Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1250, (11 - 17 June 2015)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1250, (11 - 17 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Is demolition the answer?

Illegal building on agricultural land in Egypt has grown significantly over recent years, posing a threat to the nation’s food security, writes Rawan Ezzat

Al-Ahram Weekly

Egypt has long been one of the world’s most important agricultural countries, but in recent years the Egyptian agricultural industry has been suffering. More and more of Egypt’s best agricultural land is being illegally used for construction purposes, a trend that intensified in the aftermath of the 2011 Revolution.

Political instability was on the rise, and some took advantage of the poor security conditions to build illegally on agricultural land. Egyptian agriculture today is at a crossroads, and one of the major challenges facing the country is to protect and revitalise the industry. In 2013, the Ministry of Agriculture issued a report stating that after the revolution about 30,000 acres were lost to illegal construction.

Gamal Ali, a legal officer for the Menoufiya governorate, said that it was the most affected area in the Nile Valley and Delta regions. “Menoufiya has the highest rates of trespassing on agricultural land in the country. Each week, the governor receives no fewer than 1,200 expulsion orders,” he said.

Gamal Arafa works for the government-affiliated Agricultural Unit in Menoufiya governorate. He said that 86 illegal buildings were constructed in just one of the governorate’s villages in 2010.

The following year, this number increased to 302, and in 2012, 366 illegal buildings were erected.

With the security situation starting to improve, however, he said the number had decreased to 196 illegal buildings this year.

Even though Law 116 prohibits building on agricultural land, farmers like Belal Abdel-Wahab still see it as an opportunity. “I needed a building to protect me, my family and my livestock. My job is farming. It’s how I make a living,” he said.

Abdel-Wahab faced a lawsuit over his illegally built structure, and it has been demolished twice.

However, he plans to rebuild for a third time.

Housing is a problematic issue for any government, but as the population in Egypt increases there is also a growing need for affordable shelter. Abdel-Rahman Zain, a professor of agriculture at Cairo University, explained, “The main problem is that there is a high demand on the government to supply housing, yet at the same time private investors have concentrated on upscale real-estate development.”

Antar Ibrahim, a farmers’ representative in Menoufiya, concurred, saying that the pace of unlicenced building has increased in the governorate since 2011. “In the cities there are houses for people on average incomes, but in the villages no houses are provided,” he said.

According to a World Bank study by researcher Ayman Ibrahim Kamel Al-Hefnawi, “The lack of viable housing alternatives for the urban poor, together with the inadequate enforcement of planning and building codes, has resulted in rapid informal development.”

Farmers resort to constructing houses illegally because the government does not meet their shelter needs. Meanwhile, although the law should restrict this illegal practice, more often than not a tangle of bureaucratic laxity, legal loopholes and perhaps corruption all lead to the fact that more and more buildings illegally go up on agricultural land.

Naguib Gabriel, a lawyer at the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organisations, an NGO, said the shrinking of arable land in Egypt is due to the faulty policies that were implemented during the 30-year rule of ousted former president Hosni Mubarak.

“People bribed government employees to allow them to build illegally, and during that period everyone paid bribes and there was no law,” he said.

Arafa insists that the role of the Agricultural Unit stops at “filing a case and submitting it to the authorities concerned, which should then start the demolition process.”

A local unit affiliated to the Ministry of Agriculture is directly responsible for demolishing illegal buildings. It is up to the police to take action and carry out a demolition order. However, filing cases takes time.

“We file a case when the land is being prepared and another once the building is completed,” all of which takes time, he said.

Other officials blame the unit for not conducting its tasks in a proper and timely manner. “There are people who have built on their land and no case has been filed,” Ali argued. “In other words, the unit did not do its job in filing a case at the right time, which is once the building has been erected.”

Despite the fact that some residents live in illegal buildings, they are still provided with amenities such as water and electricity by local councils. “The local councils aid residents in violating the laws. When the government provides people with electricity and water, it is assisting them in retaining illegal buildings. The whole thing is a business for private companies, as they are only concerned with money,” said Arafa.

Gamal Ali, a representative of the Menoufiya governorate, disagrees, saying that it does not play a part in providing electricity and water to the owners of illegal buildings. “Residents take water pipes from their original houses and lead them to illegal buildings, providing them with water. This is done without any approval from the government,” he said.

