From Egypt to Palestine, agroecology as a weapon

COP22 From Rhetoric to Action · Climate change increasingly threatens agricultural systems worldwide. A situation particularly relevant in Egypt and Palestine. The contexts are different, Egypt has faced food riots which played a part in launching the 2011 revolution, and Palestine, smothered by the Israeli occupation, faces many difficulties in attempting to provide for its population. Yet in both cases, agroecology can serve as a solution.

Wheat harvest in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip.
Joe Catron, 2014.

“We want bread, freedom and justice.” For months, Egyptians chanted this slogan on Tahrir Square in Cairo and beyond. Minya, capital of Middle-Egypt, is located 240 kilometres south of the city, in the centre of the country on the West Bank of the Nile. In the past, the region numbered 452,000 acres of agricultural land used to represent about 6.5 % of cultivated land in Egypt: cotton, wheat, corn, potatoes, and sugar cane were the main crops. Today, agricultural lands have disappeared. Minya has transformed into a concrete, modern, fashionable city. Many impoverished farmers have changed professions, as their incomes were no longer sufficient to provide for their family.

Moussa L.1 is 56. The farmer has worked in the agricultural sector since childhood with his father. He is currently renting 8 093 square metres of land to grow vegetables. "I hope I will have access to fertiliser to increase production”, he confides. He has joined a small organisation of farmers in his village, to improve the quality of his produce. “I buy supplies with colleagues to save money, and we sell our production together to reach the highest price. This makes us stronger together, to resist high prices and the weakening Egyptian pound,” says the farmer.

The small farmers of Minya

During the 2011 revolution, the Integrated Development Association of Minya (IDAM), one of the most experienced non-profit organisations working in the field of organic farming in Minya and partner of CCFD-Terre solidaire, worked on a study of small farmers in Minya and Assiut with the University of Minya. Research confirmed unfavourable economic conditions, such as reduced tracts of land as well as a discouraging market and a lack of government support for small farmers.

The organisation launched a project aiming to allow small farmers to organise outside of the traditional union with links to the government. IDAM aims to work on alternative agricultural practices such as agroecology, which is under-developed in Egypt. Nady Khalil, director of the association, and Emad Mounir, project manager told us about their project covering four villages in collaboration with small-scale farmers working on two acres or less.

Agroecology consists of respecting the soil’s replenishment cycles and practising farming without chemicals, in order to produce quality food without contributing to climate change or damaging agricultural land. This way of farming is economic: it uses half the water compared to regular agriculture on average, through drip irrigation, renews the soil’s nutrients, and minimises the use of non-renewable energy by decreasing the need for agrochemicals. Its productivity can reach double to four times the rate of normal agriculture: an interesting practice in a country that depends on agriculture as much as Egypt.

The area currently dedicated to farming is estimated at 8.5 million acres, representing about 3.5 % of the total area of the country. This does not meet the needs of Africa’s most populated country (with a population of about 88 million people). Egypt imports 60 % of its grain, and 75 to 90 % of its food commodities, according to the ministry of supply. Yet, vast areas of arable land are available in the north and west coast region could lead to self-sufficiency, but a lack of funding and infrastructure are major obstacles. The State forwent its supervisory role and unleashed to the market to new traders: nothing protects farmers from global price fluctuations and no funds are provided to support potential losses. Even worse: in 2015, the minister for agriculture Salah Helal resigned after being accused of receiving bribes from businessmen to hand out public land. The scandal prompted a stock-market plunge, and led to a complete government reshuffle. The ensuing public debate unfortunately hasn’t changed the situation.

A difficult undertaking

Other factors explain the crisis of the sector. The severe structural adjustments required by World Bank policies in Egypt raised support for industrial agriculture at the expense of small agricultural societies considered outdated, as well as certain crops, which have since disappeared, such as cotton and beans—too uncompetitive on the global market. Thus, impoverished farmers are looking for solutions to maintain their production.

These are the issues that IDAM works on. “We worked with the Agriculture faculty of Minya to spread awareness on the potentials of agroecology, to provide training on diseases affecting crops, and to change the way farmers perceive our work”, says Emad Monir. Many small farmers who collaborate with IDAM show little enthusiasm for the project in the beginning, concerned about the economic returns of this new method and the possibility to market organic food where incomes are barely sufficient for daily requirements.

