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65 Chapter 3 GRASSROOTS STEWARDSHIP IN IRAN The Rise and Significance of Nature Cleaners Karim-Aly Kassam, Zahra Golshani, and Marianne E. Krasny This chapter outlines the civic ecology practices of Nature Cleaners, an urban grassroots civil society organization that emerged from a community-based initiative in Iran. Kazem Nadjariun founded Nature Cleaners in June 2012, having returned from Lake Chooret in northern Iran. He had witnessed a startling decline of a beautiful habitat that had become enveloped in trash and suffered from neglect and indifference on the part of visitors and other users alike. Disturbed by what he saw, Mr. Nadjariun and his family decided to clean up the area around the lake. Upon his return to Tehran, he posted pictures of the cleanup on Facebook. The post went viral and became the impetus for the creation of the civil society organization called Nature Cleaners. In a span of just one week, two thousand members joined the Nature Cleaners Facebook group. Within two weeks, the first cleaning event took place in Tehran, Iran’s capital city. In a matter of three months, Mr. Nadjariun helped establish thirty-one Nature Cleaners chapters covering all Iran’s provinces. By January 2017, Iran’s Nature Cleaners Facebook group had more than 18,500 members (Nature Cleaners 2017a), while the Tehran Facebook group had 12,200 members (Nature Cleaners 2017b), including members from outside Iran. Over a span of three and a half years, Nature Cleaners held 183 events in Tehran involving five hundred volunteers, and a total of 1,645 events throughout the country. In telling the story of Nature Cleaners, we integrate Zahra’s fieldwork in Iran with Karim-Aly’s insights gained through studies conducted with indigenous communities in the Canadian, Russian, and U.S. Arctic and boreal forest 66 CULTURE BUILDING (Kassam 2009) and among ethnically diverse societies in the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan, China, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan (Kassam 2010, 2013, 2015). Shi’ism, Suni’ism, and the poetical and mystical threads of Sufism represent the pluralistic Islamic heritage, and Zoroastrianism and Buddhism have influenced the cultural fabric of these Central Asian communities. Persian culture has extended beyond Iran and also been prominently integrated into the religious as well as the social fabric of these regions. How cultural values can be expressed through a social structure within the context of environmental stewardship is the focus of Karim-Aly’s work. In the case presented in this chapter, cultural values reflect the history, politics, and religious traditions of Iran, and the social structure that enables their expression is the grassroots organization called Nature Cleaners. Before delving into our own work, we first describe the Iranian context of how cultural norms and government policies shape civil society and voluntarism. Iranian Context Increasingly in Europe and North America, the Middle East conjures up illinformed images of “the other”—of Islam, oil, and violence. However, this region shares much with the rest of the world, including processes of urbanization leading to the fracturing of social bonds and of a self-centeredness within the fabric of society (Dien 2003, 113). Historically Iran, like much of the historic Silk Road lands in Asia, has boasted a vibrant and vital urban culture; in fact, prominent Persian cities predate many northern European and North American cities (Hodgson 1974; Lapidus 1984, 2002). Therefore, it would be anachronistic to view Persian urban culture only through the lens of colonial industrial development. Nonetheless, with the rise of European colonization, Iran’s urbanization has occurred in the context of a unique turbulent political history and, since 1979, under the influence of revolutionary Twelver Shi’ism. In this chapter, we briefly explore how Iran’s recent political history and historic cultural values might explain the rampant littering that Nadjariun and his family encountered at Lake Chooret. Then we turn to a study of Nature Cleaners and address the question : How do Iran’s dynamic cultural values engender a civil society response to this environmental desecration? Personalism and Farhang-sazi (Culture Building) We begin by examining issues of culture and norms of social responsibility using Banakar and Saeidzadeh’s (2015) sociological explanation for Iran’s CHAPTER 3 67 high automobile accident rate (twenty times the global average). Noting the absence of teamwork and defiance of government-imposed rules in Iran, these authors propose that having endured centuries of foreign invaders and political instability, Iranians have developed a unique form of individualism. Iranian “personalism” is manifested in collectivist tendencies, loyalty, and trust related to...


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