In order to prevent demolition orders against illegal buildings, residents rush to connect water and electricity to their houses by pirating it from the municipal grid. They believe that if they can prove the illegal building is inhabited, it will not be demolished. However, according to Ali this is not the case.

Such a bureaucratic tug of war between different government authorities has led to more and more irregular buildings on agricultural land. In 2014 alone, official statistics indicated that there were 1.2 million cases of violations of building codes on agricultural land, leading to the loss of 47,000 acres.

Farmers are already facing many financial problems and are thus tempted to sell their land to constructors. Because the government no longer supplies farmers with seeds, fertilisers and pesticides, their finances are being hit hard by private-sector monopoly, corruption and the black market.

Seeds, fertilisers and pesticides are expensive and sometimes of poor quality, causing farmers major financial losses. Unable to cope with the high costs, many farmers now either grow fewer crops or have abandoned cultivation and built structures on arable land, causing major losses to areas under cultivation.

“With the high prices that exist nowadays and the government barely supporting them, a lot of farmers are willing to sell part of their land since they can gain triple the amount they would have earned from cultivating it,” Ibrahim said.

HAZARDOUS CONSEQUENCES: The increase in building has led to a decrease in Egypt’s food production capacity. “If I build on one acre, this building might need two more acres to support it,” Arafa said.

“The danger now is that illegal building will lead to desertification, which means the development of a huge food gap that will keep on growing as we lose more land,” Zain said.

One UN report says that Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer and is losing agricultural land to urban development at a rate of 12,600 acres annually. In 2014, a report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned that countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region were facing “enormous challenges” to food security.

Nader Noureddin, a professor of agricultural resources at Cairo University, has warned, “The government has to help farmers make profits and encourage agriculture before a ‘hunger revolution’ erupts.”

According to IRIN, a think tank, “Egypt loses an estimated 11,736 acres of agricultural land every year, making the nation’s 3.1 million acres of agricultural land prone to total destruction in the foreseeable future.”

Mahmoud Mansi, a representative from the Land Centre for Human Rights, an NGO, has warned that building on agricultural land poses a threat to crop production. By 2030, experts from the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) expect a decline in the production of wheat in Egypt by nine per cent.

“Egypt relies on the global market for up to 60 per cent of its food needs,” the study said. Whereas Egypt is self-sufficient in the production of most fruit, vegetables and livestock, it is unable to produce enough grains, sugar or vegetable oil — foods that make up a large part of the country’s diet — to feed its people, it added.

The country is the world’s largest importer of wheat, importing 10 million tons out of a total consumption of 15 million tons per year. It is also the fourth-largest importer of maize (5.3 million tons per year), and the seventh-largest importer of food oils (96 per cent of its total consumption).

Egypt imports 70 per cent of its beans, 99 per cent of its lentils, 66 per cent of its red meat and 60 per cent of its butter needs, according to Noureddin.

“We are among the countries listed by the FAO as suffering a serious gap of more than 55 per cent between food production and consumption,” he added. This growing reliance on food imports makes Egypt “highly vulnerable to fluctuations in international food prices,” according to the FAO.

The 2014 UN also reported that between 2010 and 2013 malnourished people in the MENA region reached 11.2 per cent of the population. Poverty levels in Egypt have also increased, meaning that “one in 20 people in Egypt cannot even fulfill their calorie needs from cheap food, and they are all too literally facing hunger,” Noureddin warned.

Zain added that the desertification of agricultural land not only affects the food gap but also creates water shortages. In the meantime, officials declare that Egypt’s 55.5 billion cubic metre share of Nile water is already not enough to satisfy the country’s needs.

Ismail Abdel-Galil, former chairman of the country’s Desert Research Centre, says that studies have showed that just over a hectare of fertile land in the Nile Valley is lost every hour because of construction.

A report by the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) indicates that the area of old agricultural land in the Nile Valley and Delta declined from 6.156 million acres in 2006 to 6.117 million acres in 2010, a 0.6 per cent decrease. That figure decreased further in 2011 to about 6.071 million acres, a decline of approximately 0.8 per cent. This further demonstrates the magnitude of the problem in Egypt.

Agriculture is a very significant aspect of the economy, but fertile agricultural land is limited to the Nile Valley and Delta, which represents about 3.5 per cent of the country’s land. Thus, the misuse of agricultural land is a serious issue for the country. “

The construction of buildings on agricultural land is causing severe if not permanent damage to the country’s agriculture,” warns Khaled Wassif, spokesman for the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation.

