4.1. Who Are the Key Stakeholders Involved in Tackling Land Degradation and Climate Change and How are Relevant Information Flows and Communication Channels Established?
Stakeholder analysis was based on the assessment of the current roles of each major institution as part of efforts to address land degradation and climate change. Currently, there are several public institutions that coordinate and manage efforts to tackle climate change and land degradation in Iran. These organizations are summarized in Table 4
After reviewing the references, the most cited stakeholder for environmental interventions was the government (Figure 2
). Indeed, numerous services and organizations of the government of Iran are involved and lead the current policies to tackle land degradation and climate change. The Ministry of Jehad-e-Agriculture (MojA); the Forest, Rangeland, and Watershed Management Organization (FRWO), the Agricultural Research Education and Extension Organization (AREEO), and the Ministry of Energy (MoE) were frequently quoted in the references, mainly in the scientific papers and official reports. In addition, the government seems to be the main investigator and investor of these plans and policies in Iran. This investment of the government in environmental challenges was begun in the 1970s by developing national policies and making interventions which evolved into calibrated plans at the provincial scale by the end of the 20th century [49
• International stakeholders
Since the 1970s, the country has constantly joined international environmental treaties and programs and mainstreamed environmental concerns and plans in its five-year National Developmental Plans. A direct link has been found between the international treaties and major political decisions regarding environmental issues in Iran [59
]. The occurrence of international organization quotations in the references was lower than the government quotations. However, one should not underestimate the role of these stakeholders in Iran. Several international organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) [43
], United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and Tehran Processes Secretariat for Low Forest Cover Countries are involved as part of numerous international projects carried out in Iran. These projects have mainly been quoted by scientific papers and reports which have international appeal (Figure 2
• Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)
revealed a dominance of large public and governmental organizations involved in land management and climate change. Since 2000, however, NGOs and the private sector have been more actively involved. The NGOs, such as Cenesta, Earth Watchers Center, Green Front of Iran or Iranian Society of Environmentalists (IRSEN), among the largest organizations in Iran, despite their presence on local scales, are less quoted as a meaningful stakeholder than the government and international organizations (Figure 2
). Each group seems to have its own role with little evidence of duplication of activities in the documents analyzed. However, the lack of a coordinating body to spearhead and integrate these multiple roles in managing land degradation and climate change is potentially problematic as opportunities for a win-win strategy could be missed.
4.2. What Sort of Interventions Have Been Employed to Tackle Land Degradation and Climate Change from the 1950s to Date?
Since the 1950s, national efforts have been made to reclaim degraded lands. These efforts have demanded great financial and human capital but have resulted in modest achievements. Iran was reported to be one of the top 10 countries in forest plantation development in the world in 2001, as 1% of the country’s area has been planted using drought-tolerant and native species [48
Efforts to reduce the impacts of land degradation in arid and semi-arid areas have helped local communities to cope with changing local climatic situations [61
]. These efforts have been implemented in various forms: while some have focused on natural parameters (e.g., water resources management) others have focused on human aspects (e.g., capacity-building of local people). Infrastructure has been preserved through the implementation of projects such as the establishment of forest plantations or windbreaks by the Ministry of Jehad-Agriculture. The fields of actions are quoted in the following sections, organized according the main interventions quoted by literature from Table 3
Much of the land area in Iran’s 17 desertified provinces is covered by shifting sand dunes. It is estimated that over 1.5 million hectares of shifting sand dunes still exist [39
]. Most of these dunes have resulted from the degradation of topsoil in agricultural lands and rangelands. However, recurring droughts, high temperatures, and increasing evapotranspiration, possibly linked to climate change, challenge the establishment of vegetation on these sand dunes. These shifting dunes impact on the normal daily activities of local people, either by affecting farmlands or causing ophthalmic or respiratory diseases. Since the 1950s, the FRWO has employed diverse measures to stabilize these sand dunes and prevent their encroachment into residential areas or infrastructure. Seedling plantations, seeding, and similar measures have been employed by the FRWO with the participation of local communities and NGOs [33
]. The dominant plant species is Haloxylon,
a native shrub that is resistant to drought and windy climates, but does not have any edible uses for humans. This species can store 61.5 ton/ha carbon across a 0–30 cm soil depth in an arid environment [46
]. Once established, these seedlings need additional support such as watering, manuring, pruning, and protection from grazing animals. Established plants will become self-sustained, independent, and be able to survive through harsh weather after 3–4 years depending on climatic conditions and vigorous seedlings. Nearly two million hectares of such sparse forest plantations have been established since the 1950s. Additionally, a national survey indicates that 9000 km of roads and railroads, 9800 km of rivers and water canals, 600,000 ha of arable lands, and so many others (airport, school, hospitals) have been preserved as a result of anti-desertification plans in Iran since the 1950s [42
]. As a matter of fact, a recent study assessed the contribution of these anti-desertification plans in Iran’s GDP and found that these plans indirectly contribute to 3.75% of GDP [61
The multi-scale spread of stakeholders involved with addressing land degradation and climate change and a lack of overall coordination in the Iranian context means it is imperative that information is well managed and knowledge is exchanged between the different groups. A National Soil Map was realized in 1964 to classify soil according to environmental factors. Divided into six classes, this document maps the agricultural potential of soil regarding the level of salinity and erosion limitations [42
]. More recently, an increase in scientific publications, patent registration, and engineering initiatives has been documented [50
], especially over the past two decades. Similarly, a recent surge in the number of science and technology institutions has been instrumental in generating knowledge and databases, especially relating to land degradation and land management. For instance, in cooperation with universities, a national map was prepared for the identification of critical foci to wind erosion in 2004. It has acted as a key source for FRWO authorities to implement anti-desertification activities. However, not all scientific findings have been directly utilized in such a manner, and similar initiatives/maps relating to the climate change arena did not emerge in our analysis. This suggests that while Iran has been tackling land degradation and desertification since the 1950s, the information bank on climate change within the country is less well developed and is in need of improvement.
