Treasure hunters in the desert: A conversation with Saker El Nour on land grabs in reclamation projects and agricultural power dynamics

Photo of Wadi al-Nukra canal. (Photo: Youm7)
Mada Masr | February 3, 2021

Treasure hunters in the desert: A conversation with Saker El Nour on land grabs in reclamation projects and agricultural power dynamics
By Yara Ahmed
The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in big gains for certain agricultural sectors in Egypt. Spurred on by fear of a reprise of the 2007 global food crisis, countries loosened their import restrictions, driving up exports for oranges, strawberries and onions. However, in recent months, a sharp decline in export rates due to border closures to stem the spread of the pandemic has led to a severe disruption in the agricultural sector, causing prices in the domestic market for a whole range of crops to plummet due to oversupply.
Beyond the present pricing crisis, however, sit state strategies for technocratic changes to increase export yields: diverting Nile water to make desert land suitable for farming and “modernizing” irrigation methods to improve water management. The state has lauded these land reclamation projects as a means to achieve food security and decrease population density in the Nile Delta, historically the heartland of agricultural production. However, in practice, these policies have served an investment logic more than anything, with political and economic enrichment up for grabs along the way. 
How have these export-focused practices then jeopardized food security and induced some of the price instability for small farmers in recent months? Mada Masr sat down with rural sociologist Saker El Nour to interrogate the complex power dynamics between main actors within land reclamation projects in Egypt, as well as to explore how acquisition, exclusion and claims of agricultural land for reclamation purposes play out within these power structures. What El Nour refers to as land-grabbing practices, a common occurrence in many of these projects and dynamics, do not necessarily end up improving food security. Rather they create a roller coaster of contradictory relations between supply and demand for export purposes that, at times, leads to overproduction and, at other times, leads to scarcity. 
The starting point for our discussion is a recent research paper El Nour published, “Grabbing from Below,” which details fieldwork in Wadi al-Nukra — a land reclamation area spanning five villages in Aswan. The state originally drafted the Wadi al-Nukra project in 1982, started construction in 1997 and distributed the land in 2004. With over 15 years of on-the-ground dynamics playing out, El Nour contends that Wadi al-Nukra is an interesting model to look at to identify who exactly the land grabbers are, how and why they acquire land and what the wider effects of such practices are. 
Mada Masr: The title of your paper caught my attention, and I was hoping you can unpack what you mean by the term “grabbing from below?” 
Saker El Nour: At the level of academic discourse or even activism about expropriation or land acquisition (it depends on what term you use in Arabic), “land grabbing” refers to international actors who acquire and exploit lands in various ways. There is a land matrix and more than one way to monitor these different forms of acquisition. 
However, land grabbers are not necessarily big investors. They can also be members of the upper-middle class who want to acquire large swaths of land in order to sell it. I was interested in looking at what constitutes land grabbing and not only who acquires land, but also how it is acquired. What do landowners do with the land? I do not care whether the landowner is an Egyptian or a foreigner. Acquisition can take place on a multitude of levels, and international entities are not necessarily the primary actors.
Exploitation by major investors who seize land leads to increased agricultural technological innovation, export production and the acquisition of large swaths of land to transfer it from public ownership to private ownership in order to produce for the global market. Even though these acquisitions are domestic, it is all a form of land grabbing to me. 
MM: And one of the major vehicles for land grabbing has been through the state’s large-scale “land reclamation projects,” where there was an aim to increase the area of arable land and through which large-scale ownership transfers happened, right? Can you walk us through the history of these projects and the discourses and practices that surrounded them?
SN: If we take a look at agricultural land reclamation and the expansion of agricultural land in Egypt, this might take us back to the 19th century and the expansion projects that were established during Mohamed Ali’s rule, when land was distributed among the Bedouins. Since President Gamal Abdel Nasser, this phenomenon has become more prominent in political discourse, with terms like “the parallel valley” and “the new peasant” circulating. One thing I found interesting about the New Valley Governorate, as we know it now, was that it actually used to be called the South Governorate. Only after the announcement of a massive project to reclaim 3 million feddans of land was it given the name the New Valley. This marked the beginning of an imaginary that has been taking shape for the last 60 years that presents desert expansion and reclamation of “the parallel valley” as a solution to three types of problems: 1) population concentration in the Nile Valley; 2) food security, or what is sometimes referred to as self-sufficiency; 3) modernizing agriculture from small-scale production to more modern forms dependant on mechanization, technology and large expanses of land.
