Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The black clouds of October

The black clouds hanging over Cairo, the product of farmers burning rice straw, do not seem to be coming to an end, writes Abeya El-Bakry

Al-Ahram Weekly

Every year in autumn, enormous black clouds hover over Cairo. They are usually associated with rice farming and are directed towards Cairo by northeasterly winds. According to media reports, GPS systems have been installed this year to monitor waste processing in the governorates where rice is grown.

Ministry of Environment efforts want to monitor pollution in a number of regions, including Sharqiyya, to reduce air pollution. In Sharqiyya alone, 34,830 tons of rice straw have been collected and 9,946 tons of hay bales made for cattle feed since last September. But burning rice straw is just one of many activities that cause pollution.

The ministry also monitors industrial waste-disposal systems and pollution produced by cars using petrol and other fuels. In total, 1,695 facilities have been checked for their waste-disposal system specifications.

This year, rice production has been restricted to five governorates out of the total of 20 that usually grow the crop, with fines levied on farms that break the rule. The decision to grow rice also came late this year, so many farmers did not have the time to prepare their plants for a good crop.

In three villages in Sharqiyya in the east of the Nile Delta — Belbeis, Beer Emara and Tal Rozn — farmers have not grown rice for nearly five years due to water shortages. However, rice remains a strategic product and a staple crop for many Egyptian farmers.

The problem comes with the disposal of the rice straw, leading to the strong smell of burning recently experienced around Cairo and the hazy smoke seen in the capital in the early morning hours.

Farmers have been asked if they can find alternative ways to burning for disposing of the rice straw. “This year we received the permit to grow rice on 20 June, which is later than we need to grow a good crop,” said Am Adel, a farmer. “Rice needs 40 preparation days to yield a rich harvest, usually starting at the end of April or beginning of May. By 20 June, there is no time for such preparation, so the crop will give only half its regular yield.”

Abdullah, who works the fields with farmer Am Adel, said, “The decision should be clear. Either grow rice or don’t grow it, but such delays reduce farmers’ profits.”

Egypt’s farmers have to follow a schedule set by the Ministry of Agriculture. They face fines and in some cases could be imprisoned for not obeying the law. Accordingly, most farmers stick to the rules, even if these mean they incur losses. Fines for burning rice straw are between LE1,000 and LE3,000.

Hassan, a resident of Belbeis, said, “The delay in this year’s decree meant that the farmers had already prepared to grow other crops such as vegetables. It also meant that the farmers have worked harder at stacking their hay in comparison with previous years.”

Ordinarily, crops are rotated every year in different regions to cover demand both locally and internationally. Rice straw then becomes a problem for the farmers.

“After harvesting the rice, the straw remains in the field, taking up the plot for the next crop. If it is not removed straightaway, it becomes a breeding ground for rodents which in turn will spoil the next crop,” said Sabry, a farmer.

For small farmers, however, the co-operative that usually deals with such matters may not be on hand when needed, meaning that they need to tackle the problem themselves. While the farmers have learned to stack their hay, they tend to stick to the long-held belief that the ashes from burned rice straw nourish the soil.

The burning rice straw, spread thinly on the ground, produces a thick smoke and rich jet-black ash that the farmers say thickens the soil. Some scientific papers argue that this process helps to maintain mineral nutrients in the land, enriching it over time, although its results may not be seen in immediate harvest yields.

Whether the straw is burned or stacked in hay bales, the process has to be done in a short period of time. The farmers have only ten days to prepare the soil for the next crop. However, this has not been the case this year.

Since the harvest gave only half its regular yield, the rice straw has been just enough to meet the farmers’ requirements for hay bales for cattle feed. Farmers also grow corn, but the corn straw is used in ovens to make bread.

Burning other kinds of straw does not produce the thick black smoke associated with burning rice straw because it lies more loosely, quickly smoulders and then dies out. Rice straw, on the other hand, is very thin and burns fiercely, producing dense smoke.

For many farmers, the decision to grow rice has been an important one. One housewife in Beer Emara who farms her own land said, “We haven’t been growing rice for the past five years, and then our stored rice ran out, meaning that we would need to start buying rice. We decided to take the risk and grew our own rice this year, though this was primarily for domestic use.”

Small farmers grow such crops to meet their domestic needs. Growing vegetables and salad crops means that a household can be self-sufficient and maintain a balanced diet throughout the year.

