CAIRO — Egyptian parliamentarian al-Sayyed Higazi presented March 20 an urgent statement to Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail, with regard to the implementation of Article 7 in the book of conditions of the “1.5 Million Feddan Project,” announced by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in December 2015.
The 1.5 Million Feddan Project aims at reclaiming desert lands and investing in them by tapping into groundwater and aquifers. The first phase of the project, launched in October 2016, consists of putting 500,000 feddans (519,000 acres) in the cities of Farafra and Toshka in the New Valley governorate and Moghra in the Matrouh governorate up for grabs.
Article 7 of the project’s book of conditions provides for the right of small farmers and young people to invest in these lands.
According to the urgent statement, the Egyptian Countryside Development Company, which oversees the sale and distribution of the lands, granted 99% of the reclaimed lands to major investors and gave them the right to choose the plot of lands they wish, thus leaving small farmers with the less valuable lands.
In this context, Higazi told Al-Monitor, “As per the terms of the project, the reclaimed lands are to be put up for investment to small farmers, but we were surprised by the draw that took place at the Arab Contractors Stadium [in Cairo] on March 19.”
The draw involved the lands in Farafra and Toshka and consists of distributing a 238-feddan plot of land to each group, with a group consisting of 10-23 people in the form of a joint stock company. Each group grants one person the power of attorney to represent them at the draw.
Higazi said, “During the draw, only 20 groups were allocated 20 plots of land in Farafra — 238 acres each, including 8 acres for facilities and homes. In other words, less than 1% of the young people who met the conditions and hail from the areas of Farafra and Toshka were included.”
Among the conditions for groups to be allocated land, applicants must have the Egyptian nationality from Egyptian parents, have no convictions for any misdemeanor or offenses, and not have any work connection to the land that is up for sale.
Higazi noted that the goal of the project is not only to increase the agricultural areas that are to be reclaimed, such as Farafra, Moghra and Toshka, but to achieve sustainable development and create new urban communities instead of selling the lands to big investors without any return to the state.
He added that many young people were frustrated by the results of the draw, as they have sold their family properties to secure 25% of the value of the lands put up for sale and deposited it in the bank. As per the terms of the 1.5 Million Feddan Project, applicants must have in their bank accounts at least 25% of the value of the reclaimed lands.
Of note, one feddan of land in Moghra costs 18,000 Egyptian pounds ($991), 25,000 pounds ($1,377) for one feddan of land in Toshka and 45,000 pounds ($2,479) per feddan in Farafra. However, given the inflation, the value of money has dropped in banks, adding to the fact that these young people and small farmers were not able to acquire the lands Sisi had promised them.
Hassan Nashaat, a representative of the small farmers at the draw, told Al-Monitor, “Unemployed young people have pinned their hopes on Sisi’s megaproject. However, our dreams were crushed at the Arab Contractors Stadium, where the 8,000 attendees saw the draw turn into a political demonstration, demanding the overthrow of the regime and Sisi and fight against corruption.”
Nashaat said that messages and petitions by small farmers after the draw were sent to Sisi and Minister of Agriculture Abdul Moneim al-Banna, as well as Attorney General Nabil Sadiq, and that small farmers are willing to file a lawsuit against the Egyptian Countryside Development Company.
Nashaat stressed that the company got itself in trouble because the applicants who met the conditions and were not granted any lands in the first round of the draw can acquire lands in the second round without having to enter the draw again, as per the book of conditions. Yet the company is unlikely to pull this off given the large number of applicants.
The head of the Egyptian Countryside Development Company, Ater Hanoura, told Al-Monitor, “This problem was caused by the fact that small farmers did not pay attention to the company’s announcement on Oct. 18, 2016, stating that the number of lands that will be put out for the draw was limited [to 500,000 feddans]. As per the announcement, there were 12,500 acres in Toshka, 5,000 in Farafra and 30,000 in Moghra.”
Hanoura said that there were about 5,750 applicants for the draw in the three cities, which is a large number compared to the number of lands put up for investment.
He noted, “Only 1,500 copies of the book of conditions were printed for the project. But groups of young people gathered in front of the company, demanding to have a chance to participate in the project. We yielded and sold another 7,000 copies.”
Hanoura added that the best lands were offered to the young people with payment facilities, whereby they settle 5% of the land value upon signing the contract and 10% upon receipt. This is in addition to a two-year grace period, payment over six years and well digging. They would have been also provided with electricity generators and drip irrigation systems.
Hanoura wondered how the savings of young people were lost, while the company did not take a penny from any young man other than the price of the book of conditions. Did they sell their properties before winning the bid?
Hanoura explained, "No land has been allocated to any investor so far, with the investor taking the land non-built and not equipped in any way. The investor would dig wells and carry out land reclamation, but the Egyptian Countryside Development Company needs these investors for two reasons: Cash amounts received by the company upon concluding the contract with the investor are used in the reclamation of lands for young people and small farmers, and the presence of large investors near these small investors [small farmers and the youth] means the availability of the latest agricultural machinery, paved roads and good marketing of the crop.”
Hanoura confirmed that the Egyptian Countryside Development Company fulfilled its promises and said the second draw will be conducted after the upcoming month of Ramadan. He added that the company will announce the lands that are up for reclamation before launching the draw — with transparency — as happened in the first round.
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