South Sinai - one of the world's great places Back :  Forward
Er-Raha, Sinai (photo: Joao Pedro Pio)
We choose to work in South Sinai for a number of reasons: ecological, social and personal:

(a) South Sinai is clearly defined by topography, hydrology, biology and ethnology. An equilateral triangle with 150-km sides, bounded by the Gulfs of Aqaba and Suez and to the north by the Tih escarpment, more than 50% of its 10,000-kmē landmass is contained within five Protected Areas, half of which is the St Katherine Protectorate (StKP). It has huge cultural and geopolitical importance: a World Heritage Site, Mt Sinai at its centre is sacred to three religions. Its contained area with clear hydrological catchments and boundaries makes it possible to model its functions as a single ecosystem to predict options for a sustainable future. The main driver of Sinai's ecosystem processes is water availability: much of the unique biodiversity has been marooned on its mountaintop islands by post-Pleistocene aridification. It is Egypt's most important area for biodiversity, representing only 1% of the land area yet containing 25% of Egypt's plants, 67% of the butterflies and 36% of the mammals.

(b) Arid lands constitute a large proportion of the earth's surface, yet are poorly considered in global conservation. Egypt lies in a hyper-arid zone and is officially the driest country on earth: South Sinai's high mountains receive an average precipitation of <100 mm per year, much less at lower elevations, but this average hides huge (but poorly documented) spatial and year-to-year variation. In 2010-11 heavy rains fell, but as always much was lost as runoff in flash flooding, causing widespread loss of life, infrastructure and property. The rain broke 15 years of minimal or zero precipitation, perhaps part of a 10- to 15-yr cycle of rainfall. Meteorological data are limited, but together with Georgina Endfield (Geography Department) we are exploring climate history using the unique archive of pilgrim accounts which date back more than six centuries.

(c) The 4350-kmē StKP was established in 1996 with a conservation brief that included supporting its indigenous bedouin population and their traditional livelihoods, and involving them in its conservation; latterly, underfunding and unchallenged assumptions of bedouin destructiveness through overgrazing have compromised most community-based conservation efforts. Unlike Bedu elsewhere, many in South Sinai retain and value aspects of their traditional lifeways: their relationship to the land lies at the heart of bedouin identity. In this contested landscape they have been increasingly marginalised by the Mubarak government's policy of settling Nile-Valley Egyptians in Sinai, and by the mass influx of tourists, bringing little benefit to Bedu, but seriously impacting the desert ecosystems on which agropastoral livelihoods depend. Bedouin traditions of pastoralism and orchard agriculture need to be valued and adapted so that these occupations remain a viable option within the StKP today.

(d) Formerly, Bedu relied on their livestock and their unique walled, irrigated, totally organic gardens for subsistence, supplemented by trade and wage-work. Since the Israeli Occupation of 1967, that balance has been reversed, but until recently herds and gardens provided an insurance policy against insecurity. The gardens have existed for 1500 years and have great potential, but new ecological, social and economic pressures have led to their widespread abandonment. Similarly, post-1967 sedentarization put unsustainable pressure on grazing, leading to dramatic reduction in herd sizes. Today few animals are kept: natural grazing is generally insufficient and fodder expensive. These developments have removed important nutrients from local diets (up to 40% of children are malnourished), and the Bedu's 'insurance policy' just when their dependence on volatile tourism has made it most necessary.

(e) South Sinai Bedu are very poor. About half the 7000 people in StKP live on US$1 per person per day. In remote regions many have no schools, healthcare, electricity or water. Lack of education and discrimination mean only menial work is available. The census does not record the Bedu separately and they do not register in published Human Development Indicators: they therefore slip through the net of policy makers and aid agencies. Although not all conservation biologists agree, the link between alleviating poverty and inequality and conservation effectiveness is now recognised by most.

(f) At a personal level, I and my wife Hilary have 30 years' experience of and commitment to this community, and with Egyptian and Bedu colleagues in 2006 founded an NGO, the Community Foundation for South Sinai (CFSS), to support it. We also established its partner organisation, the UK-registered (#1128955) South Sinai Foundation, to help raise and channel funds from the UK and elsewhere. Our work therefore builds on years of social and ecological understanding, and (perhaps more importantly still) painstakingly-built relationships. The CFSS works at grass-roots level in partnership with Bedu, promoting their own desire to see traditional livelihoods as a sustainable option for their community.