Since time immemorial Egypt was a rural community. The Egyptian village was the backbone of the country’s economy; it was Egypt’s food basket, and peasants were role models of hard work and productivity. In fact, it was only when the ancients settled down on the Nile bank and took up agriculture as their main activity that the legendary Egyptian civilisation took off and blossomed.
How times have changed. Today, according to Dr Gamal Siyam of Cairo University, agriculture represents no more than 14 per cent of Egypt’s GNP, 15 per cent of Egypt’s exports, and 55 per cent of its food sufficiency. Construction has swallowed much of the nation’s agricultural land. Instead of being the proud owners of productive farms, today’s peasants prefer to run supermarkets and coffee shops; they have abandoned their land and the villages are choked with new and haphazard buildings. It is now a heavy burden on the economy.
With the government’s recent announcement of a national project for the development of Egyptian villages with the aim of restoring the Egyptian countryside to its original productive condition, Watani visited several villages to get a real ‘feel’ of the actual on-the-ground situation.
The villages of Arab al-Ababda [population 33,600, according to the 2006 census], al-Rabeyeen, al-Akrasha and al-Gabal al-Asfar lie in the governorate of Qaliubiya north of Cairo governorate and are typical of Egypt’s ‘forgotten’ villages. What first caught our attention were the piles of garbage greeting visitors right at the entrance of villages, and the drainage ditches filled with dead animals as swarms of insects hover around.
Living conditions in Arab al-Ababda are beyond bad, complained a female resident who wished to remain anonymous. Many houses in the village have no roofs; the village has a shortage of services; the water is not potable; and there are frequent power and water cuts.
“There is no outlet to sell cooking gas cylinders, so if you need one you have to go all the way to al-Khanka to buy one and for EGP50 instead of the official EGP5,” she said. “The government provides no means of transport so we have to rely on tuk-tuks to move inside and outside the village. The tuk-tuk drivers exploit the shortage of transport and impose excessively high fares.”
Hussam Abu-Shaher, a land dealer, talked about the canals and drains in the village. The Raml canal, which runs through agricultural land to water the crops, is full of excrement and dead animals; residents throw their garbage on the banks because there is no proper waste disposal method. One of the canals is full of water hyacinths, which prevents irrigation water reaching the fields.
Too few jobs
“There are no dispensaries in our village,” said Mona Sayed, another village resident. “Our children are not vaccinated, and when a woman goes into labour she has to go all the way to al-Khanka hospital by tuk-tuk. This is a very long and tiring journey to travel on this primitive means of transport; one of my neighbours gave birth to her child inside the tuk-tuk. The same thing happens with transporting people injured in accidents or the elderly to hospital. Officials have turned a deaf ear to our plea to build a dispensary in our village.”
The young villager Muhammad Abu-Taleb complained that job opportunities in the village were all-too-few. Work, he said, is restricted to agriculture; every farmer plants his small plot just to provide his family’s needs in crops and vegetables. There are no large agricultural spaces to allow for large-scale production and trade.
“During the lawlessness that followed the Arab Spring in 2011, many farmers illegally fallowed their agricultural land, divided it and sold it as building sites,” he said. “Many of the young people in the village have migrated to the city to look for work.”
As for the schools in the village, one woman, Umm Ahmad, told Watani that there were only two schools, one primary and one preparatory, with congested classrooms of as many as 70 pupils. Secondary school students have no option but to go the secondary school in the town of al-Khanka which is too far away.
Most in need
Minister of Local Development in the outgoing cabinet which resigned earlier this month, Adel Labib, told Watani that the national project for the development of Egyptian villages focused on 1,153 villages which are most in need of development. There are 4,777 villages in Egypt in addition to 28,469 hamlets and 640 settlements; the residents of these represent 57 per cent of the population of Egypt.
“The World Bank report of 2011 indicated that some 25 per cent of Egypt’s population are living below the poverty line, 77 per cent of whom are village dwellers. The poor in Upper Egypt represent 93 per cent of all the poor in Egyptian villages.
“Based on these figures, we have selected 1,153 villages from among the poorest in 10 governorates to benefit from the project. The total population of these villages is estimated at 12.2 million, 5.6 million of whom live below the poverty line,” Dr Labib said.
