Egypt's Sinai, and the organic revolution

Egypt's Sinai, and the organic revolution
Egypt's Sinai used to be a tourist haven. But instability has scared tourists away and hit the livelihoods of many locals. Alice Gray looks at one project attempting to change that - and safeguard the area's future.
5 min read
24 February, 2015
The fruits of success on display at Maged's stall in Dahab market [Alice Gray]

Nuweiba was once a popular tourist destination. Tucked between the red mountains of Egypt's Sinai and the azure waters of the Red Sea, its beach camps and hotels were packed with foreigners. Today, it is all but empty.

A decade of instability in Sinai has frightened the tourists away. First, bombs in Sharm el-Sheikh, Nuweiba and Taba. Then the Egyptian revolution, and then attacks on tourists and police by militant groups in its aftermath.

While the Egyptian government have taken measures to protect the lucrative tourist industry in Sharm by creating a militarised "safe zone" around it, resorts such as Dahab and Nuweiba have been left out in the cold. 

The effects on the local economy have been devastating, and especially so for the local Bedouin, who were marginalised by Cairo in favour of big business during the boom years, and now face a future without the passing tourist trade, service jobs and supporting industries.

Wilayah Sinai: a growing threat in Egypt's Sinai

To make matters worse, climate change threatens to make traditional herding and planting more difficult in the already arid Sinai. What groundwater exists is rapidly turning saline. The future does not look bright for the locals.

Maged al-Said decided to address these problems by setting up Habiba community, a project launched in 2007 to pioneer organic farming in Sinai's difficult environment, and to share the techniques with locals.

It now employs one farm manager and several workers on a seasonal basis, and runs volunteer programmes. It was a departure for the Egyptian entrepreneur, who first founded a beach lodge in Nuweiba 20 years ago.

"It was time to give something back to the community," he tells al-Araby al-Jadeed. "I have made my life here with my family for 20 years and it has been a good life. Now we need to go forward together." 

At Habiba's organic farm, Maged and his team experiment with crops such as Moringa oleifera, a drought-resistant tree with leaves containing more vitamin C than oranges and more iron than spinach. It also provides forage for animals, firewood and can even aid the water purification process.

Maged uses the farm to teach others in the area, bringing in experts from the agriculture ministry and its associated Desert Research Centre, which promotes agriculture in the harsh environments of Egypt.

"We need to think about sustainability - not just today but in the future," Maged says. "We need to understand more about the water situation and find crops that we can grow here - even with salty water if we have to."

Maged and local farmers inspect their new crops.

Habiba also gives free seeds and advice to Bedouin farmers, and helps with marketing produce. Every week, a truck laden with vegetables, fruit and eggs from local producers leaves Habiba for Dahab's market, and stops at several farms along the way to pick up more goods.

"We don't always sell so much, but it's a good chance to see the farmers, and to network. And from what we do sell, everybody takes their share," says Maged.

Habiba also offers "tree shares" for those who do not produce themselves, where individuals invest in trees under the community's "date parlm foundation", and are guaranteed 80 percent of the profits from and crops produced.

Growth through learning

But Habiba community is not just about farming. It also run a learning centre for local children and a women's handicraft business, set up by Lorena al-Said, Maged's wife who has extensive teaching experience.

Habiba Learning Centre is open for five days a week and runs free classes in art, music, English and Arabic for local children aged five to 12.

"It's not just about knowledge of language or art," says Lorena. "I want to teach the children to be proud - to be ambitious. 

"When I asked them 'what do you want to be when you grow up?' they used to tell me a guide, a cook, or a farmer.  I asked them 'why don't you think to help your community – to be lawyers and doctors and teachers?'  Better service to the community always comes from within." 

As a marginalised group, Sinai's Bedouin struggle with poor access to education and health services, and have been the losers in many legal struggles over land and resources.

"I want to equip them for life. Things are changing.  Everyone has a computer now – they should learn to use them too.  And perhaps it's a dream, but in the end I hope the learning centre will be something they run themselves.

"They are special children – so full of energy and intelligence.  There is no reason why they can't achieve these things if they believe they can."

Habiba's learning centre started in a spare room in the farm's building, but has since been expanded. 

Foundations for a better future

When al-Araby visited Habiba in January, a crew of young Italian environmental engineers called Econtact were in the middle of working on improvements. 

One of the group, Paulo Rosazza, had volunteered at Habiba farm for a month in the summer of 2014, and, inspired by the commitment and vision of the Saids, he returned to Italy and enlisted the others in the group to start fundraising and honing their skills so that they could return and build a new learning centre out of natural materials. 

The new Habiba learning centre is built from straw bales, plaster and salvaged windows and doors, showcasing techniques for building on a budget with materials easily obtainable in Sinai. 

"We were a little bit afraid to come in the beginning because of the impression you get from television," says Marta Domini, an environmental engineer. 

"We didn't get the number of participants that we hoped for the workshop because people were afraid. But now we have seen how kind the people are here, I would recommend anyone to come."