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Protecting the protectorates
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 30 - 06 - 2005

On a visit to South Sinai, Yasmine Fathi checks the environment
In 1983, Presidential Law 102 gave the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) the right to declare protected areas, introduce resource management and conservation measures and enforce regulations to safeguard them. Egypt now has 24 protectorates representing 10 per cent of its land. Five of those protectorates are in Sinai: South Sinai, Ras Mohamed National Park, Nabq, Abu Galum, St Catherine and Taba.
Ras Mohamed is Egypt's first and only national park; it was so declared immediately after Law 102 was passed. In the first few years the park covered only 97km; it expanded to 480km in 1989 following a governmental initiative undertaken in collaboration with European Union (EU). The park is renowned for both marine and land ecosystems -- a combination of elements that only multiplies its profoundly engaging beauty. "The corals in Ras Mohamed are breathtakingly diverse," notes Medhat Rabie, deputy manager of the park. "There are about 220 species of coral reef and 500 of fish." But terrestrial areas, home to the desert fox, the Nubian Ibex as well as numerous species of mammals, reptiles, and insects, are no less magical. "The place is famous for birds like the white stork," he went on, "and falcons make a home of the park in the course of their migration as well."
Nabq was declared a protectorate in 1992. Famous for its beautiful "virgin coral reefs that have not been impacted by tourists in the way that Sharm El-Sheikh and Ras Mohamed have", as Ayman Mabrouk, the area manager, puts it, the 586km area, with a 45km coastline, is particularly valuable for the rich variety of ecosystems it contains. According to Mabrouk, in fact, Nabq has three of the most important ecosystems all over the world. As well as the beautiful marine ecosystem, there is a sea grass and Mangrove ecosystem as well. Nabq boasts a 4.5km long Mangrove forest, perhaps Egypt's largest concentration of "a unique plant that extracts pure water from salty water", as Mabrouk explains. "The Mangrove also provides a nursery ground for fish that live there until they mature," adds environmentalist Richard Hoath. And that is not to mention that the Wadi Kid harbour in Nabq has one of the largest Arak stands in the Middle East.
According to Mabrouk, it is important to note that, while Ras Mohamed is a national park, Nabq is simply a protectorate -- a distinction worth making. "In a park only recreational activities are allowed," he explains. "In a protectorate the local Bedouin are allowed to maintain their lifestyle, which provides for fishing and herding."
According to Sherif El-Ghamrawy, engineer in HEMAYA [Protection], an NGO that promotes the preservation and development of Egypt's protected areas, the task of sustaining a protected area divides into three main activities. The first is to protect flora and fauna from negative impacts to which they are subject. The second is to "identify the different land and marine species", specifying their location and numbers. The third -- and this is perhaps the most challenging -- is to make the protectorate an economically sustainable entity. "An efficient administration," he stressed, "will in addition be able to produce an income that can be used to further develop the area."
In order to achieve such aims, in Nabq, the administration has laid down strict guidelines for both tourists and tour guides. It is strictly forbidden to touch or break off corals, to dispose of litter, to remove any life form, living or dead -- all are considered serious violations and dealt with as such. Madaqat (gravel roads) have been constructed to ensure that vehicles do not destroy the natural ecosystem. A visitor's centre with video and audio equipment to provide tourists with comprehensive information has also been set up; visitors also receive briefings and information brochures at the entryway to the protectorate. Sadly, El-Ghamrawy pointed out, efforts on the part of the management are still lacking. "The employees of the protectorates are very aware of their duties," he said. "But are constrained by the budget they have." Speaking on condition of anonymity, another source pointed out that, until 2001, a steady cash flow had been coming in.
As of 1989, the EU had cooperated with the Egyptian government in the administration of the protectorates, providing an advanced operation system for emergencies as well as the most advanced technology and facilities. When the project ended in 2001, however, leaving the Egyptian government as the sole financier, problems started to become manifest. "Now a broken down vehicle will stay that way for up to 15 days. We are often forced to pay for things out of our own pockets," the anonymous source went on. "If there is a violation in the sea how can I control it without a functional boat?" He sounded exasperated. And what is more, the government continues to rely on the equipment provided by the EU, failing to maintain or upgrade it even when it is necessary to do so.
For his part El-Ghamrawy gave an obvious example of this: "They are still using the old wireless communication device left by the EU, when they should have replaced it with a GPS by now." According to Mabrouk, the madaqat are in themselves another example. Nabq has 60km of main roads, he pointed out; their maintenance can cost a good LE2-3 million per year. They have consequently been renovated only twice, in 1995 and 1998; and in both occasions by the European Union. "These madaqat are vital," he exclaimed. "If a car steps off them it can destroy the ecosystem." The government does have the necessary cash, the anonymous source said. It is red tape that makes it next to impossible to access: "I remember one year our budget was LE520,000, but I was unable to extract more than LE500 for upgrading the protectorate. It's totally ridiculous!"
According to El-Ghamrawy, indeed, although tourists are charged $5 to enter both Ras Mohamed and Nabq, the profit goes straight to the ministry. "The ministry then distributes the income as it sees fit." More than ever before, the task facing management is challenging, if not altogether debilitating. "The sheer pressure of tourists, and the number of diving boats have increased dramatically," Hoath points out. "It is inevitable that there will be a negative impact, specifically on the coral reef." People who have been living in Sinai for years, he says, are starting to feel the difference. Some of the damage is nonetheless beyond the control of the protectorate, he goes on to say: "For example, there is a fish called the Crown of Thorns that feeds on corals -- they can't do much about that."
