Cairo residents replanting trees – on rooftops

CAIRO, 12 Nov 2022:

Residents of Cairo’s most leafy neighbourhoods wake up to the grinding sound of chainsaws as the government fells trees – gripped by a construction frenzy – forcing Egyptians to take to their rooftops to safeguard the scarce plants that remain in the city.

Thousands of years ago, ancient Egyptians considered trees and plants sacred – agriculture was one of the main pillars of their civilisation.

Now, Cairo’s residents have turned to social media to decry the “massacre of trees”.

In Heliopolis, a suburb east of the capital, locals have lodged formal complaints and launched campaigns to conserve the few green areas that are languishing in the sprawling concrete and dusty metropolis.

Activists have also taken to planting trees on the streets of several Egyptian cities – encouraging citizens to use their terraces and roofs to grow foliage and promote a healthier urban space.

Before the government launched its tree-felling operation two years ago, Egypt only had 5,370 sq km of green areas in a country that straddles around one million sq km, according to the official statistics agency CAPMAS.

Back then, the agency already estimated that figure represented less than 10% of the green spaces which should exist, but regardless, each year green areas become fewer.

The authorities have justified widespread tree-felling – saying the move will widen streets, pave the way for a network of highways and bridges and make for a safer environment given that, according to the government, residents risk trees falling on them.

The Egyptian Penal Code criminalises the felling of trees and punishes perpetrators with up to six months of mandatory prison, but the legal system has not put the brakes on the government’s frenzy.

Faced with this situation, agricultural engineers Hossam Shabaan and Eslam Shams al Din founded the “Mazraet Beitna” (the farm of our house, in Arabic) initiative two years ago to convert roofs, streets, terraces and even the walls of the buildings into green spaces.

“One of the objectives of the initiative is to take advantage of the spaces on the roofs because in Cairo almost all of them are used as warehouses to store unnecessary furniture. For this reason, they are the perfect place to increase the green areas that hardly exist within that city,” Shams al Din explained.

Shaaban adds that the initiative draws from hydroponic and aquaponic systems, although they prefer to use pots because it is “easier, simpler and less expensive for people.”

He says plants are essential because “they filter the air, improve its quality and shade the walls and ceiling, which reduces the temperature of the rooms by up to 7 degrees Celsius.”

In 2016, Omar al Deeb founded “Shagarha” (“Make it green” in Arabic), an initiative to plant fruit trees, with the aim of sowing life between concrete towers and so that neighbours can harvest fruits and vegetables.

“It is not easy at all to change the culture and mentality of the people, and to create a sustainable and green environment in public spaces, schools, terraces and rooftops,” Al Deeb said.

Deeb launched his campaign to plant 27,000 trees in various cities in the country in August, ahead of the Cop 27 climate summit in Sharm el Sheikh.

So far 5,000 trees have been planted and the operation will continue until November 2023.

By 2030, the initiative hopes to cultivate 30 million olive, citrus, moringa and fig trees because “they are easy to plant and care for, they consume less water than other trees, and they withstand changes in the climate of Egypt” Al Deeb concluded.