“The main axes of the project include the improvement of services related to drinking water, sewerage, electricity, healthcare, ambulance and emergency services. It also aims to improve the quality of education, widen social security coverage, provide job opportunities for young people, provide micro credit loans, improve environmental conditions, handle solid waste, and improve the network of roads linking the villages. These development goals are expected to be met by 30 June 2018.”
The project would be implemented in three phases, Dr Labib explained. The first phase includes 151 villages and has been completed except for the sewerage. “The sum of EGP1.6 billion has been allocated for sewerage projects for the 139 villages that are currently being transformed into model villages,” Dr Labib added. “The total funds allocated for the various development projects in these villages amount to EGP4.4 billion, and serves 1.4 million people. Designs are currently being drawn up for sewerage projects in 78 villages which are also on their way to becoming model villages.”
He explained that the project for the development of Egyptian villages was not restricted to Upper Egypt, but focused on the neediest villages all over Egypt. Development plans differ according to the demographics and norms of each village.
“Development is a broad concept,” he said. “In some villages we need to focus on human development and the eradication of slums, whereas in other villages we focus on improving healthcare and education. In the most impoverished villages we work on raising the overall standard of living and the potential for production and investment.”
Adel Amer, head of al-Masreyeen centre for economic and social studies, says Egypt’s countryside is a very important component of its society since it is home to about 55 per cent of the population and is the main source of food and raw material for most industries. It is also the main source of labour force for all sectors of the economy.
Shrinking agricultural land
“The Arab Spring in Egypt hit the economy hard and led to a rise in poverty levels and crime rates,” Dr Amer says. “The Egyptian village was not immune to the change. Lawlessness reached unprecedented levels; farmers who used to leave their cattle and machinery in the fields could no longer do so because of the rising crime. The identity of the village was altered; it became ‘tasteless and colourless’. It lost its characteristic rural features without acquiring any of the benefits of urban society.”
Dr Amer believes legislation must be drafted and measures implemented to ensure the rights of rural dwellers and provide for the development of the Egyptian village to regain its status as a main economic partner rather than a burden on the State.
Granted, the Arab Spring did work to compound the problems of Egypt’s villages, but the roots of the difficulties go back to decades earlier than the Arab Spring. Major among these problems is the shrinkage of the already small area of agricultural land concentrated in the Nile Valley and the Delta. Other than that, Egypt is a desert; the River Nile is the only reliable source of water in Egypt.
According to Ahmed al-Khatib, professor of agricultural policies at the Agricultural Research Centre in Cairo, the area of arable land in Egypt ranges from 8.5 to 9 million feddans, some 2 million of which have been reclaimed from the desert during the last 20 years. Owing to the lawlessness which prevailed in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring in Egypt, some 50,000 feddans of agricultural land were lost to construction sites in the space of three years.
Agriculture: no longer profitable
It is a well-known fact, however, that the shrinkage of agricultural land in Egypt owes to decades-old laws that over time worked to render agriculture an unprofitable activity. Laws which limited land ownership in the 1950s and 60s, allegedly intended to achieve rural and social reform, led to the increasing fragmentation of land ownership. Agriculture is an activity which mainly depends on large-scale economy, and the smaller and smaller plots of land owned by a given farmer meant they no longer yielded the hoped-for profit. The abolition of cooperatives in the late 1970s made the marketing of agricultural produce of small farms a very difficult task, further augmenting the non-profitability of agriculture.”
“Over the years,” Dr Amer says, “the Egyptian village changed almost beyond recognition. Peasants who used to plant corn and wheat and bake bread in the household oven now buy their bread from commercial bakeries. In the past, they used to plant barseem (clover) to feed their farm animals, but now they prefer to plant vegetables.” Small wonder, then, that agricultural activity is declining, villagers are selling their land at huge profit to be used for building purposes, and migrating to the towns.
Make it profitable
Dr Amer says the State must incriminate all violations made to agricultural land and must declare all arable land as protected. “The Egyptian village scene must be re-structured to accommodate the increase in population without infringing on the existing agricultural land. New villages must be built in the desert hinterland of Nile Valley where the old villages lie, to accommodate more villagers and establish new economic activities. If this is achieved, the rural to urban migration pattern will be broken.”
