As government politics continues to remain in a state of turbulent and violent uncertainty and instability — clashes abound, parliamentary election dates are announced and soon canceled, farmer loan forgiveness is promised with no follow-through — the lives of Egypt’s farmers are going from bad to worse.
When, in 2009, the World Bank estimated that about 40 percent of Egyptians live below the poverty line of US$2 a day, the majority were small farmers and rural families.
It is difficult to imagine how much worse things could actually get.
Mahmoud al-Mansy, spokesperson for the Sons of the Soil NGO and a longtime farmer says, “We basically are ‘food’ farmers who are unable to find food to eat.” Sons of the Soil was established in the mid-1990s to fight for farmers’ rights soon after former Agriculture Minister Youssef Waly dissolved the farmers’ cooperatives.
The plight of Egypt’s farmers has always been serious, particularly for small- to mid-sized farmers who simply farm land to sell produce. The bigger players, on the other hand, have registered corporations with thousands of feddans, and allegedly have a monopoly on the market, yet make up a small percentage of the farming population.
But now, rural negligence over the past two years, along with mixed messages from ministers and government officials, have given rise to new issues.
Mansy says the increasing inability to access quality seeds, irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides has led to a growing black market.
“The bigger farms, some of which are Brotherhood-run, import their seeds and have showed zero interest in helping the smaller players,” he says. “The black market fills that void, but for a price.”
Mansy explains that the black market is both expensive and unreliable, meaning farmers often lose as their produce is sold to city markets for very little money.
Additionally, he says, this situation has caused communal farmers, who used to share land and resources, to start turning on each other and steal and lie about produce and access to inputs.
“It’s a complete mess,” Mansy says. “Most farmers have given up on politics completely. Nobody can afford to protest, physically or financially.”
Mansy explains that this situation has also increased indentured labor among farmers, particularly young children. Indentured labor entails harsh working conditions by which the farmers either rent themselves or their families out to work for larger farms or are contracted out to traveling labor gangs to work in poor conditions for little or no pay.
While the Agriculture Ministry is supposed to be responsible for ensuring farmers’ access to resources, Mansy says it hasn’t been able to do this yet and hasn’t tried. At the time of writing, the ministry had made no comment.
After former President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011, rural communities and farmers felt unbridled optimism. But in terms of diminishing revolutionary fervor, Egypt’s farmers were probably among the first to throw in the towel.
“Many of us don’t have the time, money or power to keep following news and laws and then protest and rally, among other things. We tried for a while, but now we’re too busy losing our lives in order to make the food so everybody else in the cities can sit around eating and protesting,” says Al-Hag Mahmoud, an older, well-respected farmer and activist who serves as a spokesperson for several hundred small farmers in Upper Egypt, due to his family’s respected farming lineage.
Recently, farmers’ optimism was dealt another blow with an unfulfilled promise from President Mohamed Morsy. In August, he had announced the cancellation of small-scale farmers’ debts with the Agricultural Bank.
The promise resonated among farmers, many of whom say that during Mubarak’s rule, they were “tricked” into signing contracts and taking out poorly understood bank loans with high compound interest rates, meaning some farmers now owe hundreds of thousands of pounds for borrowing LE10,000 or LE20,000 a decade ago. These loans have left many farmers crippled with debt or bankrupt.
Mubarak often said the loans would be forgiven, but after years of these promises never materializing, many farmers gave up. Interim Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri made the same announcement in December 2011, sparking a little more optimism, but again, the loan forgiveness did not materialize.
Under Morsy, the Agricultural Bank says it “also heard about the promise,” but as of now its staff “still haven’t been given any instructions” on how to implement it.
“It’s worse this time, because Morsy is the leader who was expected to change things after the revolution,” says Mahmoud, who acted as a coordinator between the Agricultural Bank and smaller farming associates, who were or unable to effectively communicate with the bank themselves, due to illiteracy for instance.
This has made many rural farmers even more bitter and hateful toward Morsy and the Brotherhood in general. This is especially because, Mahmoud says, many farmers were given “gifts” — food, seeds, medicines — to vote for Morsy.
Now, many of these farmers appear to long for the Mubarak days, when farmers had very few rights and the majority lived below the World Bank poverty line.
“It’s depressing, but most farmers miss those days,” says Mahmoud. “At least we had access to water to drink — let alone farm — most of the time. It has now become a frightening issue.”
Most recently, Mansy says some farmers tried to gather together to rally for representation in the upcoming parliamentary elections, as the new Constitution, temporarily retains the 50 percent seat quota for farmers and workers.
However, after the dissolution of the Parliament, which contained some members with whom Mansy was in discussions for months, along with the indefinite delay of the upcoming elections, Mansy says most farmers feel discouraged, or are physically and financially incapable of rallying for the elections. Mansy is certain that Brotherhood members who own large farms and can campaign and buy votes will likely take the seats.
“[Urban people] and government officials live on a different planet,” he says. “[They] don’t understand that for small, poor farmers, this isn’t some Internet, Facebook political battle that we can sit around waiting for.”
Politicians aren’t interested in helping farmers, he adds.
“It doesn’t matter what Morsy or anyone says or doesn’t say, or even if he is replaced,” says Mansy. “We are starving and living hand to mouth and do not have resources for politics, and nobody cares. We’ve accepted that.”
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.