By Islam El Shazly

Conservation in Egypt is a sketchy thing; back when Mohamed Ali Pasha was in charge, it was reported that he wanted to use stones from the Pyramids to build his Nile barrages! He was trying to be thrifty: why go through the trouble of quarrying when you have some perfectly pre-cut stones right there! Thank God he was dissuaded by his accountant on the account that it would actually be more expensive to do so.

For all we know this might be an urban legend, but this very kind of indifferent attitude towards our nature and heritage is very rampant in Egypt, but only really became apparent over the last 60 years; and a phenomenon over the last 30.

Only big massive proven cash earners were given any kind of attention by the government; the Pyramids, the sphinx, Karnak, Luxor, the Sharm Al-Sheikh area. Other places that needed attention were delegated to foreign grants and initiatives, as long as the officials would make their cut, and Mubarak would be polished to look like the patron of civilisation!

The enigmatic Sphinx. By svimes (Lari Huttunen), Flickr.

Yet even with that level of attention, there were instances of money saving techniques that proved disastrous, and almost cost us an icon of Egypt: the Sphinx. It had to be restored again by a professional foreign team at a much higher cost, just to fix the damage the cheaper restoration had done.

You can only imagine what other marvels, natural or manmade, have fallen into a state of negligence and disrepair just because they might have been deemed not profitable enough.

Once upon time a proud tree: The trees are cut foolishly in the Nile cornice in Agouza with no respect what so ever to the fact that some of these trees are over a 100 years old !!?? By Kodak Agfa (Zeinab Mohamed), Flikr.

This kind of disinterest by the previous governments, and by extension the ministry of environmental affairs, trickled down to the population, and a large section of the community stopped caring. Beauty became obsolete. A people that once gave the world architectural wonders like Karnak, Pharos, the Hanging Church, and the plethora of medieval houses and mosques, now could care less about anything refined. You can tell from the lack of large scale public parks, and ugly nondescript buildings that pop up over night.

And when it comes to the state of our “protectorates” they are hardly well protected. At least the ones that I have visited! In the Wadi Al-Rayan protectorate in Fayoum, I have seen people with pots and pans, when they were done their picnic the aftermath was disturbing; there were leftover onions, dirty diapers, and litter everywhere, all while one of the guards sat there in the shade sipping his tea and enjoying his cigarette! And in Ajeeba in Matrouh, defacing the rock formations was a very normal activity, that and smoking sheesha on the beach while the people next to them had their watermelon and then tossed the leftover into the sea!

A man triumphantly scribbling his name on the gorgeous rock formations of Ajeeba, not seen in the picture are his family. Great example he set that day for his young children! By Al Rahalah.

It’s not all doom and gloom though; there have been lots of initiatives that managed to save a lot of our architectural heritage, and others that campaigned for better care of our natural resources and our parks. The only issue with that is that they need proper mobilisation and organisation into bodies that can have some form of oversight on Egypt’s heritage.

A tweet by @HuriyaAkhdar (an Egyptian environmentalist fighting against ignorance and waste!) had a glimmer of hope on the part of the government: Egypt: Environment Minister Pays Surprise Visit to South Sinai Nature Reserves. The visit was part of efforts aimed at overhauling nature reserves, which will be run by an independent body to be an affiliate of the Environmental Affairs Ministry. Source.

Sinai desert dawn panorama from the top of Jebel Musa. By stewartmorris (Stewart Morris), Flikr.

Here are some points that I think should be implemented based on what I have seen in the National Parks of Canada:

  • Enforcement: The laws that protect the environment in Egypt are already in place, they just need enforcement. It’s more important than the laws themselves.
  • Rangers: We need rangers in the national parks who have been educated in environmental issues and affairs, who have some kind of degree in botany or biology and can help visitors to the park. They also need to have survival training and some policing powers where they can be able to maintain order in the parks and reserves.
  • Local Guides and Volunteers: The best guides within the nature preserve, the ones that can really show you around, are the local ones. They know the terrain and the flora and fauna, and they would know the history of the area. For example; Bedouins from South Sinai can work as guides within the preserves of South Sinai. Volunteers can help a lot and to them this would be training and fun at the same time. Using high school and university students would open up new horizons for them in the summer vacation and would keep them out of trouble.
  • Fees: All the charges for entering the parks have to be raised enough to in order to generate enough income for the maintenance of the parks; an annual pass can be issued with extra privileges. Instant fines would definitely deter future littering or vandalising.
  • Education: On top of all of that proper education can make people truly understand and appreciate their environment, which in turn will make maintaining it all the more easier. Organisations like Nature Conservation Egypt*, an Egyptian NGO and BirdLife International affiliate dedicated to the preservation of Egypt’s unique natural and cultural heritage, are a forerunner in that aspect.

As for our manmade wonders, they have to be properly catalogued and restored by professional restoration architects and artisans who have the passion and the expertise to bring them back to their original glory for future generations to enjoy.

Islamic Cairo, Al-Hakim Mosque. By yayad, Flikr.

That said; we finally have our very own democratically elected president after 60 years of stagnation, who’s to say that we won’t have national parks to rival the best in the world in the near future.

Just a thought!

*You can follow Nature Conservation Egypt on twitter @Nature_Egypt and on facebook

*Featured image: Rock formation at the White Desert, Egypt AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by Dietmar Temps

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