The only way to achieve economic development in the village, according to Dr Amer, is to rely on economic and production factors from within the community. “We must draw maximum profit from agro products by financing micro projects that rely mainly on the raw materials that exist inside the village. These include agro industries related to the processing of fruit and vegetables.This in turn necessitates that the State supports small-scale rural projects.
“There is an attempt to establish a syndicate that would work on developing agriculture and improving the living conditions of peasants. It is sad to know that almost a million feddans have become barren. Also sad is the fact that no less than 904,000 peasants have left their lands and are now jobless because of the government’s decision to cut its cotton subsidy.”
Dr Amer believes there should be a fund to subsidise strategic crops and support farmers so that they feel able to reap the benefits of what they have sown. Another suggestion is to implement a system of contractual cultivation of yellow corn between the cooperative union on the one side, representing the farmers, and the union of poultry producers on the other, in order to support the feed industry.
Water shortage and disease
“One of the major problems facing Egyptian villages is the huge shortage of irrigation water, a fatal threat to many crops,” Dr Amer warns. “Farmers have protested, at times violently, by blocking roads and attacking government administrative offices.”
Egyptian villages are also notorious for high disease rates, especially Hepatitis C, renal failure, cancer and respiratory diseases. One of the main causes is pollution, especially in canals and ditches. These vital waterways have become contaminated with dead animals and poultry, household waste, empty insecticide canisters and other pollutants, Dr Amer says. “They have become a major source of disease. Both the villagers and the State are to blame for this. The very low environmental awareness of the villagers leads them to dump their waste in waterways or incinerate them, causing both water and air pollution. On the other hand, the local authorities offer them no other environment friendly alternative for waste disposal.”
Even though livestock rearing in the countryside is on a considerable scale and can achieve self-sufficiency for Egypt in meat production, according to Dr Amer, occasional outbreaks of livestock epidemics cause the depletion of the cattle population. “We must establish a cattle insurance fund that would enforce compulsory livestock vaccination. The budget of the authorityconcerned is a mere EGP29 million, whereas the compulsory vaccination of all livestock would cost EGP101 million. As a solution, either the Ministry of Finance should pay for the difference or impose an annual fee of EGP70 per head on farms,” he says.
Nader Nour Eddin, professor of land at Cairo University, agrees with Dr Amer that Egypt needs to establish a strategy to restore agriculture as a profit-making activity.
“This can be achieved by providing farmers with high productivity seeds and fertilisers at convenient prices and changing the government policy of selling agricultural produce on the market at low prices,” Dr Nour Eddin says. He calls for the modernisation of agriculture through the introduction of machinery to all agricultural phases from sowing to harvest to overcome the huge shortage in the agricultural labour force and increase in their wages.
Dr Nour Eddin also recommends measures to increase the feddan’s productivity in old agricultural land (6.8 million feddans) which would result in a good yield at no additional cost to the State budget. “The State must opt for vertical expansion, by breeding new seed chains characterised by high productivity and heat tolerance to adapt to climate change. The State must also expand in agro industries to absorb the labour force and help overcome poverty in the countryside, which has reached alarming levels,” he says. “To achieve all this, the funds allocated for agriculture in the State budget must be increased.”
The end result: Agriculture has now become a ‘repulsive’ activity, even for seasoned farmers.
Dr Amer believes that the reason is the generations-old failure of State agricultural policies in making small farmers—the great majority—their focus of interest. Agriculture has become completely unprofitable for small farmers, especially with the increase in the cost of agricultural production without a matching increase in the sale price of agricultural produce. Even if prices are increased, the main beneficiaries from such increases are the wholesalers and brokers because of the lack of agricultural cooperatives which have long been a source of security for the Egyptian farmer.
“Because of the failed agricultural policies, farmers now face imprisonment owing to accumulated debt, or starve their families because of the low income they receive from agricultural products. This makes it easy for a farmer to move to a job that secures a decent income or sell his land and invest the money in an income-generating project.”
The misconception that Egypt’s industrial economies are better than its agricultural economies must change, Dr Amer insists. The Netherlands is a good example of a country relying primarily on agriculture whose economy is stronger than many industrial nations. Interestingly, www.economist.com says that the value of the Netherlands’s agricultural exports is second only to America, a country 200 times the size of the Netherlands.
22 September 2015