March 12 and 13: Reclaiming the desert

By Laura Eggens, ILEIA
The Learning Route set course for West Nubaria, an area where “the desert has been reclaimed”. Overcrowding in the fertile land of the Egypt Delta led to resettlement of a number of farmers in this so called “New Land”. Initially, infrastructure, social services and proper irrigation structures were missing in this area, making it an incredibly hard place for farmers to thrive. On March 12, ruteros learnt how an initiative in West Nubaria turned the fate of these farmers around. 
Thirty years ago, small-scale farmers, landless farmers and “graduates” (educated Egyptians with some funds to invest) started their move to the New Lands. Canals from the Nile were directed to West Nubaria, irrigating the infertile desert land. Not only were many basic services like schools and clinics missing, but the available water was not enough to irrigate the 100,000 hectares of this area. Fortunately, when the ruteros arrived in this region yesterday, the farmers’ situation was very different. What happened here to turn this inhospitable area into a success story? What did the ruteros learn?
We visited the office of the West Nubaria Rural Development Project (WNRDP), funded by the Egyptian government, the Italian cooperation and IFAD, where we were introduced to a number of initiatives in the area – not only in the field of improved water management techniques, but also in terms of community development, marketing support, credit facilitation and farmers’ organisations. We experienced the changes in the lives of two types of farmers: the “investor”-farmer Atef Hafiz, owning and innovating on his almost 100 acres of land; and small-scale farmer Ahmad El-Far with a diversity of crops on his farm of approximately 17.5 acres. The last stop at the ICARDA research station in West Nubaria showed us where farmers in the region can learn from experimentation with varying amounts of irrigation and fertilizer applied on different crops, to discover the ideal water saving combination for this type of soil.
Seeing the different aspects of this case, the ruteros paid special attention to innovations and what were critical factors for success, making these innovations possible. But they also looked at some challenges that remain, and recommendations they could make based on the experiences in their own country. In this way, the Learning Route becomes a vehicle for knowledge exchange in both ways!
The ruteros saw in the West Nubaria case the importance of farmers’ willingness to change. It was a great advantage that land was given to small-scale farmers as well as graduates and investors, educated and experienced farmers who are able to experiment and develop techniques suited for this harsh environment, with the financial and organisational backing of the WNRDP. Farmers like Atef Hafiz and Ahmad El-Far share their positive experiences with other farmers. “This farm is open for anyone to learn from,” says Atef, who also produces his own videos for others to learn from. “I had an education, but not everyone here has that. People can use my real life experience, which is specific to the New Lands water and soil situation.”
For the farmers in this region, it is a pleasure to share their success stories with the ruteros. The farmer Zineb for example, who travelled from far to meet us at the ICARDA research station, wishes we would have come to visit her farm. Her peach orchard is beautiful now, she says, despite the extremely difficult start she had in this land. Mostafa el Sayad, the director of the WNRDP, also believes that farmers appreciate the visit of the ruteros. “They will get feedback on their work, but it is also good for them to feel heard. The visit of the Learning Route convinces them that they are doing something right, something worth sharing.” It showed from their knowledgeable answers to the (sometimes critical) questions of the ruteros, that they are the experts in their own context.

Interested in learning more? Read the first blog