Egypt's Tourism Crash Gives Way To Bustling Opium Trade

Opium field in the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula
Opium field in the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula
Theresa Breuer

SHARM EL-SHEIKH — Abu Saleh (not his real name) used to earn his money giving camel tours to tourists. But now the Egyptian Bedouin farms his 340-square-meter opium field. It’s not legal, which is why he covers his face, although he notes that the police are looking the other way.

When Saleh took his camels to the slaughterhouse, he knew there was no going back. Though he was only offered a fraction of what the animals were worth, he had no other option. “What was I supposed to do?” he says. “I couldn’t afford to keep them anymore.”

Abu Saleh lives in the southern part of the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, not far from the resorts of Sharm el-Sheikh and Dahab. This is where he conducted his desert safari tours, and earned his living. But now there are no more tourists, so instead opium grows where he used to pass through with his tourists.

He has been cultivating opium for two years. Nearly every day he drives out to the desert in his Toyota pickup truck to check on the plants. There are no roads here, but he knows the route exactly. After a few kilometers, the first fields appear. We pass 13 other opium fields before we get to his. All told, he says, he knows of some 100 fields in the area. “Three years ago, there wasn’t a single one,” he says, “but now there are new ones every season.”

Many Bedouins are in the same boat as Abu Saleh. They worked as hotel cooks, tour guides or musicians playing traditional Bedouin music for vacationers. But tourists have been avoiding Egypt since the 2011 revolution. Though some 9.5 million visitors traveled to Egypt last year, the figure was 14.7 million in 2010, the year before the revolution began.

The number of tourists has continued to fall, and the prognosis for 2014 is grim. As the Egyptian Ministry of Finance recently announced, the number of tourists fell again in January and February of this year by some 30% compared to last year. For many families, this is a disaster, as tourism had been the motor of the Egyptian economy.

Directly and indirectly, some four million jobs supporting about 16 million family members are dependent. And no region has been hit as hard without it as Sinai.

“Nobody comes anymore”

A few meters from the asphalt-paved road that leads to the beach resort of Dahab 50 kilometers away, some Bedouins are sitting by a dilapidated hut. The mood is heavy. Nearby a little girl kneels by a small rug on which she has displayed hand-made jewelry. There are no buyers.

“Before the revolution, we had at least 60 tourists a day,” the child’s grandmother complains. They’d stock up on food for their safaris here, and buy the jewelry as souvenirs. “Now nobody comes anymore.” Although high summer temperatures are still a ways off, spring is the best time of year for desert safaris.

This is where Abu Saleh’s tours to St. Catherine’s Monastery, one of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world, started. The Bedouin is just 30 but looks older. While he has a friendly face, life in the desert and mountains have made their mark. His teeth are black, and his hands and feet are callused. When he speaks, his voice is resigned. These past three years have taken their toll.

“I only know Tahrir Square from TV,” he says. “I’ve never been to Cairo.” It frustrates him that his life has been so drastically influenced by events he feels so far removed from. “What do we have to do with some revolution?” he asks, referring to Bedouins in general. “No government has ever done anything for us, and that won’t change with the next government, regardless of who comes to power.”

Abu Saleh’s field is in a flat valley surrounded by steep mountains. Two boys work for him, monitoring the plants and watering them. Right now, shortly before harvest, the opium plants are in full bloom, their flowers pink and purple. The opium grows for six months, then the fields lie idle until September.

During a lunch break, Abu Saleh sits with the boys in a small tent where they bake the Bedouin-style bread they eat with sheep’s cheese and sweet tea. This is where they spend their days until the opium is ready to be harvested.

There is no concrete figure for the amount of opium grown in Sinai. Experts, agree however, that compared to Afghanistan and the Golden Triangle (Myanmar, Laos and Thailand), the amount is negligible. According to the UN, Laos and Myanmar alone produced 900 tons last year — or 18% of world production. In 2013, Afghanistan produced 5,500 tons of opium.

Big risks, modest rewards

But despite the small quantities produced in Sinai, the situation is a delicate one for the farmers. Some Bedouins relate how the military drove dangerously close to their fields the other day, and rumors are making the rounds that soldiers have destroyed some fields. “I’ll lose my whole crop if they come to my field now,” says Abu Saleh.

The Bedouin invested his entire savings in his field. Opium isn’t particularly lucrative for farmers, but it brings in more than tomatoes or cucumbers. Growing vegetables in the desert won’t work anyway because the low prices from selling them doesn’t cover the high cost of watering them.

If everything goes to plan, Saleh will harvest some five kilos of raw opium this season. Dealers pay him a little under 1,000 euros per kilo. But he has to share his profit with his business partner.

Subtracting the cost of seed, watering and help, he calculates his profit will be about 600 euros, much less than what he earned as a tour guide. “It’s a joke,” he says.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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