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The Great Cairo tree massacre
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 17 - 01 - 2019

“What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another” Chris Maser, Forest Primeval: The Natural History of an Ancient Forest
In a city like Cairo that is one of the most polluted in the world, trees can be a very significant way of decreasing pollution, moderating the climate and absorbing the emissions of car exhaust in a city packed with cars in many places.
However, recently there has been a spate of cutting down trees in various areas, and though this has not yet threatened certain heritage trees — such as the Cairo Tower trees in Zamalek and the Tree of the Virgin Mary in Mattariya and others dating back to the last century and beyond — the phenomenon is becoming worrying.
“There have been cases of trees being cut down at random in different areas in Egypt, especially in the countryside, sometimes for wood to be sold to carpenters. One example is the group of trees that was attacked near a school in the Al-Tagammu Al-Awal area in Giza, but there have also been cases of trees being cut down near the Engineers Club in Cairo, in Port Said, and in various public streets,” commented one Cairo resident.
Social media users shared a video of a bulldozer cutting down trees in a park in the suburb of Maadi. According to the video, the bulldozer is believed to be the property of the municipality. The attack on the trees took place after a court ruling granted a businessman the right to build a commercial mall in the same area.
Founder of the Shaggarha (Plant Trees) initiative Omar Al-Deeb is particularly worried by the attacks on trees, since his initiative aims to help the needy by planting fruit trees in governorates across Egypt.
“There have been cases where some municipalities have cut down trees because they were planted by people at random and were in the way of building new developments. But in other cases, trees have been attacked by vandals to sell the wood to factories. This is completely unacceptable,” he said.
The government must do everything it can to uphold the law, Al-Deeb said. Meanwhile, Shaggarha is working on raising people's awareness of the importance of protecting trees.
Al-Deeb explained how the initiative has been trying to help. “When we start any event, we don't plant trees straight away. We first hold awareness sessions in which we explain the importance of planting fruit trees and their benefits and how to take care of them. Of course, we advise participants against cutting down trees. We tell parents to teach their children not to hurt trees even if they might think of them as useless. This is because by cutting down a tree you are killing not only the tree but also all the creatures that live on it. You are even killing human beings since trees generate oxygen after absorbing carbon dioxide,” Al-Deeb said.
He added that the initiative has put out videos on its Website to teach people how to take care of trees. Some of the events they have organised are in partnership with ministries including the Ministry of Environment.
A tree in Al-Azhar Park in Darrasa
Head of the Cairo Beautification Agency (CBA) Mohsen Mamoun told a satellite TV channel recently that the cutting down of trees near schools in Cairo had been done to protect the public, since some of these trees were dangerous and could have collapsed. Any work on ancient trees would need to be cleared with the Ministry of Environment first, he said.
Cairo is home to many historic trees, such as a Ficus Benghalensis tree planted during the reign of khedive Ismail in 1868 near the Cairo Tower in Zamalek and now called the Cairo Tower Tree. Article 28 of Environment Law 4/1994, amended by Law 9/2009, prohibits cutting down trees of this sort, and in fact aims to protect all the country's trees from unauthorised attacks.
It says that the “cutting or damaging of plants as well as the possessing, transporting, importing and exporting thereof, or offering them for sale in whole or in part, or practising any activities that tend to destroy their natural habitats or change their natural properties” is punishable by law.

HISTORIC TREES: “Law 4/1994 says that if there is an absolute need to cut down an ancient tree, for example because of a national project, the ministry will oblige the parties concerned to prepare an environmental impact assessment on the area in question,” said manager of the Department of Soil and Earth Quality at the Ministry of Environment Hanaa Al-Sheshtawi.
“This helps determine the number of trees that should be planted as substitutes for any that are cut down,” she added, also providing details of the process of inspecting and replacing trees in places where they have been cut down.
“In most cases, the municipalities are responsible for the trees in their areas and for maintaining the trees in each governorate. The ministry can receive complaints from the public through special centres affiliated to the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency [EEAA],” she said, adding that there were 14 regional branches of the EEAA that cover all governorates in this field.
There is also a hotline for people to inform the ministry of their concerns. This is under the supervision of the head of the sector who also receives official reports from the parties concerned with maintaining trees or those responsible for monitoring them.
The Virgin Mary Tree in Matariya
“As soon as we receive a complaint about any given trees, we send a technical team specialised in the field to inspect the area with the person who sent in the complaint. This then issues a report in which recommendations are made and sends them to the concerned parties,” Al-Sheshtawi said.
Most complaints come from rural areas where there have been many cases of random attacks on trees. It is for this reason that awareness-raising campaigns are particularly important, since it is only through them that people are aware of their right to complain to the ministry and to benefit from a less-polluted environment.
“The main reasons for the spate of attacks on trees are the irresponsible behaviour of some people and the irregular maintenance of trees in some areas,” Al-Sheshtawi added. Either the trees are harmed by passers-by or they grow randomly to the extent that they can close paths and choke off traffic, she said.
“Another problem is that recommendations sent to concerned parties by the ministry are often not obligatory despite the number of laws that govern the issue like Law 58/1937, Law 102/1983, and Law 4/1994 amended by Law 9/2009,” she added.
“We are completely against any damage to trees as well as to their cutting down, unless the trees are already damaged or dead or are getting in the way of passers-by or threatening property like in the case of a tree about to fall. In such cases, any intervention is designed to promote the welfare of the public, but it is under ministry supervision, so no random cutting occurs,” she said.
The Cairo Tower Tree in Zamalek
Sometimes the ministry is contacted by a member of the public when part of a rare tree is about to fall so that experts can take action. The ministry also obliges anyone responsible for cutting down a tree to replant one in its place that is equal in type, as stipulated in Law 9/2009 designed to increase the country's green areas.
“The ministry also plants windbreaks, trees planted specially to avoid the erosion of the soil in a given area, like those in Al-Wadi Al-Gadid, for example. It has also started a project to plant trees on the roofs of schools in Cairo, plant green belts on the outskirts of Cairo, and it has a shop selling trees in Northern Sinai, along with two more in Qalioubiya and two in the Red Sea governorates,” Al-Sheshtawi said.
The idea is to encourage the public to plant trees by supplying them at a reasonable price. This also helps to raise awareness of the importance of living in a green city for controlling rising pollution rates, especially in areas like Shubra and Helwan in which trees are used to absorb carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide. Trees can also decrease noise pollution.
“We organise summer camps in which we aim to raise the awareness of people by teaching them how to take care of trees. We have been co-operating with many universities, such as Al-Azhar, in this regard, and many schools. Members of staff have also been given similar courses on how to deal with complaints and prepare recommendations for the Ministry of Environment. We want to plant a love of trees in all citizens since they are the best people who can maintain a green city,” she said.
“The ministry also encourages the public to donate trees to help maintain a green city. Any person willing to donate fruit trees should work with the Ministry of Environment so that the trees are maintained properly in terms of nutrition and pest control. There have been similar initiatives by the private sector, and we are also ready to support those.”
Factory owners can be obliged to surround factory premises with trees and to use purified sanitary wastewater to water them as part of their environmental responsibilities.
“On International Environment Day each year the ministry gives 300 trees to each governorate to plant them to help eliminate pollution,” Al-Sheshtawi said.
“If you plant one square metre of trees, it helps clean the atmosphere of about 100g of pollutants per year. Planting trees helps give human beings enough oxygen to live, so if you plant one tree, you are also giving life to one human being,” Al-Deeb concluded.

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