Planting Change in Egypt from the Ground Up

From the ashes of the revolution, a new movement is rising in Egypt, patiently creating the change that so many demanded in 2011 from the ground up.

Food sovereignty and sustainability are their rallying calls and their aspiration is to create a future of abundance for all.

“We were naive to think that toppling the regime would bring the change we need,” says Ali Sami, an engineer from Alexandria who was active during the revolution. Since those heady days, he has gone part-time on his job and purchased land to start farming.

“Change will not come from up to down. Better to start at a personal level, reaching out to the community and then the state and of course, the world.”

Sami is part of a growing movement in Egypt that seeks to create social justice through returning to the land and conscious connection to food production, supporting small farmers.

Change will not come from up to down. Better to start at a personal level, reaching out to community and then the state and of course, the world
Ali Sami, an engineer and farmer from Alexandria

He recently attended a Permaculture Design Certificate course at Habiba Organic Farm, an initiative to pioneer and promote sustainable desert farming in Nuweiba, South Sinai.

“As well as the issues that took us onto the streets in 2011, pollution, peak oil and climate change are all problems that are happening in front of me, but how to start [to address them] at a personal level? I hope permaculture can show me a way.”

A newly established farm in Nuweiba, South Sinai [Alice Gray]
A newly established farm in Nuweiba, South Sinai
[Alice Gray]

Permaculture is the brainchild of Australian ecologists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, formulated in the 1970s as an alternative to industrial society and the environmentally destructive practices of industrial agriculture.

“The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale in our own gardens,” wrote Bill Mollison in Permaculture One, published in 1974.

“If only 10 percent of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.”

Decades of cultural erosion

The truth is that for the past several decades, Egypt has been undergoing a transformation from a nation of farmers to a nation of city-dwellers, with an enormous urban migration taking place from the countryside mainly to the mega-cities of Cairo and Alexandria.

Formerly known as “the breadbasket of North Africa” today Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat, according to the FAO.

Due to its peculiar geography, where the Nile dominates the desert landscape, bringing life to the parched region in a narrow strip along its banks that fans out into the Delta, it also has one of the smallest endowments of cropland per person in the world, at just 400 square metres.

A high population growth rate has put great pressure on these slender resources, but in addition, government policy throughout the Mubarak era promoted the industrialisation of agriculture and the disenfranchisement of the small farmer, encouraged by the World Bank and USAID.

Formerly known as ‘the bread-basket of North Africa’ today Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat

Law 96, passed in 1992, reformed land tenancy policies put in place by Nasser under his Agrarian Reform programme which was designed to redistribute land to the peasant classes, allowing rents to rise as much as ten-fold and in some cases revoking tenancy altogether.

This “liberalisation of the market” was supposed to lead to overall increases in productivity in the agricultural sector through allowing land owners to consolidate their holdings and, therefore, boost efficiency.

However, in reality, the implementation of the law in 1998 led to the displacement of more than one million farming families – some estimates say as high as four million – and the deaths of 119 people in associated rioting and clashes with the military, according to the Land Centre for Human Rights.

It also led to the inflammation of relations between the largely Muslim fellahin and the minority Coptic land-owning class in some areas.

Promised increases in agricultural productivity have proved elusive, and where they have materialised have been oriented to the production of cash crops for the export market, making no impact on the lives of ordinary Egyptians.

According to the World Food Programme, 25.2 percent of Egyptians live below the poverty line, a further 23.7 percent are “near poor” and the average Egyptian spends 40.6 percent of their income on food, making them extremely vulnerable to price fluctuations in the food market.

Some 79 percent of the Egyptian population hold ration cards for government-subsidised food, with poor households drawing 32.5 percent of their calories from it.

79 percent of the Egyptian population hold ration cards to access government subsidised food, with poor households drawing 32.5 percent of their calories from it

In 2008, soaring global wheat prices provoked a crisis in Egypt, pushing more people into dependency on subsidised bread which led to shortages and rioting.

At least 11 people died in bread queues from exhaustion, starvation or brawling and police clashed with rioting crowds.

These fractures have reverberated down the years to resurface in the turbulence that has gripped Egypt since January 2011.

Many analysts point to the spike in global food prices in 2010, when the Russian wheat crop failed due to widespread fires, as an important precursor to the revolution: stoking public fury as the basic necessities for living became unobtainable to millions.

A window of opportunity and a double-edged sword

“The revolution made people start farming in Sinai for two main reasons,” says Sheikh Aisheesh Tarabin, a Bedouin community leader in Nuweiba, South Sinai, where there has recently been an upswing in farming activity.