Indeed, material possibilities are limited to farmers, and the high cost of the transition to organic farming—which requires registration and approval of farms and corporate expenses—is a major factor in the stagnation of production. Higher production costs in general are also a factor, for supplies are not produced locally and must be imported, in particular vital materials such as seeds, seedlings and natural pest control. The absence of local markets in neighbouring countries and the lack of a clear global vision are also major hindrances to the development of production.

Monir emphasised throughout his speech that he understands concerns, and that it is necessary to be patient. “These farmers have managed to maintain themselves throughout the turbulent political events since 2011, but it has been a source of anxiety. The distance between them and the capital and the political conflict between the regime and the Brotherhood brought them out of the circle of attention. The only politicians who expressed any interest during that period were after votes for the parliamentary elections, without providing any support or bringing their voice back to the capital.”

While agroecology is not yet well implemented in Egypt, it is already an established reality in Palestine.

In Palestine, Agriculture under the yoke of occupation

Adel (“justice” in Arabic), also a partner of the CCFD-Terre solidaire, attempts to implement agro-ecological practices in Palestine. Organic farming began to spread in the country at the beginning of the 1990s. “We in Palestine desperately needed this way of farming for several reasons: Israel’s occupation and looting of large tracts of land and large amounts of water, and the low-cost and high-quality of this food”, says Jihad Abdo, coordinator at Adel.

In Palestine, agricultural land represents nearly a fourth of the area in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. According to 2012 figures, total cultivated areas in the Palestinian territories reached 1,034,900 acres, of which 929,400 acres in the West Bank, and 105.5 thousand acres in the Gaza Strip. 36.7 % of the land was dedicated to fruit and olive trees, 12.5 % to vegetables and 12.7 % to field crops, according to the Palestinian ministry of agriculture.

Agricultural products represent 25 % of Palestinian exports, and include olives, olive oil, vegetables, fruits, and flowers.

In the region, agriculture depends on irrigation. Groundwater and springs are the main source of water in the West Bank, however 82 % of groundwater in the West Bank has been confiscated by Israel according to a World Bank report in 20092. Hence groundwater wells constitute the main source of water, pumping about 253.3 million cubic metres of water a year and accounting for 72.5 % of the amount of water available. Water purchased from the Israeli water company Mekorot is the second main source representing 16.2 % of consumption.

Adel’s objective is to develop a national market to resist the occupation, strengthen Palestinian presence, and ensure food security as Israel’s colonising practices become increasingly brutal. The organisation promotes environmental agriculture in Ramallah and the occupied territories of the West Bank, and supports the poor through various development programmes in rural areas. The organisation supports farmers and cooperatives, and sells products in a shop located in Ramallah. It also provides training to prepare the land as well as fertiliser required for crops, and “works to reach a fair price for the consumer which also allows the farmer to pursue his work” says Jihad Abdo.

Prevented from accessing their land

Low agricultural yields, and continued Israeli policies to undermine this sector, increasingly challenge Palestinian agriculture, as investment and focus have shifted to other economic sectors such as industry, trade and services—both the cause and consequence of agriculture’s weak contribution to the gross domestic product. Today, many farmers have turned to work in Israel. In response, Adel’s programs offer the opportunity to integrate the Palestinian market. According to Abdo, "it provides income for people, produces competitive Palestinian goods. This is an important opportunity to ensure a safer future for us and for our children, and it can help fight youth unemployment due to the conditions of occupation.”

He denounces the checkpoints, soldiers and settlers that regularly prevent farmers from accessing their land. Crops are often ruined or stolen. The structures and barriers set up by occupation forces hinder our work. “Tax policies imposed by the Palestinian Authority are also a hindrance. These policies do not grant exemptions for Palestinian farmers, and raise water and electricity prices, while preventing farmers from drilling wells on their land. All of this raises prices, which prevent farmers from competing with Israeli products that dominate the market. When we provide enough food even the boycott of Israeli products will become easier. The farmer is the spearhead of the Palestinian project in the face of the occupation,” concludes Jihad Abdo.

Egypt and Palestine’s contexts are different, but the importance of agriculture is often underestimated as the region’s political events dominate headline news. Yet both areas are intertwined, and both are crucial for stability and emancipation.

1His name is not published to protect his identity.

2The most recent figures.