There are three categories of tenants in desert land reclamation projects:
  • Beneficiaries (montafieen), small farmers and fresh graduates who were granted land through government schemes
  • Investors (either companies or individuals)
  • People, including squatters, who held land around and within the territory of land reclamation projects (what is called wad’ yad)
This is the essence of the reclamation discourse, which seems simple. In practice, however, things are more complex. During the Nasserite era, for example, the state worked to reclaim land through direct ownership and large-scale acquisitions, then leased some of the land to farmers for cultivation, while distributing other plots to small farmers. Things took on different forms, and, at times, there were internal disputes between different administrative bodies. Each body had a different view on the most appropriate form of desert land reclamation. Some believed that the state should be responsible for the whole process up until production. Others believed that the state should lease lands to smallholders, and still others believed that the state should approve the sale and ownership of land, so that the distribution of land does not fall into the hands of the state alone. The 70s, however, witnessed the end of these contentions. The state prepared the land for farming and then distributed it or sold it to different groups of people, either small-scale investors or large-scale investors. With the advent of neoliberal policies, the state was more in favor of big and medium investors. Beneficiaries (small farmers and fresh graduates) were not completely excluded, but they were marginalized.
Even so, in the 70s and 80s, these beneficiaries were given a 60 percent share in land reclamation projects. By the 2000s, however, the period in which I conducted my research, these same beneficiary groups were given about 33 percent or 35 percent of land reclamation shares. Again, they were not completely excluded but were largely marginalized.
MM: If we focus on that moment specifically, from Mubarak’s presidency up until now, what do the different practices and discourses tell us? And what does it say about Wadi al-Nukra, where you conducted your field research?
SN: During Mubarak’s rule, small farmers and young graduates were given a share in land reclamation projects as part of social support policies, part of a political rhetoric about protecting low-income households, but they were not considered an integral part of agricultural development. This discourse continued during Mubarak’s election campaign in the 2000s and was often repeated. Later, with the greater prioritization of the market and “economic reform,” socioeconomic policies that support low-income brackets took a back seat.
Recently, however, the state’s strategy has shifted to treating land reclamation as an investment project that aims to procure the largest possible land value, exploit state resources and increase agricultural production. It’s become more complex to provide access to land for small farmers. The formation of partnerships with investors who already have capital has become a priority. It’s clearer now that this is more of an investment than anything, and supporting low-income citizens and the social aspect is less immediate in the discourse.
Wadi al-Nukra is an interesting model to look at. The state originally drafted the project’s plan in 1982, started construction in 1997 and distributed the land in 2004. From 2004 to 2017, there has been almost 15 years to assess and attempt to make sense of what took place on the ground in terms of everyday practices and who has access. What is it that really happens on the ground? Who are the land grabbers and how do they acquire land? What do they do with it? What do they cultivate and how?  
These questions give us a better understanding of state practices and how they differ from the discourse, which lauded the projects as helping achieve food security and decreasing population density in the Delta. 
Some interesting things came up in the course of my research with regards to small farmers, how they acquired land, their relationships with local officials, their relationship with local agricultural associations in their villages, as well as who the big investors who acquired land are. It’s noteworthy that most of the investors who acquired lands in Wadi al-Nukra have also acquired lands in most national agricultural reclamation projects in the country. 
MM: Monopolized them… 
SN: Exactly. The investors keep a close eye on state projects. The amount of state investments allocated to transform the desert of Wadi al-Nukra into an agricultural reclamation project is pretty massive. The state constructed a 40 km canal that extended from the Nile River to Wadi al-Nukra. It leveled land, constructed around 10 lifting stations to pump water from distributary channels and dug eight main canals. This money belongs to all Egyptians. Through research, I found that around four investors acquired the majority of the land in the area. These four investors have land in most reclamation projects in the country.
They are like treasure hunters, very focused on tracking state projects, with the aim of making use of opportunities to acquire land. 
MM: What else do we know about these companies? 
SN: They are four companies: The Fath Company, Magrabi Agriculture, Daltex for Agriculture, and Agrifirst Farm Industries
Magrabi Agriculture, for example, has more than 10,000 feddans in Beheira and 14,000 feddans in the western Delta. Daltex also owns large areas of land in Owainat [in New Valley]. In the end, those investors benefit from state investment in these public projects to do two things: to produce for export and to turn public ownership into private. 
There is one other thing that a major investor, who was originally from the Delta and had come to invest in Upper Egypt, shared with me. I asked him: “You came for the land, right?”
He said, “No, I came for the water.” 
I found this very interesting, that, on the ground, investors don’t only think about the land but the water. 
So, we are not only talking about land grabbing, but also resource grabbing. Land grabbing isn’t restricted to land but also extends to water. The source of this water is the Nile. As it is mineral free, there is no need to drill a well or incur extra costs. All they do is build a lifting station and use the water right away. 
MM: How do these issues play out in interactions between these big companies and existing power dynamics with actors such as large-scale farmers, local urban elites and small farmers? 
