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The Incompetent Excuses Killing Egypt's Trees

Another week, another tree massacre, ruining Egypt's environment, ecology and landscape. Eihab Boraie looks at the government's insistence on turning a blind eye on the destruction of mother nature's most valuable gift.

Mother Nature and Om El Donia are one in the same, however too many of its children are uneducated and continue to barbarically maim her of her beauty. Meanwhile the rest of the developed world turns to experienced city planners focused on making their cityscapes more attractive by adding open, green spaces for its citizens while tackling the serious issue of climate change. With 90% of Egypt's landscape being a barren desert and its citizens desiring to return to its once cosmopolitan ways, the aneurysm-inducing question becomes: how are people still getting away with killing the few precious trees providing Egypt with colour and oxygen? Upon hearing the news that another tree massacre is underway, in the northern Cairo district of Shubra, we decide to examine the history behind these reckless acts in hopes of understanding why this keeps happening.

Trees are historically the most important raw material used to build civilisations. They are the bearers fruits, the providers of oxygen, the producers of fuel and, in the current heatwave, the mother of all shade. Lining streets, they provide a much-needed relief from the eye sore that is Egypt’s garbage strewn streets, and yet while people continue to focus on the more prevalent issues dominating the news cycle, crooked branches of governments continue to allow the massacre of trees, recycling the same excuses. With each new massacre, comes outrage and ultimately an explanations from officials that are far from satisfactory. Instead of strengthening and enforcing laws to protect trees, officials continue to place blame and provide excuses instead of solutions.

The ancient Pharaohs knew how pivotal trees would be in the advancement of their civilisation. They went to great lengths to acquire ebony wood from Sudan, pine and cedar from Syria, planting a variety of organic life predominantly in Giza and the surrounding areas. Fast forward to 2001, and even the most historically cherished and oldest of trees fail to be protected, and at the turn of new millennium an alleged land dispute resulted in the destruction of a biblically significant tree. Allegedly, farmers had heard that the tourism of Ministry was planning to develop “Christian tourism” by protecting Egyptian sites believed to have been visited by Jesus according to the Bible. Coptic tradition believes that the tree bowed in homage to Jesus Christ when he, Joseph and the Virgin Mary passed through Egypt to escape the murderous King Herod. Upon hearing that the government planned to build a wall around the tree, farmers fearing for their land decided to cut it down, breaking the hearts of many Egyptians and Christians worldwide. "I regret that authorities were not able to protect a 2,000-year-old tree that was such an important monument for us," Father Matta Kamel Hanna, whose church overlooks the spot near the Nile where the tree stood, told The Associated Press in 2001. In this example, the government failed to protect a tree that they themselves identified as important, and a lot of blame should be placed on the farmers who cut down the tree, but at the same time the government’s inability to quickly act and communicate to farmers that their land would be protected deserves partial blame as it could have possibly saved a tree that may have attracted scores of new tourists.  

Instead of admitting failures, the government puts the blame on others as a common excuse used to wash their hands of the situation. In 2012, a similar incident happened in Zamalek, when a branch from a poorly maintained tree destroyed a car in the front of a shop. The driver was furious and demanded compensation from the store owners for the damage. After settling with driver, the shop owners on that street decided that they couldn’t afford to compensate damage by city trees that are supposed to trimmed and maintained by the government. Witnessing the event, writer Aaron Jakes writes “The shop owners had loved the trees and enjoyed the canopy of shade they provided. But the day’s events had convinced them that the cost and liability of upkeep were more than they could bear. With some reluctance and an awareness that they were breaking the law, they cut them all down.”  With the government’s inability to once again act quickly or communicate their plan, store owners took matters into their own hands cutting down a majority of trees. When outrage ensued, the government retreated to their favourite excuse that they were unaware of the action, despite the many pleas to trim the trees. “The issues, of course, extend well beyond the erosion of basic services that led my neighbours to take matters into their own hands and chop down some trees on our block. Indeed, others have argued, the highly centralised and profoundly undemocratic structures of governance below the national level have played a central role in driving forward a process of rapid, haphazard, and devastatingly uneven urbanization across the country. The corruption, incompetence, and institutionalized impunity of provincial governors and local officials, moreover, played a crucial role in the pillaging of public resources and the unplanned allocation of land in both urban and rural areas under the Mubarak regime,” explains Aaron Jakes in piece for Egypt Independent in 2012.

Photo By Michel Hanna who continues to post photos of mutilated trees on his blog and on the Facebook page Heliopolis Eyes in attempt to raise awareness of these massacres.

