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.”

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No-Fly Zone Administered Over Glacier Crash Site

In 1952, a military plane crashed into Mount Gannett, 50 miles east of Anchorage, killing all 52 service members on board. The plane was located in 2012 at Colony Glacier, but it has taken years to retrieve the remains as rescuers can only travel to the crash site in June, when conditions are safest on the glacier. Over this time, the receding glacier has made the crash site more visible, but it has also enticed sightseers on helicopters, who risk disturbing the remains or removing artifacts. As a result, a no-fly zone has been administered this month by the Federal Aviation Administration to stop people from disturbing the crash site.

To date, 35 human remains have been repatriated, but it may take several more years to retrieve the remaining 17. The plane went down in the Chugach Mountain range, one of the snowiest locations in Alaska. During the winter of 1952-1953, in the Chugach’s Thompson Pass, a record 81 feet of snow was recorded. Colony Glacier remains dangerous due to deep crevasses, variable weather and sharp pieces of ice.

Erin Pettit, an associate professor of glaciology at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, told GlacierHub about similar plane crashes that have been buried beneath glaciers. “There are a handful around the world – at least one in Greenland and one in Antarctica. Sometimes they weren’t ‘lost’ in the sense that no one knew what happened, but they just couldn’t extract the plane,” she said. “The plane was absorbed by the glacier and won’t re-emerge for hundreds or even thousands of years, depending on where it landed and how big the glacier is.”

When a plane crashes into a glacier, it is covered by snowfall and over time freezes into the glacier. When the glacier moves downslope, the plane moves along with it, until it is later revealed at the front of the glacier. Warmer temperatures speed this process up.

Flowpath of Colony Glacier (Source: Bob McNabb).

Bob McNabb, a glaciologist at the University of Alaska, calculated the speed and trajectory of the flowpath of the Colony Glacier and made a map for GlacierHub. Using a back-of-the-envelope calculation, McNabb said the plane traveled 23 kilometers along the flowpath, which means it would have traveled one meter per year. Using this analysis, which involved the use of satellites, McNabb calculated that the average surface velocity would have been about 1.5 meters per year.

Michael Loso, a physical scientist at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, told GlacierHub that Colony Glacier has a velocity of about 3 feet per day, saying, “That’s fast but not unreasonably fast for a big Alaskan glacier.”

Alaska has a higher rate of plane crashes than the rest of the United States for reasons like frequent inclement weather, jagged terrain, which can be obscured by clouds, and the fact that flying is the only way to get to certain remote places. The cause of the 1952 crash has never been determined.

Loso added that such crashes at glaciers are not that uncommon, saying, “Many glaciers are in mountains, and planes run into mountains every once in awhile.”