August 26, 2019

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  • Revolutionary agriculture: permaculture design gains ground in Egypt

    The revolutionary farming methods of permaculture design emphasize sustainability, community and respect for the environment. (Photo by Leyla Doss)

    BY LEYLA DOSS Cairo – Almost a year ago, Abdel-Khalek Betiti (Abbouda), owner of Fekra Center in Aswan, realized that the family farm of his childhood, overlooking the beautiful Philae Island along the banks of the Nile River, had reached a standstill. His land was overused, economically unsustainable and arid.

    This is where Nawaya, a local agricultural non-profit organisation, comes in. Last month the NGO gave a weeklong introductory course on a concept new to Egypt, permaculture design, to provide farmers with the tools to combat the very issues that many like Abbouda face.

    Permaculture, short for ‘permanent agriculture’,  is a multi-disciplinary livelihood design philosophy, which seeks to work with nature and imitate naturally-occurring patterns.

    Sara El-Sayed, one of the co-founders of Nawaya, believes that we are not benefiting from Egypt’s vast resources “because we are not using our land, surroundings and communities, in a manner which provides for local and adaptable solutions.”

    Students who participated in the introductory course lived in a commune adopting the local trading exchange system (LETS) for an entire week, whereby community members exchanged services and committed to performing daily tasks.

    The course highlighted how this microcosm of society could integrate different people, with different needs and skill sets, in a multi-beneficiary system, stressing the importance of people care and creating a collective rather than an exploitative system.

    “Although permaculture requires some limited intrusion by humans into nature, it creates a cyclical, re-generative system, which is eventually allowed to grow for itself,” added El-Sayed.

    With the help of Nawaya, Abbouda was able to improve his farm’s productivity.

    “This course helped me use my available resources and develop them further by creating sustainable design systems such as water-harvesting, compost and recycling,” he said.

    The workshop included techniques such as harnessing already available water resources by creating land slopes, or swales, low tracts of land, to manage water runoff and increase water harvesting.

    Participants also learnt how to create innovative and sustainable farming structures such as guilds and keyhole gardens.

    Guilds are a mutually beneficial arrangement, where each component plays a role. Some plants may play the role of a natural fertiliser, by being nitrogen fixers, while others act as pesticides by repelling harmful insects.

    “We can take this a step further by using local seeds, and planting crops which are adapted to Egyptian climates and environments,” said El-Sayed.

    The course also stressed the importance of a holistic approach to caring for for the Earth by studying and respecting the local environment.

    Participants took soil samples from different parts of the land in the Fekra Center and tested its solubility, PH levels and other factors to improve its fertility.

    Nawaya also taught participants how to use compost, an organic alternative to damaging and expensive chemical fertilisers, as well as homemade eco-friendly solutions to harness energy, such as the rocket cooking and heating stove, which works without using gas.

    In a preemptive move to confront the pending electricity crisis, participants were taught how to harness the strength of Egypt’s sunlight to create solar cookers and other solar-powered systems.

    While many landowners are able to buy subsidised chemical fertiliser for as low as  LE 65 per 50 kilograms from the government, farmers don’t have this option and are forced to buy it in the black market for prices as high as LE 200 for the same amount.

    As a result many farmers resort to costly banks loans and are straddled with debt for years.

    “Using resources in their own farms, such as compost, is not only more sustainable and environmentally friendly, but can also give many farmers greater economic independence,” said El-Sayed.

    Aam Shalali, one of the farmers at the Fekra Center, agrees. “We keep on damaging our soil with costly pesticides, chemical fertilisers, and in return end up in debt.”

    In a bid to reinforce respect for local heritage and cultures, participants went on a field trip to the displaced Nubian villages.

    Throughout the past century, more than 150,000 Nubians and Sudanese were displaced and over 45 villages were submerged from floods caused by construction of the the High and Low Dams.

    In response, a mega-government project in 1963 relocated many of these Nubian villagers, who traditionally lived along the Nile, to the desert environment of Kom Ombo.

    “The land was wasted because they didn’t have the skill set to reclaim it,” said El-Sayed. “And they also lost their source of income.”

    While realizing that it’s not easy for farmers to change the way they’ve done things their entire lives, El-Sayed is still optimistic.

    Today, she says, only a small group of dedicated farmers will use permaculture design, “but once benefits will be obvious and widespread, more and more people will come on board.”

    In the meantime, Aam Shalali has resolved to take the risky but revolutionary path of permaculture design farming.

    “I dream of a system where everyone can treat their land and community as  part of their life, and actually care about it, rather than destroy it,” he says.



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