Desert Development Center—مركز تنمية الصحراء


Today took us on a field trip to AUC’s Desert Development Center (DDC) in Liberation Province. Liberation Province is part of the “New Lands” of Egypt, desert areas that have been reclaimed for agriculture (although they haven’t technically been REclaimed because the area has been hyper-arid desert for eons, it is simply being claimed). It comprises a westward expansion of cultivated land from the Delta.

The farm itself is located about 150km from Cairo. It was something of a long drive, but I have to say that it went by fairly quickly for a number of reasons. For one, Adrienne and I were accompanied by my good friend Gilles, who is visiting from Barcelona (Rick Tutwiler was kind enough to let him tag along), so that helped while away the time.

ddc_22 For another, while much of the route to the DDC farm along the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road is empty desert, there are plenty of things to look (or gawk) at along the way. For one, there is the Dandy Mega Mall. The driver moved to pull over in case anyone needed anything, perhaps motivated by this strange perception on the part of many Egyptians that Americans love malls as much as they do, as if we hadn’t left America in part to escape that sort of thing. Anyway, having just been given a rather uncomfortable tour of City Stars Mall (we like to call it Shitty Stars) by Adrienne’s Arabic tutor the previous day, we were even less inclined to stop. Further down the road was the much-ballyhooed Smart Village, a high-tech complex built in neo-Pharaonic style, housing companies like Oracle and Microsoft, as well as Egypt Post and numerous call centers. The road was also flanked with tightly-spaced and enormous billboards, with the greater portion of them taken up by Pepsi and various real-estate developers. Pepsi had also apparently sponsored the toll plaza, as it was plastered with rows of Pepsi ads at eye level upon approaching.

Lastly, the time on the bus was also well-spent because Doctor Rick gave us a bit of a lecture on desert development en route, pointing out different crops: date palms, olive trees, grapes, bananas, oranges, as well as the different types of trees planted as wind-breaks. He also enumerated the various challenges to developing agriculture in the desert, pointing out the major differences between conditions in the Nile valley and the desert: much less water, greater temperature extremes, very low humidity, high winds and sterile soil. What I found most interesting was the explanation of who was farming these lands.

The first group is the “graduates”. They are recent graduates of state schools who are entitled to 5 feddans (a feddan is slightly larger than an acre) of land, and they are subsidized with irrigation equipment. Land allotments, if I remember correctly, are assigned by lottery. Men may be married, but women must be unmarried, in part so that their spouses do not take over the effective control of the land and partly to encourage marriages in this new manufactured community.

Second are the “beneficiaries,” a rather crass euphemism indeed. There are two classes of beneficiaries (Rick tells me there are two words in Arabic, both translated as beneficiary, but I forgot what they were). First are the fellahin (peasant farmers) who were booted off of their land when rent control and guaranteed land tenure were abolished. Second are people who were rendered redundant upon the privatization of state enterprises, including state farms. The latter are apparently sometimes referred to as “socialists”. Beneficiaries are also entitled to land, although I’ve forgotten how much and how it is allocated.

The next group of farmers are the private investors. This can include people who have saved up enough money to buy up desert land for cultivation, but it also includes larger agri-business firms (or wealthy individuals) who are attempting to take advantage of the possibility of large-scale mechanized agriculture, often for export (Rick put a particular focus on table grapes, nearly all of which go through one European distributor).

Another group that Rick didn’t mention but that I’ve subsequently read about elsewhere is squatters. These would be people who are living on and/or cultivating the land without any legal title. I would love to learn more about this group at some point.

Upon arriving at the DDC, Rick continued with the lecture, mostly focusing on the meaning of sustainability and the mission of the DDC. Most of that material can be found in the “Background” section of their website here. There was also a reporter for American Public Media’s “Marketplace” program in attendance.

ddc_03 Rick gave us a tour of a number of different parts of the facility, including the organic agriculture test plot, organized by a French researcher named David. He was conducting experiments in using a yeast and molasses mixture as a fertilizer. There was a group from Heinz International that was also there, inspecting the organic tomatoes. I can only guess that they were unimpressed as the tomatoes were not doing very well because of the unusually cold weather this winter. There were also rows of eggplant, onion, fava bean, carrot and probably some other things I’ve forgotten.

ddc_08 On another part of the farm, some workers demonstrated for us two different processes by which trees are grafted, with hardy rootstocks on the bottom and commercially productive varieties above. Just down the way, a new greenhouse was being constructed to more exacting international standards to protect against pests and viruses. Across the road, a farmer was picking up a load of Australian Pine trees with their roots inoculated with a bacterium which fixes nitrogen in order to provide nutrients to nearby crops. ddc_12 Further down were large grazing lands, ringed by Australian Pine trees for wind-breaks and irrigated by a long, rolling sprinkler system. There were also cows and sheep grazing in the field, a Swedish variety mixed with the hardier balady cattle. It looked more like Indiana than the Sahara Desert. There was also a series of orange groves, planted a year apart with a variety developed by the DDC. The three-year-old orchard was already yielding fruit. We stopped briefly at an old, unused house that had been developed, along with some 20 surrounding feddans as an experiment in sustainable and self-sufficient desert living. The next and final stop was a pumping station that took water from the adjacent feeder canal to supply water to the entire complex.

After this, we were treated to some lunch. Adrienne and I are not strict vegetarians, but we don’t always like to eat meat, either, which is very confusing to Egyptians. If we say we are vegetarians, they will fuss if we take something with a bit of chicken broth in it. If we say we eat meat, they will insist that we heap slabs of overcooked beef onto our plates. There was a bit of this going on here, but the food was good once we were comfortably in our seats.

ddc_15 After lunch, several of us went to take a stroll in the forest. Yes, that’s right, a stroll in the forest, in the desert. It was planted as a demonstration forest for wind-break trees. The experience was made even more surreal by the fact that there was a bit of a drizzle (it was full-on raining in Cairo when we returned). I still haven’t quite figured out what I think of all this desert development stuff. We’re told that the DDC was established in response to failures of previous attempts to reclaim the desert for agriculture. There was a general sentiment that there must be a better way, and the mission of the DDC was to find out what that was. Standing in an irrigated forest, I couldn’t help but think the same thing: there must be a better way. Rick said at the beginning of his talk in the lecture hall that desert development is not sustainable. By necessity, it requires massive inputs of water and nutrients to grow anything in the desert, even if it is grown organically, not to mention the people themselves, who are not generally inclined to leave their families and communities in the “old lands” and often find themselves feeling lonely and isolated out in the desert. Rushdi Said, the author of the text for this Nile class we’re taking, has suggested that the solution is not to continue attempting to bring the Nile to the desert, but to more effectively use the old lands. He believes massive urban and industrial centers should be located out of the floodplain, which should be reserved exclusively for agriculture. A fine idea, but with the overwhelming majority of a huge and growing population already living in congested conditions in the old lands, this is an untenable policy to try to implement (as much as it seems the government may be attempting to, if the relocation of so much state infrastructure out of Cairo into New Cairo can be taken as any indication).

One way or another, no equitable or sustainable solution can come out of technical fixes or high-minded policy positions. The melding of the two in that peculiarly Egyptian notion—the “mega-project”—is generally even worse, from the perspective of both equitability and sustainability. Unfortunately, so long as there is such a totalitarian form of rule in Egypt, there really are no other options. Digg Diigo Facebook Google Google Reader Newsgator StumbleUpon Technorati

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