Indigenous Activist Among Those Killed In Iran’s Takedown of Civilian Airliner

For centuries the Qashqai people of Iran have been stewards of the pastures and forests of their mountain homelands. Last week, researcher and PhD student Ghanimat Azhdari, a global steward of Qashqai culture as well as mountains, perished when Iranian security forces mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian International Airlines jetliner, killing all 176 people on board. The accident occurred during the most recent period of military provocation between Iran and the United States.

The Qashqai are an Indigenous group of nomadic pastoralists in southwestern and central Iran that tend to herds of goats and sheep. Born the daughter of a local Qashqai leader, Ghanimat Azhdari was a PhD student at Canada’s Guelph University, where she worked on using satellite imagery to map Indigenous cultural sites. She hoped this would foster bottom-up conservation efforts centered on Indigenous knowledge and support. She was 36 years old.

Ghanimat Azhdari, in a dress sewn by her mother, at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity summit in Egypt in November, 2018. She was killed on January 8, 2020 when Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 was shot down over Iran. (Credit: ICCA Consortium)

“She was always smiling, often buoyant, and with quite a contagious enthusiasm,” Marc Foggin, a Canadian conservation biologist, told GlacierHub. Foggin works with local communities in Kyrgyzstan and was a friend and colleague of Azhdari’s.

“Sometimes she might have felt the weight of the magnitude of some of the challenges faced,” he said, “yet her optimism always seemed to prevail. She regularly brought hope and joy to the room.”

The Qashqai people that Azhdari was a part of are of Turkic origin and––with numbers around 900,000––represent one of the largest surviving groups of nomadic people left in the world. The number of them that remain wholly nomadic, however, is readily shrinking. Many have become totally or partially sedentary as available pastureland becomes developed or degraded, and as their youth move to cities in search of a more modern way of life. Those that do still live traditionally—mostly in southwestern Iran—tend their flocks of goats and sheep at low altitudes by the Persian Gulf during winter, and high altitudes amongst the sparse glaciers of the Zagros Mountains during summer, nearly 300 miles away.

The health of the land, and the ability to travel upon it unimpeded, is thus central to the Qashqai’s very existence. This is what fueled Azhdari’s work to conserve landscapes and preserve Indigenous cultures all over the world. To her, the two were synonymous.

One of her biggest efforts was satellite mapping Indigenous areas around Iran. Much of this work she did through an organization known as the ICCA Consortium, which promotes bottom-up conservation and stewardship of Indigenous lands. The term “ICCA” is an abbreviation for “territories and areas conserved by Indigenous peoples and local communities” or “territories of life.”  

She was a central figure of the organization and her work was well known in the region. “Ghanimat was actively engaged in all aspects of documenting and protecting ‘territories of life,’” said Foggin. “Her name preceded her.”  

Ghanimat Azhdari was a member of the Qashqai nomadic people of southwestern and central Iran. She spent her life researching and promoting Indigenous-driven conservation efforts. (Credit: ICCA Consortium)

Azhdari appeared on behalf of the ICCA Consortium at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity summit in Egypt in 2018. Speaking to hundreds of delegates wearing a traditional dress sewn by her mother, she implored them to listen to, and engage, Indigenous people in conservation efforts. No one else has a bigger stake in biologically diverse lands than they do, she argued—eighty percent of global biodiversity is found on Indigenous territories.   

In Canada, where Azhdari began working on her PhD last September, she was collaborating with the Miawpukek First Nation to map Indigenous cultural sites in the boreal forests of Newfoundland.

In Kyrgyzstan, where Foggin is based, she participated in a workshop on the anticipated social and environmental impacts of China’s Belt and Road Initiative through mountain regions of Central Asia. The controversial trillion dollar project is, according to the Chinese government, a plan to build transportation infrastructure in countries around the world—particularly Southeast and Central Asia—in order to “enhance regional connectivity.” Some see it as a move to streamline the flow of goods in and out of China.

“Ghanimat was a loving person,” Foggin told GlacierHub. “She cared so much for people—for her people, the Qashqai tribe, and also for many others in similar circumstances,” he said.

An outpouring of grief across the internet and social media followed the news of her passing. The ICCA Consortium posted a tribute on its website lamenting the “utter disbelief” and heartbreak at the sudden loss of “one of its most cherished flowers.”

Born a member of the Qashqai tribe in southwestern Iran, Ghanimat Azhdari (far right) was well known and respected for her work representing Indigenous peoples and lands throughout Central Asia and the world. (Credit: ICCA Consortium)

“A thriving young Indigenous scholar’s life and work has been extinguished,” Dr. Karim-Aly Saleh Kassam, professor of environmental and Indigenous studies at Cornell University, told GlacierHub in an email. “The loss will be felt by all of us—even those who did not get to know her—because we will no longer have access to the insights of this PhD student from Guelph University,” he said.