Sadly, even when the government attempts to trim the trees, they fail to do so properly, often killing the trees by ‘mistake’ and blaming workers incompetence for the destruction. That is exactly what happened in the first week of August this year when complaints were sent to the Environment Ministry of improper trimming on Al-Falaky and Mansour Streets near government buildings. The Environment Minister admitted that the trimming was botched and although an Egyptian law stipulates jail time and fines for unguided cutting, it does nothing for trimming. We’re not exactly sure what the differences is and neither does death, but even troublesome is the fact that internet search failed to find anyone convicted for unguided cutting and that this wasn't. This brings up one of the biggest problems surrounding the issue; lack of accountability and corruption.

Photo by Michel Hanna

In 2005, the government announced that they would be trimming trees in the very same area, but once again ‘trimmed’ beyond repair. Hundreds of trees were decimated under the guise of maintenance on Al-Falaky and Mansour streets. Coincidentally, the largest culled area so happens to be the very same site of the Four Seasons at First residence Hotel. The only evidence is the trees which were totally destroyed beyond the possibility of pretending to be trimmed, but again officials wiped their hands of any wrong doing and no one was held accountable. This would happen again in the case of Heliopolis’ Merry land park. Heliopolis has drastically transformed and the vast killing of trees is evident all over Heliopolis. 

In March, residents were up in arms when without any warning several ancient trees were needlessly destroyed in the park to allegedly allow for a parking lot. To quell the anger, a fact finding mission was launched, and the ministry’s legal affairs department said they would examine the rental contract of the park, as they were unaware of the plan and claim that they didn’t issue any permits or perform a study to assess the environmental impact as stated by Article 19 of the constitution. Until now there have been no updates on this case, and despite intentions, history shows that the damage won’t be reversed, and holding someone accountable would be the exception and not the rule. Killing trees is illegal, but enforcing these laws seems to never happen. That is why kanaqin (charcoal producers) seem comfortable that they can operate with impunity when selecting which trees to cut down. Explaining what was happening in the region in 2011, Mourad El Essawi, a prominent farmer in Saqqara, tells Egypt Independent “These guys are kanaqin (charcoal) producers who request an arbitrary contract from the ministry to cut down dead trees. In the contract it says only to cut down trees that are dry. But of course they abuse this because they have the paperwork, and they just go and cut whichever ones they like.” This highlights that laws are not enough and that at some point they need to be enforced to thwart further environmental devastation. Abdel Nabi Osman, manager of the Egyptian Endurance Riders Association (EERA), tells Egypt Independent that he filed official complaints saying “They’re not just producing kanaqin, they are wood traders and they’re selling the trees, and it's highly illegal. Regardless, someone needs to be held accountable - these trees are beautiful, old landmarks of the Saqqara area, and the irresponsibility of the ministries and their porous contracts must be revealed.” The call for transparency is of the utmost importance as the government continues to prove they are unable to hold perpetrators accountable and worse still seem to be involved.

With a new Suez Canal built, Egypt eyes the transformation of places like Port Said as pivotal to Egypt’s future. However, instead of adopting plans around the few ancient trees available, the municipality's plan seems to be to rip up the whole town including its streets and trees to start a-new with security in mind instead of following the most recent constitution which protects the right to healthy environment and requires state institutions to protect natural resources like trees while striving for sustainable development. Needless to say, the government is far from reaching this goal and highlights the lack of communication within the government. Two days ago residents of Shubra’s Aghakhan district filed complaints of yet another tree massacre. Once again, the Environment Ministry claims they weren’t aware of the plans and that they need to be consulted in order before any tree is cut down. However, the plan to cut these trees is part of a government project to build a road linking the Cairo-Alexandria road with Nasr City and that the trees that were removed stood in the way of the on-ramp. Talking to Aswat Masriya the deputy Cairo Governor, Ahmed Deif, stresses that “The governorate's only role is to hand over the lands allocated for the project to the Armed Forces who are tasked with implementation.”

Pictures of Port Said

If the government is still unable to communicate plans within its own branches than what chance will concerned citizens have to stop these massacres before the damage is done? Why is there an Environment Ministry if they aren’t going to be consulted on city projects? Sadly, this issue remains unresolved and the longer it stays that way the closer Egypt will come to bringing the extinction of the few trees we can grow in a desert. Do we really need to wait until we can’t breathe the air and the city regularly get shutdown due to severe smog? For meaningful change to occur there will be a need to call for transparency, accountability, and better communication both inside and out of the government as well as the end to corrupt practices and ridiculous excuses. In order to actualise these changes concerned citizens need to be unified beyond their districts. In each of these cases complaints were filed, but since it only affects people in a particular community not enough concern is raised to mount any pressure. This is a nation-wide concern and until it is addressed as such not much will change.