MADA MASR

Urban Gardening Takes Root In Egypt

A rooftop garden near Cairo
A rooftop garden near Cairo
Isabel Esterman

CAIRO â€" Interested in planting summer vegetables such as pepper, zucchini or molokhia? Now is just about the right time of year to plant, says Hany El Khodary, head of urban farming company Green Zone Egypt.

Even city dwellers with no outdoor space apart from a small balcony can grow small gardens or recycle some of their own food waste into nutrient-rich soil.

Along with organizations such as Nawaya and Schaduf, Green Zone is among a small group of food activists and entrepreneurs who have worked to popularize urban gardening in Egypt.

Nawaya has a community bent, devoting much of its energy to working in poor, rural areas. Schaduf pairs a program working with poor city dwellers to grow produce with a line in designing and installing upscale rooftop and indoors gardens.

Khodary, for his part, is targeting people who are already highly motivated to try their hand at growing food or to set up a composting system. "People who like plants, who like nature and want to use organic waste in the best ways," he says. "People who are interested in sustainability but don't know how to do it."

Khodary has plans in the works to launch training programs for kids: A paid version for private schools and a partnership with a local non-profit to set up free summer sessions for public school children. Until then, he relies largely on attracting those looking to introduce green practices into their urban lifestyles and willing to spend 120 Egyptian pounds ($15) for gardening advice.

Since he started giving workshops in 2013, that audience has largely been represented by expats. But in the last four months, he says he has seen growing interest from Egyptians. "Some people want to grow healthy food for their kids and their family," he says. "It's like a trend now to go green and use renewable energy."

Two kinds of green thumbs

The Green Zone offers two types of workshops for would-be urban farmers. Natural gardening workshops are aimed at people who have space for an outdoor garden but need to learn how to work with gardening tools and prepare their soil for planting. Urban farming workshops are aimed at apartment dwellers and others with limited outdoor space, but who still want a little green in their lives.

The urban farming workshops combine presentations on composting and planting methods with practical demonstrations on starting seeds, transplanting seedlings and starting a worm compost bucket.

Composting, the process of recycling household food scraps into soil, can be a great option for people with a lot of outdoor space. But what if you just have a balcony? Realistically, unless you either don't eat many vegetables or are willing to give up a lot of balcony space to a rotating series of compost buckets, you probably won't be able to recycle all of your food scraps this way. But even the smallest balconies should have room for a worm compost bucket to transform scraps into a perfect planting medium, a process Khodary demonstrates.

For those who have never planted a seed before and are interested in background information about organic agriculture and permaculture, Green Zone workshops are a good fit.

Those hoping to come away from the workshop with a well-defined plan for rooftop or balcony gardens will probably be disappointed, although Khodary promises free follow-up advice to workshop participants.

Likely to be of more interest to serious gardeners is the Green Zone's merchandise selection, available for delivery around central Cairo. Khodary stocks special worms for compost bins â€" the local variety work too, but not very efficiently, taking weeks to eat their way through a kilo of vegetable matter.

He also sells organic pest spray, lady bugs, tiny parasitic wasps and other natural pest controls. These live pest eaters are developed by Egypt's Agriculture Ministry but difficult to obtain. Proving that you really can get just about anything delivered to you in Cairo, Green Zone will bring a container of worms or aphid eaters to your home.

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Green

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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