Empowering Iran’s desert villagers

Training in vocational skills opens up a world of livelihood options

Fatemeh Pirouz and Abolghasem Beheshti have embraced a new career to offer their daughter a brighter future. ©FAO/Amir Khaleghiyan


It is not long since Abolghasem, a 36-year old resident of Se-Qale Town in the eastern province of South Khorasan, used to mine black stones for the cobbled streets that adorn cities. He still works with stones ­­– but of the multi-coloured kind that adorn people.

“I’d be paid less than IRR 500 000 (less than USD 5) a day to work in a rubble trench mine, out there in the desert [in a precarious job scheme]. Now, after all the training and support, I could easily make more than IRR 1 700 000 (USD 17) a day. And that’s working from my own home.”

Abolghasem was initially encouraged by his wife, Fatemeh, to take the course on lapidary (or gemstone) work, held by FAO’s Rehabilitation of Forest Landscapes and Degraded Land Project (RFLDL). “I was the first to enrol, around three years ago,” Fatemeh says. “Lapidary seemed an appealing career, with promising prospects, and I told my husband so.”

Between the course and the loan from the Village Fund Committee, also supported by the project, the spouses acquired all the skills and purchased all the equipment needed to start their gemstone business. 

Working together as a family to make a decent living. ©FAO/Amir Khaleghiyan

RFLDL is jointly funded by the Global Environment Facility, a green financial organization, and the Government of Iran. The project, which benefits from FAO’s technical support, has been driving community participation and community-based initiatives since 2011. Its offer of training courses has been tailored to help communities generate sustainable livelihoods.

Before coming into contact with the project, Fatemeh, Abolghasem – like many of their neighbours – could hardly see beyond making ends meet. Once their business was up and running, it took them less than two years to repay all their debts – more than USD 5 000. They are now looking to expand their shop, located in the basement of their newly-built home and even hire new hands.

“Participatory institutions, such as the Sustainable Community Development Fund and the Village Resources Management and Development Committee, have given residents the ability to propose new business plans, assess these plans on economic criteria and consider the improvement of their living environment,” says the local project facilitator, Fatemeh Beheshti (no relation to Abolghasem).

A small-scale exhibition by Fatemeh and Abolghasem, displaying the different stages from raw ore to gemstone. ©FAO/Amir Khaleghiyan

Through the Fund and the Committee, residents can jointly mobilise resources, prioritise issues of common concern and manage how they put collective plans into practice.

The plans could involve land conservation, supplementing cash-poor infrastructure projects with voluntary work, funding new small-scale businesses or providing emergency financial assistance to sick people. All decisions and allocations have been by consensus and with mutual accountability.

 “The villagers may, for example, propose that community land be planted with seedlings to control desertification and reduce soil erosion,” offers Mohsen Yousefi, the project manager in South Khorasan.

“Nowadays,” adds Fatemeh Beheshti, “members of the community often no longer request our support or intervention. They are trained enough to pursue their own agenda and cope with difficulties. It’s when it comes to bigger funding, especially for development projects and large business plans, or when they need some sort of coordination with government authorities, that they still seek our assistance and advice.”

“This trend shows the project has met its goals – though we have some way to go to make it fully sustainable,” Yousefi concludes.

FAO is helping countries develop and implement policies and programmes that promote sustainable livelihoods and income diversification (Sustainable Development Goal 1), decent employment (Sustainable Development Goal 8) and empowerment of women (Sustainable Development Goal 5) in rural areas. 

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1. No poverty, 5. Gender equality, 8. Decent work and economic growth