The charge is levelled, instead, at divers and diving guides. But Halim Youssef, managing director of the South Sinai Association for Diving and Marine Activities, denies any such claim. "There is a serious awareness problem," he says. "We have people who think the corals are just rocks they can break; and others think of them as ornaments they can decorate their homes with". As a diver, Youssef knows all too well the repercussions of coral destruction. "We have neither Pyramids nor Sphinx in Sinai," he explains. "No corals means no tourism; needless to say, we will be the first to suffer."
Youssef also pointed out that no one can work in the diving business without a licence; to obtain one, divers must take a training course and pass a difficult exam. Such courses are not limited to the technique of diving but impart knowledge of coral reefs and the skills required to protect them. "We teach them how to brief tourists before a diving expedition -- and to immediately report any violations." The main threat, Youssef believes, comes from the snorkelling activities. Snorkelling guides are not required to own a licence; they may be unaware of the marine ecosystem. "All they want to do is please the tourists," Youssef says. "They touch the corals to show the tourists, they feed the fish bread -- a big no-no, because it upsets the food chain, and they are altogether ignorant of the ecosystem and the measures required for protecting it. Following a governorate call for snorkelling guide examinations, "not one has showed up until now".
Yet snorkelling guide Amgad Assad denied all knowledge of any such exam, insisting that guides are aware of the coral reefs and do their bit to protect them. "I always, without fail, lecture my group on the consequences of touching or breaking the corals," he said. Assad did concede that occasionally a guide will encourage the tourists to touch. More to the point, he said, some tourists are difficult to control: "The Russians are the worst. They even walk on the corals; they sit on them -- it's terrible." Assad, who was leading an Italian group when he gave this interview, seemed confident that this is the exception rather than the rule, however, claiming that corals are seldom touched except when the tide makes it necessary for the survival of those snorkelling, a rare occurrence indeed.
According to Rabie, the protectorate management coordinates with both the airport and the seaport to make violation control more efficient: "Tourists who are arrested with corals can face a fine of up to LE5,000, as well as a court case." But money shortage will often result in a shortage of manpower, he says. The four protectorates of the Gulf of Aqaba have 110 employees -- a sufficient number, in his view. But he adds that an increase in manpower would make the job much easier. "If I have 50 diving boats, for example, I don't have 50 protectorate divers to accompany them," Rabie elaborates.
Yet, in view of the Red Sea's exquisite corals, at least, it seems that diving and snorkelling are not the only potentially damaging factors. Despite the fact that fishing expeditions are entirely forbidden in Ras Mohamed, and restricted to the Bedouins in Nabq, fishermen will often deceptively sidestep the authorities. Youssef points out that fishing expeditions are often undertaken at night, and concluded before dawn: "They throw the fishing nets on the coral, which is very harmful." Sometimes, in an attempt to arrest them in the act, the police arrives on the scene; this prompts them to leave immediately, leaving behind the unsightly nets: "I've had angry tourists tell me they don't pay $5 to see nets."
Another source of trouble concerns solid waste, increasing amounts of which are strewn around the protectorates. While protectorate brochures instruct the tourists to take nothing with them and leave nothing behind, solid waste is nonetheless accumulating. "In Nabq waste has been deposited all across the beautiful Mangroves," Hoath testifies, "making them unsightly. "Plastic bags look like jellyfish," he adds, "which some species of fish feed on. That is extremely dangerous in itself -- extremely destructive."
Among the concerns of the Nabq protectorate administration are Bedouins who have been settled there for decades. Of the eight Bedouin tribes of South Sinai, Al-Muzeina (one of the largest and most powerful) has by far the greatest share of Nabq. Mabrouk explained that tribespeople have a set lifestyle; it was somewhat tricky to persuade them to comply by the rules. "We told them they can only fish in specific areas," he explained, "because other areas were vulnerable. We told them if they didn't abide by our rules some of the fish would be in danger of extinction. In which case, we added, we would be forced to prohibit fishing for a year, which we had already done in other areas; and they knew it."
For his part Sheikh Autayek, a weary octogenarian, said the Bedouins were already suffering the consequences of environmental abuse. "In the old days there was so much fish, we didn't even need nets," he exclaimed. "We only had to collect them off the shores." Bedouins were used to limitations, he said, especially during the Israeli invasion, when the fishing and selling of lobster was prohibited. He also pointed out that Bedouins are inherently environmentally aware. "For us cutting a tree was a major crime that solicited a trial in which the culprit would be severely punished," he remembered. "We have been here for decades; if we did not protect our environment, would you have found all those resources?" Suleiman Mohamed, a young Bedouin, asked rhetorically.
Mabrouk added that the Nabq Bedouin are grateful because if it was not for the protectorate they would have been displaced. The protectorate, he pointed out, halted tourist development in the area. "If we hadn't declared it a protectorate, it would have been crammed with hotels and other facilities," he said. "And these Bedouins would have been exiled to the mountains like the Sharm El-Sheikh Bedouins."
For more than a decade protectorate management has been facing one obstacle after another. But what they are facing now is more severe than anything they have tackled in the past. "A rich businessman with strong connections managed to get his hands on a piece of land at the edge of the Nabq protectorate," the anonymous source explained. "And he is planning to build a hotel, for which he has put up a wall. We are doing our best to halt the construction, but there is not much we can do.
"If this hotel is built, it's all over."


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