Foggin recalled the last time he saw Azhdari in person, at the ICCA regional assembly in Yerevan, Armenia this past summer, right before she went off to Canada for her PhD. Their team of about twenty people were there from countries spanning Jordan and Lebanon, through Armenia, Georgia and Iran.

Azhdari was “very much a central figure,” he said, “holding us together; bringing her good cheer and extraordinary knowledge and experience; as well as her positive and always pleasant demeanor.” 

“We miss her so much,” he said. “We will always miss her.”

Read More on GlacierHub:

Roundup: Iceland Tourism Unconcerned by Warming, The World’s Water Towers, Alpinism Recognized by UNESCO

‘Most Ice on Earth is Very Close to Melting Conditions’

Video of the Week: Smoke and Ash Choke Tasman Glacier in New Zealand


Video of the Week: Preserving Sheepherding and Tradition Among Nepal’s Tamang Community

The Tamang community are an indigenous group in Nepal that have depended on cattle rearing for the last three centuries. Located in the northernmost part of central Nepal, herding is a livelihood that has long held a significant role in the culture of this rural, indigenous Himalayan community. Shepherding among the Tamang, however, has dwindled over the last few decades as younger generations are becoming less likely to take up the tradition passed down from older generations.

Manchhiring Tamang’s documentary “A Day in the Life of a Himalayan Shepherd” beautifully captures the vast Himalayan landscape and sheepherding practices of the Tamang valley. The film recently debuted at the 12th annual Colony Short Film Festival in Marietta, Ohio, where it was runner up in the Best Documentary category.

Source: Colony Film Festival/Facebook

The short film follows 45-year-old Khariman Tamang, a shepherd following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. Despite the harsh climate and  physical challenges of caring for his sheep, he takes great pride in the rich cultural tradition within the Tamang community.

Khariman lives in Sertung, a stunning yet isolated region located in the upper Dhading district in central Nepal. He provides for his wife, two sons, and daughter through sheep herding.

Shepherds in the region must leave their families for six months of the year to move their herds to colder climates. Tamang herders roam the valley with their flocks in constant search of ideal weather conditions that produces abundant grasses for feeding. Shepherds sometimes visit their families between seasons and during special holidays and festivals.

Sheep provide the people of Tamang with food, dairy products for medicinal and cosmetic products, and wool for clothing and other necessities. Wool plays an essential role in Tamang culture. It is often used for making traditional clothing, beds, blankets, carpets, and rugs. Family members and neighbors borrow and exchange woolen products, bolstering livelihoods and enriching connections among the Tamang community.

Some herds can consist of up to 200 sheep. (Source: Manchhiring Tamang)

GlacierHub met with Manchhiring Tamang, who was born and raised in the Tamang village depicted in the film.  He has worked as a research journalist with a focus on the indigenous groups of Nepal and tourism. His father and grandfather were also sheep herders in the valley.

Manchhiring, who now lives with his family in New York City, aims to show people the beauty of the culture and traditions of the Tamang community in Nepal. This film gives viewers a glimpse into the lifestyle of this age-old tradition which has seen a major shift in recent years. He spoke to us about how the sheep herding practice has changed over time with new generations.

“This profession amongst this modest community is on the verge of extinction, and the older generations are forced to think whether this will be the last generation involved in this job sector,” said Manchhiring.

(Left to right) GlacierHub Editor Ben Orlove, Director Manchhiring Tamang, GlacierHub Author Nabilah Islam, Manchhiring’s friend Tuilal Chhun.

Kathryn March, an anthropologist at Cornell University familiar with the Tamang people of Nepal, told GlacierHub that as climate patterns shift and seasonal precipitation becomes more erratic, traditional knowledge becomes increasingly unreliable. The timing of funerals, weddings, and other cultural rituals is thrown into uncertainty by climate change.

March added that working-age men in particular are increasingly moving out to  Gulf countries and Southeast Asia. “The previous household economic strategies of trying to have multiple sources of income, from agriculture and herding and trade or seasonal employment, have been radically transformed into widespread dependence on remittances from outside wage labor, ” she said.

Manchhiring hopes to preserve the traditional practices of the Tamang people through “A Day in the Life of a Himalayan Shepherd.” He said: “I want people to know the hardness and struggle of country people like my uncle who are struggling to keep up their ages old tradition, struggle of dilemma as to whether to abandon their tradition or to keep it.”