts

A zone of arid and semi-arid country stretches from the Atlantic through north­ern Africa and the Middle East into Central Asia and India. Besides the Sahara and the Arabian and Iranian deserts it includes vast areas which although not totally barren are subject to low and unreliable rainfall. They include parts of the Fertile Crescent where economies based on the domestication of grains and animals first developed in the Middle East, and they have contained the sites of significant human activity since the earliest times. But as a result their appear­ance and composition have changed, and they have recently become the subject of serious controversy on a global scale: ecologists see a long-term trend towards the final desertification of these lands, but although they can formulate technical management programs to stem or reverse the trend, the local populations cannot always be persuaded to implement them.

The modern era of industrial technology and agricultural development has come to most of these areas only in the last two decades. It involves a new perception of natural resources and tends to cause dis­trust of traditional agricultural and pas­toral practices. Local populations are accused of causing long-term environmen­tal degradation especially by reducing vegetation cover and allowing wind and water erosion and sand accumulation, and by salinization through inefficient irriga­tion. Since populations are now in most of these areas demonstrably larger than over before, it is assumed often that these trends towards degradation threaten imminent ecological disaster. and that traditional technologies must be changed by interven­tion, in order both to save the local popu­ lations from the consequences of their own actions and to conserve the natural resources for the world community in perpetuity.

An alternative point of view emphasizes that despite their vulnerability the popu­lations of these areas have survived from antiquity, showing little or no technologi­cal change for several millennia up to the development efforts of recent decades. Their survival suggests that they may be “co-adapted” with their natural environ­ment: that their traditional pastoral and agricultural strategies and the present conditions of the natural environment together form a system which has devel­oped by mutual interaction as a response to irregular cycles of relative humidity and drought. Despite what now appear accord­ing to modern standards to he unsatisfac­tory living conditions and unpleasant short-term fluctuations, many groups and sites have remained significantly stable, and are documented for well over a thousand years. Interference in this type of system could cause more harm than good.

From 19611 to 1973 a major drought afflicted the drylands of Asia and Africa. In the Sahel region of Africa, where the ensuing famine and human misery have been reported in most detail, this drought appeared at first to mark an historical change in the ecology of traditional sys­tems of food production. Although the severity of the drought was no greater than might statistically be expected to recur more than once in a century, this time the local populations appeared to have lost the adaptive capability to survive it without radical long-term effects that would change for good the culture and the political and economic structures of the area. Advisers from international and bilateral agencies impugned the traditional technologies. Whether or not these tradi­tional systems of food production had worked in past conditions or sparser pop­ulations, the people appeared now to have lost the flexibility of organization which would have allowed them to cope with drought, and to he locked into a course which could only lead to disaster both for themselves and for the resources on which they are dependent.

As the facts became clearer it appeared that although population growth was undoubtedly a factor, the effects of the development programs of the previous decade had been a major contributor. Briefly. development programs had offered new technology which had been developed in the West for use in different situations. For example, they provided new water sources which increased grazing opportuni­ties. The local people had accepted the new technologies, but had not changed their herd management strategies. As a result, the herds increased in size beyond the point where they could survive on the grazing available in years of low rainfall. When the drought came, the vegetation suffered long-term damage from excessive pressure of grazing and many herds perished from starvation while they still had access to plenty of water. To change traditional herding strategies it would be necessary to reorganize the societies in which they are embedded, but this social dimension of technological change has generally been lacking in development planning.

As a result of what came to be known as the Sahelian tragedy, a new and broader interest in drylands and their problems began to appear. The development decades had tended to isolate the drylands since they gave lower returns and attracted less investment than more fertile areas. How­ever, it was now gradually realized that altogether arid and semi-arid land com­prises a full third of the land surface of the world and contains as much as twelve percent of the world’s population, and that although their productivity per hectare is low. because of their vast extent their total productivity is of great significance for the future of world food production.

But their populations have become iso­lated and impoverished, and their produc­tion has not been integrated into national economic systems. Attempts to impose Western systems of pastoral production on them have not worked because they have not adopted Western social and economic objectives.

In order to realize the potential of these traditional production systems for the world community, it may be better there­fore to appreciate their adaptive value in view of their historical success (whatever may appear in the present], to accept that traditional systems are inseparable from the societies that developed them, and to seek to understand how they worked, in order not to replace them but to build on them.

Such a change in orientation towards the study of traditional or pre-industrial food production systems involves rethinking our own established ways of studying them. Both academic and non-academic research agencies are organized according to a clearcut division of labor between dis­ciplines and even though recent years have seen a trend towards increasing conscious­ness of the need to break down the barriers between disciplines and define all problems in human terms rather than in terms of resources, the barriers between the natural and the social sciences remain formidable. As one way of generating a sociocentric orientation in this type of human ecology the project reported on in the following articles focused not on par­ticular production systems, such as pastoralism, but on the ecology of settle­ment.

The Turan Program

During the five and a half years that have elapsed since the United Nations General Assembly called for an international cam­paign to combat desertification, several comprehensive interdisciplinary ecological research programs have been initiated, with the aim of establishing baselines of information on the interaction of human activities and natural processes in a range of different sites that are vulnerable to desertification.

The Turan Program in northeastern Iran is one of these. It was initiated by the Department of the Environment in Tehran and from the outset was closely associated with the United Nations Environment Pro­gram and other international agencies involved in the global effort to combat desertification. It covered what is now the Turan Biosphere Reserve in northeastern Iran, including neighboring populations—the districts of Khar and Tauran—that have traditionally used the area, and ad­joining land forms that have direct rele­vance to the Reserve.

