Egypt's Ministry of Environment is planning to open the country's underdeveloped nature reserves to investment projects to make the best us of their resources.
SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt — On the sidelines of the annual meetings of the African Caucus for the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund held on Aug. 5 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt’s Environment Minister Yasmine Fouad said in an interview with Egypt’s Extra News, “The ministry is currently interested in developing Egypt’s nature reserves by improving infrastructure and allowing the private sector to make use of economic activities there.”
Fouad further noted that the Ministry of Environment will give investment companies access to two nature reserves within four months. The first is Tigris Valley, east of Maadi in Cairo, and the second one could be either Ras Muhammad National Park in South Sinai or the petrified forest in Cairo governorate.
That day, Fouad visited Ras Muhammad National Park in Sharm El-Sheikh in South Sinai along with Egyptian Minister of Tourism Rania al-Mashat. In a joint press release, they expressed the importance of investing in nature reserves by offering services to investors who can turn them into eco-tourism attractions.
The head of the nature reserves department at the Ministry of Environment and spokesperson for the ministry’s protected areas and biodiversity department, Mohamed Salem, told Al-Monitor, “The ministry is currently focusing on investing in nature reserves according to the nature and the size of the reserves’ infrastructure. The purpose is to benefit from them as much as possible while abiding by the laws defining their use and without changing the shape and characteristics of each protected area.”
Salem said that nature reserves should not remain closed and that only 13 out of 30 protected areas in the country are open to visitors for lack of financial resources and services. Instead, he noted, Egypt must benefit from them economically and socially in order to sustain them.
Egypt’s Law No. 102 of 1983 established nature reserves and defined the appropriate activities and services allowed in them. Law No. 4 of 1994 on the protection of the environment imposed penalties for harming the reserve. Prime Minister’s Decree No. 2728 of 2015 was issued to support previous laws and obliged investors to avoid activities that put nature reserves at risk.
Salem said that the ministry plans to develop the services offered to visitors by allowing specialized Egyptian or foreign companies to invest in environmentally friendly projects such as building restaurants or toilets outside nature reserves.
Salem said the reserves will remain under the control of the Ministry of Environment, but the services provided will be managed through the private sector. Each nature reserve will be invested in differently, according to its specific needs and offerings.
The Tigris Valley and Ras Muhammad National Park reserve are suitable for sporting activities such as diving, mountaineering and hiking as well as for the observation of migratory birds and marine life. Researchers and students can visit and study the natural environment of some sites, such as the fossils in Wadi Al-Hitan.
According to the Ministry of Environment’s website, there are 30 nature reserves in Egypt, representing 15% of the country’s total area. Key reserves include the South Sinai protected areas such as St. Catherine’s Monastery, Ras Muhammad National Park, Taba Reserve and Nabq protected area, as well as the petrified forest and Tigris Valley in Cairo.
Ahmed Salem, administrator of the Sahara Survival School Facebook page, told Al-Monitor over the phone, “Tigris Valley is one of the most important desert reserves in Egypt. … It holds many wild plants such as achillea fragrantissima and euphorbia pithyusa, as well as animals such as deer and red foxes, insects and reptiles, in addition to fossils that formed millions of years ago.”
He explained that a tourist area was established by the Ministry of Environment within the protected area over the past few months and expressed hope that investors and visitors will protect reserve and not endanger the animals.
Salem said he started the Sahara Survival School while he was camping in Tigris Valley in 2013 to give free lessons to desert lovers on topics like survival and search and rescue. The lessons are offered within nature reserves, where the training is both theoretical and hands-on.
Ahmed Anas, an accountant from Maadi who regularly visits Tigris Valley, told Al-Monitor, “The reserve is a great place to take pictures with friends and to see wildlife up close, but it lacks services and publicity.”
Ras Mohammad National Park, which is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, is located at the confluence of the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba. The eastern edge is a rocky wall with coral reefs, and it has a mangrove channel between Ras Muhammad Peninsula and the island of al-Baira.
The Ras Mohammed coral reef is home to colorful fish, endangered sea turtles, rare aquatic animals, dolphins and sharks. The park is also home to foxes, hyenas, mountain goats and falcons.
Salem noted that the Ministry of Environment is preparing a law to establish the Economic Commission for Protected Areas, tasked with setting economic plans for the development of protected areas and improving environmental conditions.
Parliament member Amr Sedki told Al-Monitor, “Former Minister of Environment Khalid Fahmi was complaining about the lack of budget for nature reserves. This is why outer parts of the Tigris Valley were put up for investment, to benefit from them and use the money to protect reserves and promote tourism.”
He explained that investment in nature reserves will be done in accordance with the laws that protect them and set conditions for investors, including severe penalties for violators, to maintain the sustainability of protected areas.
Sedki said that with the beginning of its fourth session in October, the parliament will discuss the law and how to ensure investors to take up environmentally friendly projects.
Magdy Allam, secretary of the Union of Arab Environmental Experts, told Al-Monitor, “The private sector will do better than the Egyptian state in terms of managing the services provided to visitors to nature reserves.”
He explained, “The state’s role is to establish conditions and controls for investment activities around the reserves and force owners to abide by environmental laws and regulations according to the nature of those activities or projects, which will be determined based on the nature of each reserve.” He stressed that all projects must be environmentally friendly.
Allam noted that the Ministry of Tourism is well positioned to promote eco-tourism in Egypt through contacts with specialized companies abroad.