Khadiga Lotfi, a tour guide, was recently awoken at 9 am to the sound of an electric saw cutting down a tree in the street where she lives in the Agouza district of the capital.
Agouza has long been distinguished by its large number of trees and green areas. But when Lotfi opened her window one morning and found a man cutting a tree down, she was shocked. “I called my friends to ask them to help me stop him cutting down the tree. The deputy vice president of the Agouza district then arrived, but she too was helpless,” Lotfi wrote on Facebook some time later.
She continued that before this incident a branch from the tree had fallen on a car and some residents had made complaints to the district. But instead of sending someone to trim the tree, the district had cut it down instead.
Her neighbours tried to talk to the men to persuade them to trim the tree and not to cut it down, but “no one listened to us,” Lotfi said, adding that the tree in question was more than 100 years old.
“The employees in the district said they had nothing to do with the incident. They said that they had received complaints from car-owners. There is a vicious circle of routine excuses. We are becoming the enemies of trees,” Lotfi concluded.
“Walking one afternoon, I saw tree branches on the ground. There was no one to ask who had cut off the branches. There was a porter sitting in front of a building, so I asked him. He said the district employees had done it. But why, I asked him immediately. He said that people had been smoking beneath the tree. I was astonished,” one Agouza resident who preferred to remain anonymous told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Asmaa Al-Halwagy, chair of Tree Lovers Association, told the Weekly that she had received complaints from Maadi residents and a foreign embassy saying that some trees had contained bats. “We sent a letter to the president asking him to help us to protect the environment,” Al-Halwagy said.
A tree is a treasure that has no owner, she said, but that did not mean that we should not be aware of its value. In Europe, if trees are in the path of new developments space is made for these to go around them, Al-Halwagy added.
“A tall tree is a mature tree. It can be 30 years old, and it provides oxygen to the surrounding environment. Our population today exceeds 100 million, and we need more trees to provide them with oxygen,” she said.
Similar incidents have taken place in many districts in Egypt over the last few years, causing many to ask why.
According to Helmi Al-Nashar, manager of the Agouza Gardens, a tree might be cut down or removed in response to a complaint that it is harmful or a danger to the public. This was the case of trees near the Agouza Hospital, for example. Complaints are submitted to the High Committee for Trees, which decides how to deal with them. Another reason for removing a tree could be developing the area. In Geziret Al-Arab Street in Giza, for example, the expansion of the street was necessary because of the increase in the number of cars.
Replacements and renovation may also be necessary. “We have planted about 75 per cent of the area with palms, Ficus trees, and flowers,” Al-Nashar told the Weekly. “We specialise in planting and gardening, and anyone who removes a tree without observing the proper legal procedures could face prosecution resulting in a substantial fine,” he said.
“Cutting down trees is the same thing as encouraging desertification,” Ismail Abdel Galil, a former chair of the Desert Research Centre in Cairo, told the Weekly, adding that desertification was a dangerous phenomenon facing Egypt.
A decades-old tree
Abdel Galil believes that planting trees in the streets should have a scientific basis.
Trees which grow vertically are not suitable for the hot weather and sun in Egypt. Palms and Ficus trees that are planted in the streets could be replaced with others that have leaves that fall in the autumn and are then renewed in the spring and summer. Streets should be planted with trees that do not disturb the view. Above all, a tree is part of the ecosystem that nature donates to people free of charge.
“Algeria has started a project for planting trees that is costing billions,” he said. Cutting down trees is ruining the donation that nature makes to people.
Trees are vital because they provide oxygen, store carbon, stabilise the soil, and give shelter to wildlife. They also provide materials for tools and shelter. Abdel Galil said that more NGOs should help to raise awareness of the importance of trees.
“We all belong to nature, and we are also talking about human rights. It is a right to have clean air and a beautiful country. People should know that the loss of a tree is the loss of the country’s environmental resources,” Al-Halwagy said.
“I discovered trees and learned to love them in Garden City in Cairo, the district where I was born,” said Sohailah El Sawy, chair of the Egyptian Association for the Environment and Community Services (EAECS).
“When we got involved in community work and the environment in 1993, from the very start our main focus was changing behaviour. We have covered a fair amount of ground during the past 27 years, and at the top of our list is saving trees,” she said.
“Raising awareness of the importance of trees means trying different ways of doing so. Trees are not for decoration. They produce precious oxygen, and this is what we tell everyone. But even so one woman we met during our walkabouts distributing our Nine Point Sheet About Trees asked us to remove the tree blocking the view from her window. When we mentioned the oxygen-giving benefit of trees, she told us it was polluted oxygen,” El Sawy remembers.
“Whenever we plant new trees we say that this is a blessing, a sadaqa, or charitable deed.”
Chorisia speciosa trees on 26 July Road in 2018; the road two years later (photos: Nesmahar Sayed)
She said the association was continuing its campaigns, talking to people, recruiting some, and distributing its “Save Our Trees: We Owe it to Our Children” brochure. It plants trees wherever it can, organises tree walks, gives lectures, and with the help of the governor of Giza has been able to clean up a garbage plot in Meet Okba and remove a nearby informal building.
“Even though it wasn’t a very large plot of land, we decided to plant it and transform it into a mini-garden, especially as it was very close to two government schools. Unfortunately, some of the children on their way to and from school would enjoy snatching the flowers or stepping on them or even breaking branches from the trees to fight each other. One day, I caught some children red-handed, snatching flowers and breaking branches,” El Sawy said.
“I called out to them that there was something very important they should know. Curiosity got the better of them. They stood waiting to hear me. We have put a spell on those plants, I told them. Should something happen to you, I’m not responsible. You have been warned.”
“Losing trees is like losing lives,” Al-Halwagy said, and this was one of the main reasons behind her joining the Tree Lovers Association at the age of 23.
The association was established in 1973 by Mustafa Moeen Al-Arab and his wife Safeya Hanem Moeen Al-Arab, who had English origins. “Belonging and loyalty to nature, care about nature and sharing in it and stopping violations against it” has long been the vision of the association.
“After the 1952 Revolution, some people started to cut down trees in Maadi, a formerly largely British suburb. Moeen Al-Arab with some citizens prevented them from doing that — and thank goodness they did,” Al-Halwagy said. Moeen Al-Arab and his wife, Wahid Bek Rafaat, Saza El Arousy, and Warda Blezar then established the association.
She agrees with Abdel Galil regarding the role of NGOs in society. “When I first sat with members of the association and heard about their love of nature and their belief that they could make a difference, I joined them,” she said proudly.
Al-Halwagy remembers the late 1970s when the government decided to turn the Al-Khashab Canal that crossed Maadi with camphor trees on its banks into a road. “The association won a lawsuit against the government, and Maadi NGOs then changed it into a public garden along the length of the canal. The association played a big part in that, even watering the trees with buckets of water. As a result, the Al-Khashab Garden still exists today.”
The role of the association also goes beyond Maadi. “We have stopped the cutting down of trees in Belbeis in Sharqiya governorate. This was in response to a farmer who phoned us in 2009, and instead of cutting down 300 trees, they removed only four dead ones and others that could cause accidents. In 1985, we met minister of agriculture Youssef Wali and stopped trees being cut down in Aswan,” Al-Halwagy said.
“We want public gardens for all people in a district, even if sometimes residents resist and say they should be private,” El Sawy commented.
Abdel Galil insists on the importance of trees for life and he adds that the kind of tree is also important in keeping up a particular ecosystem. “We should plant fruit trees and umbrella-shaped ones to try to regain the beauty of the country.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.