ARCENCPostings

Monday, February 13, 2017

Egypt's Nubians fight for ancestral land earmarked for mega-project | Global development | The Guardian


https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/feb/13/egypt-nubians-fight-for-ancestral-land-earmarked-for-mega-project

Egypt's Nubians fight for ancestral land earmarked for mega-project

A dispute over Nubian lands that are to be sold off to investors exposes tension between government development plans and rights of the ethnic group

A Nubian painted village near Aswan city. ‘Our land is rich, for tourism, mining or agriculture, so they want to take it.’ Photograph: Alamy

A strip of desert near Aswan city is one of the last remaining areas of the once thriving Nubian empire in southern Egypt, but its descendants are banned from setting foot there. When a group of 150 protesters tried, in November, to reach the area, the closest they came to it was a sit-in on a road outside the city.

In early January, eight young men were arrested for organising further protests against the sale of the land, which lies to the west of Lake Nasser, to investors. Days later, Egyptian authorities summoned Mohamed Azmy, head of the General Nubian Union. He says they threatened him with arrest if he and his colleagues did not dissolve the union and freeze its assets.

“Nubians now have to pay money for the land we’ve been living on for years,” says Azmy, adding that he believes the government’s redevelopment plans for an area that includes a site that once held 17 Nubian villages will benefit many people – but not the Nubian community.

The ancient empire of the Nubian ethnic group once covered large stretches of Egypt and what is now Sudan. For Nubians, the area around Lake Nasser is the last vestige of their ancestral home. But for Egypt’s government, they say, it merely represents the latest development opportunity.

“The case of Nubian lands shows that the government is unwilling to support its own citizens to develop their land, but prefers taking the easy way, which is selling to investors,” said Fatma Emam Sakory, a Nubian rights activist based in Cairo. The dispute reflects long-standing tension between the government’s plans for development and the Nubians’ desire to protect their ancestral homeland.

In 2014 – the same year the new constitution explicitly promised Nubians they could return to their homelandAbdel Fatah al-Sisi, the Egyptian president, designated part of the area to the west of Lake Nasser as a restricted military zone. The land within this zone is now intended for the government’s landmark agricultural mega-project, which aims to convert 1.5m feddans (more than 2,400 square miles) of arid desert into verdant farmland.

This is intended not just to “reduce the food gap”, according to Sisi, but to help boost Egypt’s struggling economy; almost 11% of GDP is dependent on agriculture.

However, critics point out that other similarly ambitious projects have failed to get off the ground in the past, and many fear losing their land to a development that might not even go ahead.

Advertisement

Egypt’s government has long struggled with the challenges of a rapidly expanding population in a country that consists largely of desert, and the Nubian community near Aswan has often suffered the consequences. The community was displaced in the 1960s, after the Aswan High Dam was built to create Lake Nasser, flooding much of the Nubians’ ancestral homeland and submerging thousands of years of their history.

Under the auspices of Unesco, the UN’s world heritage organisation, archaeologists managed to relocate the historic Abu Simbel temple brick by brick to an artificial hill above the waterline in what was seen as perhaps the only victory against the deluge. But thousands of Nubians who lost their homes began a battle to return to their lands around Lake Nasser. Their struggle continues to this day.

In the late 1990s, the government of Hosni Mubarak seized part of the contested land – the area now designated as a restricted military zone – for the flagship Toshka project, which aimed to irrigate Lake Nasser to create a “new” Nile valley that would sustain a thriving urban community, supporting not just farmland but factories, schools and hospitals. The Mubarak pumping station was at the heart of this initiative, and was inaugurated in 2005, but work to transport water through the surrounding desert was slow. The project staggered on as an example of government failure for years, plagued by problems such as the desert’s high saline levels, which ended up contaminating the groundwater. Little of the farmland was irrigated and sprawling desert plains remained where glimmering urban development was supposed to be. Sisi then resurrected plans to create Toshka – on the same strip of land in the Aswan governate – as part of the project in 2015.



A Nubian, Khalid Ashraf, looks out over the cataracts above Aswan in Egypt. Photograph: David Degner/Getty Images

In a country where more than 95% of the people live on 3% of the land, creating more farmland would seem a logical step. But critics say the project could be just the latest to go awry amid government mismanagement and false promises.

“The 1.5m feddan project is another mega-project being promoted by the government mainly to score political capital,” says David Sims, author of Egypt’s Desert Dreams. “So far, it has mostly been a series of pronouncements.”

Sims, who says a maximum of only 10,000 feddans of land have been successfully reclaimed so far, questions whether such an ambitious project is achievable. “It’s hard to assess the feasibility, since there is so little information, even to investors. That the locations, sprinkled all over the desert, all rely on groundwater is a cause for concern.”

The government’s claims that the project will create desperately needed jobs amid high youth unemployment are also in doubt, given that so far the technology used has left little need for labour.

Those involved in the initiative dispute these claims. “[It’s] going according to schedule. It’s a huge project – it will take more than six months to develop it,” said Atter Hannoura, head of New Egyptian Countryside Development, the body that oversees the project under the auspices of the Egyptian government’s New Urban Communities Association. Hannoura also denied that the project is involved in the forced relocation of the Nubian community, saying that the area the Nubians seek to reclaim won’t be included in the initiative.

Yet the Nubians say part of the land seized long ago for the Toshka project is an area they consider their homeland. When the community held protests against the seizure of their land in November, security forces barred their access to the land allocated for Toshka.

For Nubians, the sale of their land to investors is the latest in a string of slights by Sisi’s government. “The government isn’t fulfilling its constitutional obligations, not to mention the anti-discrimination code,” says Sakory. “Our land is rich, for tourism, mining or agriculture, so they want to take it. But if Nubians had access to it, they would do better than the government, so they could invest with us.”

Rights campaigners say Nubians frequently encounter racism and discrimination in Egyptian society and claim the government has shied away from efforts to protect their culture and language.

For Sakory, the sale of their ancestral land indicates that the prejudice has reached a new level. “Land seizures are the pinnacle of discrimination against us,” she says.

--   Sent from my Linux system.