Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 June 2012
Issue No. 1101
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nature's potions

Mahmoud Bakr examines medicinal entrepreneurship in St Catherine

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The wealth of biological resources that has existed for centuries around St Catherine is finally coming to the aid of the local community with nearly 300,000 tourists visiting annually

The wealth of biological resources that has existed for centuries around St Catherine is finally coming to the aid of the local community. With nearly 300,000 tourists visiting St Catherine annually, marketing opportunities for medicinal herbs and local products, including handicrafts, are not in short supply. A project combining the promotion of Bedouin art and medical knowledge is underway, in which the locals are encouraged to sell needlepoint and weaving products and jobs are being created for the drying and packaging of medical plants.

St Catherine has been known for its alternative lifestyle as well as its dazzling religious sites, but this has been of little use to the local community of Bedouin who benefited little from tourism and had no way of tapping the economic potential of their immense environmental resources. This is changing, however, thanks to initiatives launched by the government, business and local community with a view to creating opportunities for locals in tourism and environmental activities.

Visitors to St Catherine can buy dozens of medical plants and herbs from specialised shops in St Catherine, including wild honey and exotic oils. As more Bedouins become involved in such activities, the synergy of tourism and environment is becoming more sustainable.

The national park of St Catherine, with an area of nearly 4,000 square kilometres, is home to 6,000 Bedouins. It is also rich in biological diversity but much of the rare plant and animal species were in peril of extinction. A medical plant society called the Medicinal Plants Conservation Project (MPCP) was created with help from the Egyptian Organisation for Environmental Affairs, the UNDP, and the Global Environment Facility. The MPCP is now helping the local community plant medical plants, reduce reliance on local shrubbery as fuel, and boost handicraft skills of the inhabitants.

MPCP chief Adel Tageddin says that 17 family farms for producing medical plants are now in operation. Families planting medical plants in their garden can make up to LE500 ($70) extra per month; nearly 15 families now own beehives producing a total of 1,000 kilogrammes of honey per year; locals who work in handicrafts can also add LE150 ($25) to their monthly income.

Nearly 300 members of the local community are now engaged in various programmes of training and finance to ensure the sustainability of the project. Cooperation protocols with government departments have been signed, and locals interested in starting environmentally-friendly businesses now have access to bank loans.

Through the MPCP, locals receive loans to buy liquid gas-operated ovens for cooking which means they stop burning wood from endangered shrubbery, and allows the community to continue using local vegetation for future income. The initiative has turned things around in St Catherine. Not only are locals making more money, but biodiversity is being protected and the tourists are offered a wider range of products to take home. The MPCP, operating from offices owned by the South Sinai governorate has acquired international licenses to produce medical herbs.

MCPC, which was awarded the 2012 Equator Prize, has enabled locals to improve their planting and packaging techniques and their products are now sold both in St Catherine and on websites. Environment Minister Mustafa Hussein says that the Equator Prize, won by only 25 projects worldwide this year, is a tribute to the creativity of St Catherine social and scientific entrepreneurs as well as the energy of the local community.

Sheikh Jamil Atiyah, chairman of the Medicinal Plants Society, says that the greatest success of the initiative is enabling Bedouin women to improve their economic and social condition. Women are now the main collectors of wild medical plants in St Catherine and operate eight of the garden farms for medical plants. Meanwhile, about 150 women work in handicraft and some 125 women have obtained loans to buy gas-operated ovens.

According to Sheikh Atiyah, the medicinal plants initiative is a model for sustainable development of medical plants and of the historical knowledge connected with these plants. A draft law was prepared to regulate the use of natural resources and utilise the local legacy of knowledge connected with it through a scheme of profit sharing.

Several workshops were held with representatives of the local community to ensure that the promotion of medical plants produces tangible improvement in the life of the community. The St Catherine model is now being examined by local communities in Wadi El-Jemal in the Red Sea and in Shalatin on the border with Sudan with a view to replicating it.

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