• Water management
Water is managed by MoE and MoJA in Iran and has always been a key factor in shaping civilization during history; in particular, it is a pivotal and decisive element of development in dryland countries such as Iran. Contemporary Iran faces a water-shortage crisis [38
], thus the country has devised on-the-ground measures to control surface water through the construction of large-scale dams, check dams, turkey nests, small pits, small-scale dams, earth dams, micro-dams, open water harvesting, and other water-diverting structures. Flood mitigation techniques have also been implemented to enrich the groundwater. Through these projects, more run-off water is being harvested and utilized for planting, seeding, or sawing plants. In particular, these run-off control measures are effectively controlling water sources in sloping hills or plains where establishing plants and retaining water are difficult. In addition, much of the water (over 90%) is absorbed by the agriculture sector through irrigation practices [56
] and the country has invested in pressurized irrigation systems (e.g., drip irrigation) to distribute water in farms more efficiently. Nonetheless, farmers interviewed in Khorasan, Fars and Sistan-Baloochestan stated that they still use a furrow irrigation system, which greatly hampers irrigation efficiency on account of water evaporation (Table 2
• Agricultural strategies
Current models predict significant economic damage to agriculture in developing countries as a result of climate change and, thus, adaptation is regarded as vital [62
]. Even wild endemic plant species are predicted to be endangered by rising temperatures as a result of climate change [51
]. Climate models based on weather data from 1968 to 2000 at 36 weather stations, suggest a severe reduction in the number of agro-environment zones in Iran from 10 in 2006 to 8 and 7 in 2025 and 2050, respectively [51
]. Elsewhere, Abbaspour et al. [54
] ran hydrological models for 506 sub-basins across Iran and found that climate change will significantly impact irrigated wheat production in dry zones. Thus, breeding strategies to introduce drought-tolerant crops are required. An established public agricultural research center from the MoJA (Seed and Plant Improvement Institute) has worked on generating new genetic lines of crop plants that are resistant to drought (or need less water for growth), resistant to pests, diseases and environmental stresses (such as salinity) as well as crops that produce more grains per hectare (high-yield crops) or can grow within a shorter period. Each province has its own agricultural research branch that works on strategic crop varieties having more endogenic eco-physiological capability. The main aim is to explore new breeding lines that can adapt to changing local climate, pests and diseases while producing more grain per hectares. In the meantime, there are several field and laboratory experiments for breeding new lines of crops that can cope with the possible detrimental impact of climate change in Iran (e.g., the cultivation of early maturing cultivars of maize) [57
]. Nonetheless, most of these drought-resistant crops did not enter into regular production in Iran and remain experimental crops. Given the predicted climate change impacts on agriculture in Iran, these new breeding lines can ensure improved crop yields while sustaining native crop varieties that are resistant to droughts and which make appropriate use of soil conditions.
• Biodiversity conservation
On account of significant biodiversity, the country’s conservation was strengthened by the Law for Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora in 1975, and the Law for Protection of the Natural Parks, Protected Areas, and Sensitive Areas ratified by the Parliament in 1975 [60
]. A wide range of indigenous plant species are utilized in anti-desertification plans. A greater number of shrub and annual plant species have been introduced and cultivated in degraded lands in arid and semi-arid areas when compared to the early days when anti-desertification projects started in Iran in the 1950s [25
]. In 2005, a total of 37 cultivated plant species were identified in anti-desertification projects as compared to 25 species in 2000 and a handful in the past [44
]. This flora diversification, in comparison with monoculture systems, has reduced pest and disease plagues and improved biodiversity and adaptability to climate change. Such plant variation can also ensure the establishment of vegetation on sand dunes and reclaimed lands, especially during times when one plant variety is infested by certain plagues.
