Pity the Nation

“Pity the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave, eats a bread it does not harvest, and drinks a wine that flows not from its own wine-press.” — Khalil Gibran

3.5 million farmers produce food for the Egyptian people each year.  36% of the Egyptian population work in agriculture.

“My ancestors used to cultivate using flood irrigation.  No hoses, no potassium, no nothing, and it gave the most wonderful produce with nothing but silt.  The land today is no longer like it was then.  The soil has become poor.  So you have to use fertilizers — calcium and potassium and so on.  But these things are all so expensive!  At that point the Aswan High Dam hadn’t yet been built, so the Nile water would reach here every year and add a layer on the face of the soil, no less than half a centimeter, which would nourish the roots of all the crops.  But now the soil has become poorer.  If I don’t use compost, and use fertilizers and chemicals, it won’t produce anything” (Dessouqi, Farmer).

“In the fifties, the basic idea, or basic philosophy, was giving ‘fellaheen’ [small farmers], including those who didn’t own land, possession of some land which would guarantee them a decent income.  But this gave way to a new policy, which began in the nineties and continues to the present day, whereby support was taken away from small farmers and attempts were begun to gather agricultural land, once again, in the hands of a few large landowners. . . .  People who adhere to the liberal economic school of thought want the country to return to the era of larger agricultural farms, to what I call ‘investment agriculture,’ instead of the cultivation of foodstuffs, which is essentially the traditional Egyptian form of agriculture” (Dr. Habib Ayeb, Sociologist). . . .  “I no longer get any [subsidized] chemicals from the development bank or the cooperative” (Dessouqi).

For their seed supplies, small farmers have replaced their dependency on the government with a dependency on large international corporations.  “These days, support has been taken away from farmers, and chemicals and fertilizers are sold without government regulation on the market, which has led to a rise in prices.”  “Nowadays all seeds are imported.  Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, all of them.  Cultivating seeds yourself is no longer possible as it is not profitable, and buying the seeds from abroad is of course very expensive” (Awad, Farmer).  In 2007, the profits of the three largest international seed companies rose by 91%.  Seed prices rose worldwide by around 57% in the second half of 2010. . . .

“The thing is, the international market gives, yet it also takes away.  For example, if I have a product, let’s say cucumbers, and in the international market they are bought at a rate of LE10 [$2] per kilo, then I export them for ten pounds a kilo.  There’s no point me selling them on the local market for two pounds a kilo.  Rather, I would withdraw my cucumbers from the local market and export them instead.  So, what if fellow citizens are dying of hunger?  That’s not a problem — they just won’t eat cucumbers” (Ali, Pesticide Dealer).

“Those who are making decisions, whoever they are, do not have the right to let local food consumption be determined by the international market.  When Law 92 was introduced, the legal shield was taken away from the ‘fellaheen.’  Firstly, around a million tenant farmers were forced to stop cultivating, and the government returned the land to its landowners [without any rights to the farmers who worked it].  And now the market and the owner solely determine the rent price. . . .  The Egyptian government now subsidizes large farms and the export of their goods, rather than supporting small farmers.  We’ve moved from a situation where food security was based on local production of foodstuffs to a situation where food security is based on the constant export of everything that can be exported and the use of profits from this to import foodstuffs from abroad” (Dr. Ayeb).

Philip Rizk is a German-Egyptian filmmaker.  Read Rizk’s blog Tabula Gaza at <tabulagaza.blogspot.com>.  Follow Rizk at <twitter.com/tabulagaza>.  The text above is an edited partial transcript of the video.

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