“First of all, it made us afraid that we wouldn’t have food. The petrol stations were empty, the shops started to be empty too and there was no money from tourism. I was already farming then, but a lot of people suddenly saw the sense in it and now they started too,” Tarabin said.

“The other reason was opportunity. For a while there was not much government control and so it was easy to dig wells and build infrastructure when before it was difficult,” he added.

Would-be farmers were not the only ones to take advantage of the deregulated environment created by the revolution.

Urban expansion onto agricultural lands around the Nile river also boomed at the same time.

Urban expansion onto agricultural lands around the Nile river also boomed at the same time.

“In spite of the existence of serious building infringements on agricultural lands before the January 25 Revolution, the situation [was] unprecedentedly magnified following the revolution,” according to Ahmed Sayyed al-Naggar, a leading Egyptian economist.

“After the revolution, infringements became widespread; there was a massive wave of construction on agricultural land in violation of the law, in light of the state of lax security, one that has altered the features of the countryside throughout Egypt, replacing crops and orchards with urban jungles.”

The installation of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s current government has been punctuated by a wave of demolitions of unauthorised buildings and infrastructure, but some gains remain.

The long road ahead

“Food issues were central to the revolution – whether people realise it or not. Their effect is both direct and indirect,” says Sara al-Sayed, co-founder of Nawaya which means “seed” or “intention” in Arabic.

Nawaya is an initiative inspired by the revolution to “collaborate with partners as diverse as the challenges faced by rural Egypt”, according to their website.

“We are proponents of sustainable agriculture as the core driver for productive communities that flourish from the bottom-up,” the text continues.

“A lot of good has come through the revolution, making people feel that they can have ownership over the process of change,” Sayed told The New Arab in a phone interview.

“The main thing I would say is that we raised a lot of issues and topics that people were not talking about before. Now the conversation has started, but in practical terms, we are still searching for solutions.”

A major part of this solution comes from synergy, according to Sayed.

“We bring worlds together,” she said. “We bring farmers to the city and city-folk to meet the farmers. There is such cultural difference in Egypt, it is very interesting and very uncomfortable at the same time. But we promote the link and ‘create edge’ – the edge is where the greatest diversity and the most productive exchanges can occur. We need to find a way to co-exist.”

Sayed believes that the government needs to acknowledge the importance of small farmers and to facilitate small businesses getting off the ground.

The government needs to change their policy to acknowledge the importance of small farmers and to facilitate small businesses getting off the ground.

“The Ministry of Agriculture is the second biggest Ministry in the Egyptian government, after the army, and it represents a lot of vested interests and a lot of jobs. The only help they offer small farmers is through distributing seeds and chemicals from biotech companies, it’s big business.”

“Really, I think they just want small farmers to disappear. ‘We want you to stop farming – companies should do that’ is the message. The philosophy is that they should just stop existing.”

This policy ignores the high productivity of the Egyptian fellahin, which compares favourably to global rates of production, as well as the social impact of disenfranchising people from the land.

According to Sayed, 40 percent of Egyptians are employed in the informal sector while government regulations are designed to formalise and regulate business, often to the point of being obstructive to new initiatives.

“Egypt is the number one in start-ups in the world. The set-up is extremely easy but after that, things are very hard to maintain, because it is almost impossible to have the right paperwork to meet the regulations. Things are very haphazard. There is a lot of creativity with the youth but when they come up against the old guard it is like a smack in the face.”

Nawaya is trying to get a license for small-scale, value-added processing in order to market products more successfully at a co-operative scale, but the team is running into difficulties because the law is not designed for small enterprises.

But Sayed remains hopeful that things can change, in part due to the creative chaos that characterises the Egyptian nation.

“Running Egypt is very complicated because it is hard to pin down what is happening and what to do about it. Control and the lack of it exist at the same moment. But if we don’t put a bar on where we want to go it is going to be a mess,” she cautions.

But the onus to bring change does not lie only with the authorities.

“There are a lot of intrinsic problems in the country that will not be solved by people in power. In the end, they come from us. I do worry that people are going to burn out because the revolution took so much energy. People who thought change could happen in three years were dreaming but I worry that those people have given up already,” she says.

“You have to take a long view. In its 7,000 years of history, Egypt has seen some very bad lows. Egyptologists tell us that there have been points where famines were so bad that people turned to cannibalism – I hope we don’t get that low this time because I have the feeling that we are still going down and we are not alone in that – these are global issues. But the country always comes up again.

“The ship is sinking and so it seems counterintuitive to a lot of people to talk about building a new ship. But somehow everyone we deal with becomes positive about the potential to create change. We are building slowly, and it’s a very long road.”

Alice Gray is an ecologist, permaculture consultant and writer. Read more of her reports for The New Arab here. Follow her on Twitter: @alicemarygray1

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