• Forest management
It is vital that tree-planting efforts are not undermined by emissions from the energy sector. Over the last century, the consumption of fuel wood in Iran has reduced as a result of oil and gas substitution [33
]. However, oil and gas have led to increased emissions overall [34
]. At the same time, the removal of energy subsidies at a national level since 2010 has provided a firm ground for exploring and investing in renewable energy sources and the MoE is in charge of research. Land management measures in Iran are fortified and supported by national laws, market incentives, and public participation, particularly in local communities. Regarding laws and regulations on the conservation of the environment, the country has a relatively good standing in Asia. As an example, Iran launched its first attempts to assess and conserve forest resources a century ago [58
]. The early legislation attempt was made to form a Game Council in the 1950s to focus on wildlife protection at a national level [35
• Involvement of local communities
Current laws and regulations mandate any national development plans to be first endorsed by environmental authorities. More national authorities (e.g., members of parliament) are involved in planning, managing, and legislating environmental disasters (both natural and man-made disasters). Overall, the Iranian national laws/plans relevant to tackling land degradation issues are outlined in Table 5
The involvement of local communities in natural resource management (including land reclamation) and climate change adaptation plans has been gradually institutionalized in the country over the last decade. This approach has helped to assure the sustainability of the projects and lowers the costs of the establishment and maintenance of projects [39
]. Some successful projects carried out by the FRWO are acting as demonstration or pilots to draw local public attention. A well-known project is the ‘Carbon Sequestration Project’ funded by Iran, Global Environment Facility (GEF), and UNDP. It was started in a south eastern province in 2003 and the first phase was completed in 2009. Since then, the project has gained further funding and continued for a second term (2009–2015). It is now being practiced in several provinces. The core concept of this project is to involve vulnerable rural community members in coping with the impacts of climate change through schemes such as the expansion of forest plantations, alternative livelihoods, promotion of renewable energy sources (e.g., solar panels), and capacity-building initiatives (training workshops) [58
]. Given that the area had been affected by land degradation in the past, the project has improved carbon stocks in the soil and prevented further soil erosion. The project has specifically targeted marginal rural women and the youth. These groups were illiterate, poor, non-skilled, and heavily reliant upon the natural resource base, engaging largely in agriculture and pastoralism.
4.3. Identification of the Main Obstacles to Anti-Desertificaton and Climate Change Interventions in Iran
The previous sections have addressed research questions 1 and 2. In this section, we discuss research question 3 and evaluate whether efforts to date in Iran met significant obstacles. It appears that the efficiency of these interventions and actions are undermined by four different factors. Figure 3
illustrates the distribution of obstacles quoted in the references.
• The lack of coordination
One of the most cited obstacles that interferes with the efficiency of the interventions is the lack of coordination (Figure 3
). In the references, several organizations that were independently addressing efforts related to climate change and land degradation issues in Iran have been mentioned. However, the goals of these institutions are not well aligned across sectors and scales. At the moment, there is no platform to specifically coordinate these initiatives and no attempts have been made to establish any such national body to gather, update, distribute, and reorganize information at the national level. The higher the adaptive capacities of people to cope with the climate-driven phenomena, the better the chances of societies to become resilient as reflected in community adaptation outcomes [63
]. Climate change adaptation and sustainable land management measures need information to be shared with all sectors and stakeholders, but this does not seem be happening sufficiently at present [17
• Inefficient communication
Moreover, the establishment of effective communications is still a challenge due to the vast areas of provinces, the illiteracy of some local communities, inappropriate funding, and a lack of skilled trainers [25
]. Lack of an enduring link between the FRWO and other organizations makes it very hard to coordinate land degradation projects alone, without also seeking to harness the benefits for tackling climate change. At the same time, inefficient communication between research institutes and universities with executive organizations (such as FRWO) makes it difficult to establish targeted and systematic research. The challenges we faced in finding data and information for analysis revealed a collection of mostly scattered pilot projects without feedback, cross-linkages, and lessons being learned from one project to another. While datasets and information on relevant issues have been generated in Iran over recent decades, most of the data have not been fed into capacity building nor informed project implementation. For instance, in Iran the management of grazing in national parks could be improved by providing consistent data, however a database on the “extent of the problems” of over-grazing does not exist [17
] (p. 16).
• Conflicts of interest
Conflicts of interest between local communities and decision-makers were mentioned in our analysis. The conflicts are rooted in the exploitation of natural resources, whether or not they are protected. For instance, in the protected areas, Iran experiences disputes around the exploitation of wildlife, flora, or water by the locals [17
]. Locals have always exploited wood for their own consumption while this conflicts with the essence of the laws of conservation, especially in the Central Zagros Mountains. Hence, divergent interests hamper the effective management of resources. Similar cases were reported regarding grazing in sensitive areas [55
]. Shepherds are supposed to have a permit for grazing. However, the lack of control sometimes leads to numerous illegal overgrazing incidents in some protected areas such as in the Juniper Forest of Chenaran city in Khorasan Razavi province [17
• Lack of participation and involvement
Some studies have reported the lack of public participation in developing local policies and interventions. Some anti-desertification projects have stressed failures on account of the weak participation of local communities [17
]. In addition, farmers and local stakeholders are sometimes reluctant to participate in projects or collective organization that could hamper their access to local resources [49
]. For instance, a farmer interviewed in the plain of Marvdasht (Table 2
) (2018) stated: “I don’t want to be in the local agricultural cooperative. I prefer to be on my own and not to depend on others”. Nevertheless, the participation of local communities is known as a key feature in the success of environmental and agricultural policies, as shown through the successful protection of rivers and wetlands in Iran and beneficial incomes for communities such as jobs [49