Helmy and Konstanze Abouleish visited the Bellingen Shire this past week to provide information about the workings and successes of SEKEM Community Egypt. They are an integral part of this community, which comprises more than 2000 people, 60 kilometers outside of Cairo, Egypt. SEKEM was founded with the idea of sustainable development and giving back to the community. Their ethos is: “Sustainable development -towards a future where every human being can unfold his or her individual potential; where mankind is living together in social forms reflecting human dignity; and where all economic activity is conducted in accordance with ecological and ethical principles.” This community started because of the vision of Egyptian born Ibrahim Abouleish.
In 1953, at the age of 18, Ibrahim left rural Egypt in the pursuit of adventure and education. He settled in Graz, Austria, where he studied Medical Science and Chemical Engineering and also met his wife. 22 years later Ibrahim returned to Egypt with his impressionable 14-year-old son Helmy, who describes the astonishment of seeing the desert, Bedouin villages and camels for the first time, after life in Austria where it snowed for 9 months of every year. Ibrahim was shocked by the agricultural, ecological and cultural changes that had occurred during his absence. During this time the population had also grown from 18 million people to 45 million.
Ibrahim had been working in research and development in Austria and had only recently been exposed to Anthroposophy, a philosophy founded by Rudolf Steiner that postulates the existence of an objective, intellectually comprehensible spiritual world that is accessible by direct experience through inner development. Equipped with these ideals, Ibrahim was witnessing the so-called advances in Egypt’s agricultural practices through this holistic prism and was extremely worried about the changes. Traditionally the Nile had flooded every year, providing the Nile’s delta with nutrient rich natural fertilization, which was so essential for agriculture. However, in 1961 the government dammed the Nile to ensure adequate water for this rain-poor country. What had been missed in this ‘solution’ was the subsequent lack of revitalizing nutrients, which had resulted from the yearly floods. The Nile’s delta was no longer being naturally fertilized, with detrimental consequences for agriculture. The government was now applying chemical fertilizer to compensate. Monocultures had now replaced the more traditional practices and of course, pests and weeds had resulted. Egypt was now aerial spraying DDT pesticide across the agricultural basin. The youths were flocking to Cairo in search of employment as the rural life slowly deteriorated. These changes had “a deep and long lasting impression on Ibrahim,” says Helmy. It was the year 1977 and Ibrahim wanted a model of sustainable development for Egypt. Ibrahim had a vision: “In the midst of sand and desert I see myself standing before a well drawing water. Carefully I plant trees, herbs and flowers and wet their roots with the precious drops. The cool well water attracts human beings and animals to refresh and quicken themselves. Trees give shade, the land turns green, fragrant flowers bloom, insects, birds and butterflies show their devotion to God, the creator, as if they were citing the first Sura of the Qu’ra.”
This vision became SEKEM- a community on an untouched part of the Egyptian desert. Using Biodynamic agricultural methods, rocky, desert land was revitalized and a striving agricultural business developed. The basic idea of Biodynamic farming is the treatment of animals, crops and soil as a single system in a sustainable way.
This brave move was met with opposition form the Minister for Agriculture in Egypt. The government was skeptical about agriculture devoid of pesticides and believed it would result in worsening pest problems. There was also general skepticism about SEKEM’s plans to sell produce within Egypt. Traditionally agricultural products were sold into Europe as there wasn’t a healthy local market for goods due to poor wages. Ibrahim wanted this to change. SEKEM’s agricultural practices lowered production costs and resulted in healthier crops, thereby allowing a healthy local market to flourish. By the mid 1980’s, more traditional farmers were realizing that biodynamic farming would give them greater, more nutritional yields. This slow grassroots approach to change has now resulted in more than 700 farmers on more than 7000 hectares of Egyptian rural land now practicing biodynamic farming.
Commercial agriculture continued as usual until the European markets started to decline Egyptian exports due to high pesticide residues. In fact in the late 80’s, Egyptian commercial agriculture had the highest pesticide use per acre in the world. Cotton production was the primary culprit. The government sought advice from the SEKEM community, who gave assurance that discontinuing aerial spraying and adopting some biodynamic principles would not only improve the quality of the cotton, but would enhance the health of all Egyptians. The government agreed to a 2-year cessation of spraying to test the theory. SEKEM was proven correct and according to Helmy “this was the starting point for transition of biodynamic principles into mainstream, commercial, Egyptian agriculture.” Since this time SEKEM has had a voice with the Department of Agriculture.
Water is a scarce commodity in Egypt. The desert areas receive little to no annual rainfall. All water is sourced from the Nile either directly or via groundwater. Helmy explains “to feed a population, every person requires 1 million litres of water annually.” Egypt’s population has grown to 94 million people and this increase has resulted in a lack of the necessary water for adequate food production. More and more goods are now imported to meet the shortfall, thereby making the food security of Egypt vulnerable. Biodynamic farming utilizes water more economically, as better soils require less water. In fact, the improved soils require 20 to 40% less water for food production. Helmy is confident that this fact alone will eventually lead to even greater mainstream uptake of biodynamic, sustainable farming principles.
Today, SEKEM is a complete community able to produce all of their own energy and recycle all waste-water for irrigation. Their agricultural and social enterprises have been hugely successful and there are national and international markets for their products. It encompasses schools, a university, a hospital, and an arts department. Over 2000 multinational, multicultural and multi-faith individuals live and work harmoniously within the SEKEM community, while the hospital, schools and university service the many villages surrounding the community. Helmy sees education as the real key to a sustainable future for Egypt. The aim of the education provided is “to develop social entrepreneurs who are able to face and overcome tomorrow’s challenges through innovation, collaboration, and technology.” There is also hope that rural life will be increasingly viable for the youth of Egypt as SEKEM’s model of balance and harmony slowly spreads throughout the country. In this way “we can keep rural communities alive,” says Helmy, who only has hope for the future.