SEEKING ANSWERS: Asked about the measures the Menoufiya governorate plans to take to deal with families occupying illegal buildings, Ali says demolition is the only answer.

“I remember a case where the owners of an illegal building were informed of the date of demolition, and in an effort to thwart it they moved in. They believed that they could stop the action due to their presence.

“The demolition then took place on part of the building, and when the residents realised it was falling down around them they fled. People moving into an illegal building will not stop the demolition process,” he said.

But Ibrahim believes demolition orders are pointless. Said Arafa, “Even if we demolish all these illegal constructions, the agricultural land will still deteriorate. This is because the land deteriorates the moment a building is erected. There is no reason to demolish a building, since the agricultural land can never be recovered.”

All buildings constructed between 2011 and 2015 will be demolished with no exceptions, Ali insisted. However, he also said, “We are studying the possibility of an amnesty under which instead of demolishing buildings constructed since 2011 people will be allowed to keep their property after paying a fine.”

According to Ali, the government has ordered all the governorates to take action against illegal buildings. However, its main focus is on illegal buildings constructed on government land.

“The agricultural land that surrounds the ring roads and other main roads is owned by the government. However, if you pay attention as you go down the ring roads you will notice that the majority of this land has already been lost to illegal buildings,” he said, speaking particularly about the Menoufiya governorate.

The ministry has purchased the rights to all the agricultural land adjacent to the entrances of the governorates and the main roads. Accordingly, it has the right to use this land whenever it is needed.

As a result, the demolition of illegal buildings is taking place on all the land that borders the main roads. “Construction defaces the country’s main roads. This is why we are dealing with them first,” Ali said.

In order to deal with the problem better, Minister of Agriculture Ayman Abu Hadid declared in 2013 that the government would impose a fine of LE500,000 and a three-year jail sentence on anyone involved in building on agricultural land. For Gabriel, the only way to solve the problem is by increasing the fine, along with a five-year jail sentence.

“The law must state that people who destroy agricultural land by building will be prosecuted. I believe we should not give people the opportunity to ruin Egyptian land. They must be prosecuted, as a fine is not enough,” he said. According to Gabriel, the government should also set up a committee to study better arrangements for building housing at cheaper prices.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation has also established a list of targets, including the development of rural communities by raising the standard of living and encouraging rural economies. It plans to enhance the development of agricultural resources by increasing the amount of reclaimed land.

It wants to advance policies of agriculture and land reclamation to ensure their coordination with national development plans. It intends to conduct a study to raise efficiency and implementation through the optimal economic exploitation of reclaimed land, livestock and water.

Moreover, in February 2015, Egypt, represented by Naglaa Al-Ehwany, the minister of international cooperation, and Kanayo F Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), signed a loan and grant agreement in Rome to finance an ambitious Sustainable Agriculture Investment and Livelihoods Project (SAIL).

A total of $86.8 million has been allocated for the project, which will help small farmers and their families who have settled on reclaimed land increase their incomes by strengthening organisations and settling a further 280,000 people in 30 new settlements across Egypt.

The project will not only target the development of irrigation systems but will also aid in developing agricultural practices and value chains over an area of 41,147 acres of farm land.

“But will the project succeed? Long before the SAIL project there was the Toshka Project that aimed at reclaiming hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland. The Toshka project remains incomplete, however,” said Zain. Land reclamation will not solve the problem, he says, due to the fact that the rate of urban encroachment is still increasing.

Finally, it might not be possible to stop people from building on agricultural land. Mansi believes that due to the rise in such building, and in a bid to improve food security, the government must reclaim more desert land for agriculture purposes. This is why he suggests that the government might be better served if it surrendered to the situation and simply charged a fee in exchange for allowing people to build on agricultural land. The money earned could then be used to establish desert agriculture.

Egypt’s population has now gone beyond 80 million, and experts say it is expected to grow further, putting massive strain on the use of land and water. Agriculture has always been a key sector in the Egyptian economy, and 55 per cent of the population earns its living through working in the field of agriculture.

But farming has also always been restricted by the limited availability of resources such as water. With the increase in the population, and the growing rate of urban encroachment, this situation is not likely to improve.

However, given the incontestable importance of agriculture for the Egyptian economy, Egypt’s leaders have a responsibility to halt, or reduce, unchecked construction before it is too late to reclaim the arable land.

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