SN: There are two main types of conflict that drive these interactions: a conflict over land and a conflict over water. 
In land conflicts, the majority of large investors I looked at acquired land along the principal irrigation canal in Wadi al-Nukra and expanded it further by forcibly taking over the land that surrounded it, competing with landless farmers who wanted to claim squatted land. To be able to retain a plot of land that was acquired through this wad’ al-yad, land grabbers hired armed guards to protect it, until they legalized it as their property.
But there are other types of squatters aside from the big investors. There are small farmers, local elites who have access and power, as well as local agricultural associations that forcibly hold land until they meet the threshold for legalization. 
As for conflict over water, there are three categories of dispute. The first concerns those who seized lands before water distribution points were determined — who use water resources without a permit, resulting in decreasing water resources that reach those at the end of the canal. The second category of conflict plays out between those whose lands lie along the irrigation canal, giving them priority access to water. And finally, there are conflicts between farmers and investors, as well as among farmers. But the majority of conflicts arise between farmers since they own almost equal shares in the land. 
MM: By those that seized land before water distribution points were determined, you mean the small farmers?
SN: No no, they are not small farmers. But they also aren’t large-scale investors. They have acquired, let’s say, about 10 feddans of land through squatting. 
To clarify, the Wadi al-Nukra project begins at station 10, which lies 30 km away from the canal. The people I am referring to are those who grabbed land before the project had been officially mapped. 
There were also a few people who succeeded in acquiring around 20 to 50 feddans of land, the majority of whom are local elites who have the financial capacity to reclaim land and cultivate it. So technically they used water that was supposed to be used for the project.  
There is another group of investors who consume water without any restrictions or regulations. The only regulation is that modern irrigation methods must be used, but the regulations don’t put any limit on the quantity of water consumed. There is some kind of false pretense regarding the regulation around the use of modern irrigation methods. In theory, it saves water, but in practice it doesn’t. If I have a modern irrigation system that saves water, but I use it 24 hours per day, it will not save water. For example, I met a businessman who grows bananas and attempted to simulate a tropical climate on his farm. He used the irrigation system eight hours per day in order to increase soil temperature, humidity and provide suitable conditions to grow bananas. 
No water was being saved, of course. This consequently affects small farmers’ shares in water, whose villages are at the end of the canal. 
On another level, there are contentions between small farmers related to water shares. Sometimes they reach a consensus, but at other times conflicts persist. The most powerful investors usually end up having access to water, while the weakest small farmers struggle. 
MM: So you are saying that these disputes are contingent on power dynamics that determine who can grab water and whose access to water will remain constrained?
SN: Yes, exactly. 
MM: It’s as if the water issues are passed on to small farmers, whose shares are already meager in comparison to large-scale investors.
SN: Yes. They don’t own large shares, and they cultivate small areas of land. The project mainly provides each beneficiary with five feddans. There is a real issue with water resources, keeping in mind that the total area of land reclaimed from the desert within the project does not exceed 30 to 40 percent. How would water resources be impacted if all the land within the project were reclaimed? There is a water crisis and a real issue with its allocation. In theory, the amount of water allocated to the project would not cover the cultivation of the current amount of reclaimed desert land, let alone cultivating all the land allocated for the project. That is without considering the unfair distribution of land. While 66 percent of project land is registered to big investors, 33 percent is registered to small farmers and graduates.
MM: And Magrabi holds over 10,000 feddans. Doesn’t this technically go against land ownership size regulations?
SN: Investors adjust their legal cover in order to facilitate the acquisition of larger areas of land. Each entity is allotted specific land-size regulations depending on whether they are individuals, cooperative companies, or shareholding companies. All of these entities appear as if they are technically independent, but in reality, they are one big company.
To bypass size regulations, certain companies register as holding companies, when they should be registered as joint-stock companies.
Like you were saying, there is a certain family, for example, that should be registered as a family, but it is really registered as a joint-stock company. So land acquisition rights would bypass individual size-regulations. 
MM: There is some sort of selectivity in how the regulations are applied…
SN: Amendments permit companies to own a maximum of 50,000 feddans, but through exceptional ministerial decrees, many of them bypass that. There is a company that owns 100,000 feddans in Toshka. This exception was made via a direct Cabinet contract.
There have been a large number of presidential decrees and Cabinet decisions that allow for exceptionalism under the guise of legality. 
MM: But it is different for beneficiaries, who are not even allowed to purchase their land, no? You discussed, for example, in your paper that beneficiaries pay for their land on a 30-year installment, a restriction supposedly intended to prevent the tenure of agricultural land from becoming fragmented. Can you elaborate on that? What implications does that have on imaginaries of ownership?
