Experts question new agriculture minister's land reclamation plan

Marwa Hussein, Thursday 9 Aug 2012

Egypt's newly-appointed agriculture minister unveils 5-year plan to reclaim 1 million feddans of cultivable land; Experts, however, question plan's viability

Egypt is a net importer of grain and the world's biggest importer of wheat. (Photo: Reuters)

Egypt's newly-appointed Agriculture and Land Reclamation Minister Salah Abdel-Momen has launched a new initiative aimed at reclaiming some one million feddans (1 feddan = 1.038 acres) over five years, Egyptian state daily Al-Ahram reported on Monday. 

Abdel-Momen put the total cost of the ambitious project at some LE60 billion (roughly $10 billion). Some LE12 billion, he said, would be needed annually to reach the target. 

"The state budget will not bear any of the cost. The project will be financed by national institutes, local and international banks, and investors at a low interest rate of 2.1 per cent in 20 years," the minister said.

Abdel-Momen did not specify the exact source of the financing, while local interest rates on loans at local commercial banks currently hover above 10 per cent.

The land in question is located in five areas of Egypt, including Toshka, East Oweinat and the Sinai Peninsula. It is a seductive plan for a net grain importer like Egypt.

Land reclamation plans in recent years never came to fruition. Two Mubarak-era megaprojects – Toshka and East Oweinat – were huge failures, despite the heavy state propaganda that accompanied their launch in the late 1990s.

The projects, especially Toshka, were severely criticised by opposition MPs and the media after ten years had passed and tens of billions of pounds had been spent.

The project had promised to create some 540,000 feddans of cultivatable land within ten years, and 3.4 million feddans by the end of 2017. Ultimately, however, only some 50,000 feddans were ever reclaimed.

"Land reclamation is a costly process; years are needed before the land yields the optimum production," said Gamal Siyam, agricultural economy professor at Cairo University. "Investors faced numerous problems, especially in the remote area of West Oweinat, such as high transport costs and high temperatures."

Toshka came under the spotlight again after the revolution, when a dispute over land in Toshka erupted between Saudi prince and business tycoon Al-Waleed Bin Talal, to whom 20 per cent of the land in Toshka had been allocated by the government.

The contract, signed by Mubarak-era agriculture minister Youssef Wali, did not provide any timeline for the cultivation of land, in breach of regulations stipulating that the land in question must be completely reclaimed and cultivated within five years.

The Egyptian government had wanted to revise the terms of the contract at the time, since Bin Talal had only managed to reclaim less than 10 per cent of the allocated land.

Siyam, for his part, does not believe Abdel-Momen's stated plan is the best way to develop Egyptian agriculture. "I don't believe horizontal expansion is the answer to Egypt's land reclamation needs, especially if we want to see quick results," he said.

Rather, he proposes that the government work on boosting productivity in Egypt's 8.6 million feddans already under cultivation, a recommendation proposed by many other agriculture experts.

Average wheat production on one Feddan of land in Egypt stands at some 2700 kg, while the same kind of seeds in the same soil can reach as high as 3600 kg if treated optimally. The same applies to other agricultural products.

"Increasing productivity of cereals, and the quality of fruit and vegetables, could significantly boost Egypt's overall agricultural production and exports in the short term," said Siyam.

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