The Reserve presents a variety of habi­tats, including three extensive plains at different altitudes, varying from 700 to 1400 meters, a saline river system, three mountain systems rising to a maximum of 2200 meters, large areas of broken country, some 200,000 hectares of sand including moving dunes, and a vast expanse of bar­ren playa (known in Iran as kavir). The 200 mm. isohyet passes through the north­ern part of the area, and the southern plain probably receives less than 100 mm. average rainfall per year. A light snow covering appears on the higher mountains for two to four months in most years and snow lies on the higher northern plains for short periods. Only the central salt river flows at least intermittently throughout the year. Rainfall of several millimeters at a time generates sheet run off and wadi (arroyo) flooding. Springs occur along the base of the mountains. Soils are generally light and sandy except for solonchak in the kavir. Vegetation varies according to land form, and secondarily, according to human activity patterns. Woody shrubs pre­dominate with ephemerals and annuals growing largely in their protection. Perennial cover over most of the plains varies between 5 and 40 percent, Flora and mammalian fauna generally show great affinity to the Kara Kum in Soviet Turkmenistan to the north, and include onager, gazelle, ibex, cheetah, and leopard.

The predominant economic activity in Turan is pastoralism of various types. sedentary and transhumant. Some 150,000 sheep and goats winter in the area from November to May, of which 25,000 belong to the local settled populations who remain in the area through the summer. Local populations also keep camels, donkeys and a few cattle. Agriculture is also important around most villages and is conducted by means of irrigation, from qanats, springs, diversion of run-off and to a limited extent by direct rainfall.

The total human population using the area presently is in the region of 3000. The following articles deal with selected aspects of the relationship between this population and the ecology of Turan. Lee Horne explains the distribution of different types of settlement and discusses the nature of the built environment. Mary Martin narrates the stories of two families from one community and discusses the choices they have to make between differ­ent agricultural and pastoral opportunities. Endre Nyerges focuses on the behavior of the pastoralists’ animals and the effects of pastoralism on the vegetation, with the purpose of evaluating how the various economic activities of a settled community affect the surrounding territory. Lastly, Christopher L. Hamlin presents methods for monitoring the ecology of these processes over time and discusses the problems of distinguishing between short and long term, reversible and irreversible processes of change.

Desert and Town

This introduction would be incomplete if it did not leave the reader with a clear impression of interdependence between areas and populations like those of Turan and the larger geographical, economic and cultural world. Areas such as Turan, how­ever small, scattered and isolated their populations, have histories that are inexplicable except in relation to the his­tories of adjacent more fertile and more densely populated areas. The crises that they have survived in the past have been as much and as often a consequence of political and economic changes in the world outside as of local drought.

The most conspicuous link between Turan and the rest of the country at present is provided by Sangsari trans­humant pastoralists who come down from their summer grazing in the Alborz moun­tains north of Tehran to find milder winter grazing in the arid rangeland along the edge of the kavir, Unlike the better known nomadic pastoralists in the Zagros moun­tains in western Iran, the Sangsari keep their families and homes in the mountains and simply send their flocks down with shepherds. They also hire shepherds among the local population, trade in local animals, and generally act as a conduit of information and goods connecting Turan with the markets and administrative cen­ters of Tehran and provincial cities. Since the major product of their pastoralism is meat for urban markets, their activities bring both the population and the resources of Turan into direct contact with the national economy. The price of meat in Tehran is reflected in the wages of a shepherd in Turan. Even more significantly, the Sangsari production strategies and therefore their impact on the economy and the ecology of Turan are similarly a func­tion of the urban economy. The people of Turan are not in a position to control their own resources independently of the outside world.

Less conspicuously, but no less impor­tantly, city and desert have always been interrelated by the economies of fuel requirements. The most important natural resource in Turan is the vegetation, and it is the value of the vegetation as grazing that ultimately serves as the major eco­nomic base for settlement. But the vegeta­tion is also used as fuel. The pressure of cutting for fuel has probably been even greater, historically and presently, than overgrazing. One aspect of this problem is dealt with in the article by Nyerges.

There is abundant evidence throughout Turan that at some unremembered and undetermined historical period simple small-scale copper smelting, using shallow locally mined ores, consumed vast amounts of ligneous vegetation. The transformation of desert shrubs and trees into charcoal for urban use was a staple cottage indus­try that was finally only a decade ago prohibited in order to conserve the vegetation. One of the major economic activities—processing milk into oil, cheese and other products—both in the villages and out on the range depends entirely on fuel cut from the surrounding vegetation. Even though kerosene is now available there are as yet no appliances that would make its use practicable for large-scale traditional milk processing. Before the revolution it had begun to be used gen­erally for home lighting, heating, cook­ing and samovars and the new village bath house, but brush was still used for baking bread and cooking communal meals on holy days. The revolution disrupted the supply of kerosene and relaxed controls on wood cutting, but the process of increas­ing dependence on kerosene will probably soon resume.

Apart from transhumance and fuel, areas like Turan appear always to have been dependent on neighboring cities for investment in agriculture and irrigation. The apparent isolation of desert settle­ments in the modern period probably began with the motorization of communications in these areas after the Second World War. It may end as national economic and com­munications systems gradually comprehend everything within their borders. In the meantime, the research reported in these pages was designed with the assumption that both the populations and the resources of dryIands like Turan are of increasing economic and cultural importance to the larger national and regional community into which they are being drawn.

Cite This Article

Spooner, Brian I. and Horne, Lee. "Cultural and Ecological Perspectives from the Turan Program, Iran." Expedition Magazine 22, no. 4 (August, 1980): -. Accessed July 25, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to