In the village of Tal Rozn, for instance, farmers grow rice on a large amount of land, enough to bring Ministry of Environment officials to collect the straw for baling. Unlike in Belbeis, a larger village, the farmers here have only small plots of land or are tenant farmers.

In the 1960s, co-operative societies were formed to help meet farmers’ needs. Machinery was bought according to community requirements, and the co-ops were expected to help farmers meet their farming schedules. Today, however, some small farmers complain of the co-op’s policy of collecting rice straw from them.

The smaller the farm, the less likely the co-op will collect the straw for stacking into bales. Small farmers are not given priority and are put at the bottom of the list, while land owners and tenants with bigger plots are given priority.

In Belbeis, Am Adel learnt how to make hay bales 15 years ago when he met a truck driver who had come to collect the straw from his land. He had no idea what the driver was going to do with the waste from the rice harvest, but after investigation he discovered its uses and started to make cattle feed from it for use on his own farm.

Since the harvest was not large that year, he kept the rice straw for his own use. His neighbours similarly stacked their hay for domestic use. They also started to purchase hay from each other for commercial use. Rice straw is believed to contain 65 per cent protein when used as cattle feed, in comparison with only 45 per cent in wheat hay. It is therefore more economical as well as more nutritious for cattle.

Farmers calculate their earnings by the book, tallying costs against expected profits. Their crops protect them from rising prices and maintain their livelihoods, and for this reason the farmers in Tal Rozn have made an effort to grow rice. Tal Rozn is a small village made up of extended families, and each household may use up to five kilos of rice every week.

In Beer Emara, too, a household may keep up to 60 kilos of rice for domestic use, and the decision to grow rice, late as it was, was eagerly supported, with many small farmers growing it, even at the risk of a small harvest, for their own domestic use.

Rice growing requires the use of irrigation. In the past, the co-ops were responsible for maintaining the irrigation canals, cleaning them every six months to prevent stagnation and keep the water flowing. But land pressures have meant that some villagers have encroached onto the canals.

“Farmers are filling in the irrigation canals to add space to their farms,” said Sobhi, a school principal and farmer in the Beer Emara village. Because of this, some farms no longer have access to irrigation. The Sheyakha Canal in Beer Emara, a branch of the Mostafa Effendi Waterway, has been blocked by farmers who used the canals to add more land to their farms.

“The role of the co-ops is to work with the farmers to protect their interests,” said Abdel-Aziz, a farmer in the area. “In this village, we are all families — in-laws, cousins and neighbours — and have been for many centuries. If there is a problem over land, this could destroy marriages and family relations. This is where the co-op should assert itself.”

The issue is serious because in places where the canals are disrupted irrigation stops. Next year, Am Said, a tenant on a nearby farm, will stop growing crops on his land as a result and will use it to make bricks instead.

“It costs LE20 to use the motor pump per hour, and I need to use it for five hours a day, making LE100 pounds a day. Using it every ten days throughout the season means the cost of water alone could be as high as LE1,000. Add that to the other costs, and farming is running at a loss,” he said.

“It costs LE10,000 to drill a well, and not every farmer can afford to do that, particularly if he is a tenant,” added Sobhi. Abdel-Aziz remarked, “Farmers do invest in wells, but the crop still does not give a rich yield and is often sickly to look at.”

According to the Ministry of the Environment, collection points to stack rice straw are available for farmers. There are also baling machines, and funding has been made provided for industrial equipment from the Social Development Fund for farmers.

However, there is no formal association of farmers that can organise the delivery of services by the co-op. Mohamed, a farmer, argues that if credit facilities were better for farmers they would definitely make use of them. But, at present, high banking fees are deducted from the amounts requested and the interest rates are high. As a result, the farmers have to make allowances for the banking fees when requesting loans.

In Belbeis, the farmers say that trucks do not collect the straw. “We haven’t seen any baling machines either. They haven’t come here at all,” said Sabry, one of the affected farmers.

Along the railway line from Cairo to Sharqiya, it is possible to see the signs of fires, but for savvy farmers the question is whether it is more economical to waste LE1,500 worth of fertiliser by stacking hay or to waste it by burning straw or, perhaps worse still, by paying fines for causing air pollution.

As the train comes nearer to Cairo, the clouds become thicker. A hazy grey smokescreen hovers over Cairo during the early hours of the day. Further away, rice farmers have stopped burning rice straw because of the high fines. Small farmers have also been wary of burning the straw following ministerial rulings.

In the fields, the sky has rarely been bluer, and white herons with their bright white sheen fly across the blue waters of the rice fields.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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