SN: This takes us back to a particular point. One of the hegemonic narratives that is circulated posits fragmentation of land tenure as one of the main issues facing agricultural land in Egypt. Fragmentation of land tenure is a concern, particularly with old lands. When the state decided to reclaim desert lands, it viewed land fragmentation as a drawback, as something that needed to come to an end. This is an illogical approach, of course, since the primary source of fragmented land tenure is inheritance. The state’s hands are tied. It can’t approve laws like those in the European Union that prevent the division of the land among inheritors or oblige one inheritor only to have the right to the land. To avoid sparking a religious controversy, so as not to go against inheritance distribution rights as decreed by Islamic law, they decided to prevent small farmers from selling their land. However, they couldn’t maintain that law either, because there was a lot of pressure from local associations that pushed for ownership transfers.
There is also the issue that arises due to certain categories of people, such as small farmers, being prevented from selling and not others. Medium-sized investors for example who buy 40 or 50 feddans of land are given their contracts as soon as they sign the paperwork and pay for a quarter of the land’s value. How is it that a certain category of people is allowed to sell and not others? The issue is related to imaginaries about the core of the agricultural crisis. Some think that the problem lies with the smallholders and that the solution lies in large-scale acquisitions. 
This is another thing I am interested in exploring in my research. In Wadi al-Nukra, for example, I noticed that small farmers who own around five feddans of land have cultivated around 90 percent of their holdings, while large investors who obtained large areas of land cultivate around 11 to 16 percent, at least in the case of the four companies I looked at. The area of land cultivated in comparison to what was acquired was extremely small. There was an investor that acquired around 6,000 feddans of land and cultivated only 100 feddans of it. That’s the issue: the assumption that the solution lies in large-scale ownership.
MM: Mass production… 
SN: This is what was called the “Californian Model” in the 80s. The idea was that to achieve high-quality agricultural production, you need large areas of land and high-tech agricultural tools. It was more of an assumption that was not actually experimented with on the ground. Any criticism of the premise was treated as illogical, with the rebuttal being that the tenets of the California Model are not assumptions but facts based on numbers. However, the discourse that presents fragmenting agricultural holdings as a threat to high production yields becomes void when one looks at the facts on the ground. I am just saying that we should look at those everyday practices and not take what is said as a given, nor criticize it without looking carefully at the situation. If you bring up the issue of fragmentation of land tenure, people would scramble to tell you all the problems it poses. But what about the practice? This brings us back to the idea of discourse versus practice. Dominant narratives lose traction on reality, at least in our case. I don’t mean to generalize. Maybe the California Model proved successful in other contexts, but in our case it’s not working as we imagined it should. 
MM: How does this affect small farmers then, who own land but their ownership rights are stuck in a state of limbo? Thirty years is a long time to be paying installments. 
SN: Well, the small farmers and other beneficiaries treat the land as their own. 
It is a kind of assumption for them, as long as they have the paperwork. People are not bound by the law. This is also another thing I wanted to focus on: Laws are not the only thing that binds people. Conventions and relationships allow sales to be carried out informally. Buyers and sellers have some sort of unspoken agreement. They can sell and have some sort of paperwork or whatever, even if the local association doesn’t support the decision, but they get buyers, agree that this land is owned by X, and write up a contract. And when the ownership legalization process takes place, ownership is transferred. 
MM: How does this context of ownership reflect on food security? Consider, for example, the four companies that you mentioned that are in control of the industry. How does prioritizing exports impact food security?
SN: Yeah. There is a real divergence between discourse and practice. For example, let’s consider one of the four companies. Magrabi is considered one of the largest exporters of oranges in the world, not only in Egypt. It is a massive industry. Exporting oranges also means exporting water. So the question is, is the state supporting desert agriculture in order to achieve food security or to increase agricultural exports? In fact, these projects increase agricultural exports. This is not explicit, however. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, agricultural exports increased significantly. Egypt became the largest exporters of oranges in the world, as well as strawberries and among the largest in onions. Most of the Gulf countries lifted trade restrictions related to their import of Egyptian products. 
Egypt’s exports increased, not necessarily due to some sort of boom in production, but because these countries were preparing for an impending crisis. No one has really researched this, but it definitely affected people’s access to goods. Because productivity did not increase but exports did.
MM: They facilitated exports with the main aim of generating profit.
SN: Exactly. Increasing the rate of export was treated as something worthy of celebration, especially in light of a global health crisis and the genuine fear of the recurrence of the 2007 food crisis.
Europe, for example, closed its borders, making an exception for seasonal migrant agricultural farmers, who are integral for crop harvesting in Germany and Spain. The laborers were flown in from Poland to Germany because without them a food crisis would break out. 
We celebrated the increase in export rates and at the same time dealt with genuine fear in the second half of the past year of a food crisis breaking out.

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