Mohamed Abdl Azim is a human rights lawyer working with the Egyptian Center for Civil and Legislative Reform. He is a member of the Global Advocacy Team, an 8-person group convened by the International Accountability Project, to conduct local research on development and make recommendations to improve World Bank policy on development finance. The Global Advocacy Team’s final report “Back to Development- A Call for What Development Could Be” was released in 2015.
On 21 March 2010, a community in Cairo woke up to the sounds of heavy bulldozers demolishing their neighbourhood. Without any notice, over 100 families were forcefully moved from their homes and placed in crowded shelters or left homeless. A huge petrochemical factory wanted their land to expand its business. The project was financed by the World Bank, which considered the forced evictions to be an acceptable cost of “development.” This incident moved me deeply and was the start of my legal advocacy. Since then, my colleagues and I have continued to advocate for stronger protection of housing and land rights throughout Egypt. We want to ensure that future development in our country will be carried out in a way that upholds human rights. The case you will read outlines our recent work with Nubian communities in southern Egypt.
The Nubians live in Egypt, Sudan, and Kenya. Their history, identity, and culture are closely linked to the Nile River. Yet most Nubians were forced to leave their homelands in the 1960s when Egypt decided to build the Aswan High Dam. In the past decade, several other dams in Sudan have forced much of the remaining population into the desert. Now another energy project, the Kom Ombo Solar Power Plant, will once again affect several Nubian communities. Financing for this project has been promised by international donors. While we are happy that the government recognizes the potential of solar energy, the project as devised will likely require the resettlement of Nubian communities.
Despite all the publicity around the project, no information has been shared about the risks facing local communities. When we spoke to Nubian communities about the proposed project, we found that the experience of being evicted by the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s remains at the forefront of people’s minds. At the time of its construction, the Aswan High Dam was celebrated globally as a symbol of Egypt’s rapid industrialization, but the dam caused a number of environmental changes to the Nile River Valley. Most notably, the dam flooded two-thirds of the Nubian Valley and created a 5,250 square kilometer reservoir (Lake Nasser). Around 600 Nubian villages were destroyed, and approximately 120,000 Nubian people were displaced from their ancestral lands in both Egypt and Sudan.
Within Egypt, over 50,000 Nubians were moved from 45 villages. The majority of people were moved upstream to the city of Kom Ombo, located in the desert outside of the fertile Nile River Valley. Many of the Nubian people who live there call it “Hell Valley.” For a long time no health or education services were provided. No compensation was ever paid. The government retained full ownership rights over the houses and the land. The resettled Nubians have had difficulty adjusting. As one Nubian advocate explained,
“We are river people. We need trees. You can’t put us out in the desert.”
In the new resettlement site, there was not even drinking water available. Many people, especially the very old and the very young, died because of disease and lack of food. Those who remained in the resettlement site worked as farmers in irrigated fields. Many family members were unable to make a living in their new home and moved to the cities. In the cities, a disproportionate number of Nubians now work in low-wage jobs.
Today, as Nubian people living in the Kom Ombo region hear news of the Kom Ombo Solar Project, they fear that once again they will be evicted and left destitute in the name of development. The Kom Ombo project is still in the early stages. No ground has been broken, nor has anyone been evicted yet. Because the project is still in its early stages, we see potential for the Nubian communities to play a meaningful role in its design.
In May 2014, my team surveyed 100 members of the Nubian community in Kom Ombo. Over half of the people that we interviewed were young people between the ages of 20 and 25. We deliberately focused on Nubian young people. Just as young people played a key role in Egypt’s recent revolution, the youth of Nubia are integral to their communities’ future.
We were shocked to discover that the Nubian communities have not been provided with any information whatsoever about the project. This information is not easily available. Government authorities publish general announcements and some documentation by the World Bank summarizing the project can be viewed online. However, none of this information is accessible to the Nubian communities. The World Bank’s information about the project is only available in the English language, which is not widely spoken in the community
When we asked community members how they hope to move forward, the most common response was, “I want to meet with the project developers.” They have not been consulted yet. They want to know more about the project and where exactly it will take place. They want to know how they will be impacted and what kinds of local development would result from the project. They want information that is available locally in way — not just in highly technical reports on the Internet in a foreign language.
Across the world, indigenous peoples’ sense of identity and cultural heritage is often linked to the specific tracts of land and water where their ancestors have resided for generations. Although the Nubians in Kom Ombo have been displaced from their ancestral lands, many in the community have made a strong effort to keep Nubian culture as a living part of everyday life. One youth told us, “We lose our existence if we lose our identity.”
The communities also believe that any dialogue about the Kom Ombo Project must recognize the long legacy discrimination against Nubian people in Egypt. Many believe that an open dialogue with the developers would help to prevent the types of harm they experienced in the past.
The key to a successful resettlement in Kom Ombo will be to fully respect the rights of the Nubian people, as articulated in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. The community identifies strongly with its indigenous heritage. When asked about their hopes for the project, one person said
“We hope to be acknowledged as aboriginal people. We hope to have the right to go back to our lands at the south of the Dam, as our future lies there.”
It is important for the Egyptian government and international donors to recognize the Nubians’ status as indigenous people. We hope that the developers of the Kom Ombo Solar Power Plant will engage the Nubian people as co-visionaries and co-designers in the development of the project and its resettlement plans. In this way, the Kom Ombo project could become an example of a model solar energy project for the rest of Africa to follow, which contributes to the planetary goal of fighting climate change, while also contributing to the sustainable development of the Nubian indigenous people who have faced so much discrimination over the past 50 years.
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The report, Back to Development — A Call For What Development Could Be, will be released in English, Spanish and Arabic in the eight countries where the community-led research was carried out. The International Accountability Project supports community-led policy initiatives and development priorities. Follow IAP for more updates — bit.ly/IAP4FB and @4accountabilty.