Cairo The Coptic (Christian) recyclers or zabaleen in the flat, former farmlands and floodplains of Cairo, built on the Nile, are on a small rise, some call a mountain, Mokattam. This is not an area where cabs travel, nor was it easy to get a bus, especially on Friday, the Muslim prayer day. In fact we were turned down by one bus company after another as we tried to get transportation. Drivers and their companies simply were not willing to go into this Coptic enclave. We were finally successful only by convincing a company that we were traveling to visit a well known church, built into the rock.
For me there were obvious similarities to Dharavi in Mumbai and the vast recycling operations there, but there were also huge differences. This was a “city” behind walls on rutted roads packed with trucks moving precariously in and out piled high with giant filled bags of recycled items. This was the community equivalent of a factory floor, where the workers lived along inside and on top of their work space.
We were guided by Laila Iskander, who is a developmental consultant, but a hugely exuberant and determined woman, with a long relationship in building a non-profit, the Association for the Protection of the Environment, which created a sophisticated recycling and processing operation to support education and training programs in Muqattam Village. Knowing something about recycling from our own efforts in Dharavi with ACORN International, I was very impressed on several levels. First, they had invested in the machinery and capacity to make their own pellets and to firmly plant themselves in the competitive heart of the recycling and resale market, employing scores of people. Their schools were designed without apology in the most concrete terms to train people to do a better job as recyclers. There was no liberalism here. They taught people how to read the street signs on their pickup route. They taught people how to add the weights to get a fair price. They had also managed to get donations of textile remnants and trained young women to sew marketable items as part of what she called “development tourism,” which was a fascinating concept in and of itself. They ran a store profitably. Iskander was also frank that the Association was successful because they had connected to rich Egyptians within the Coptic community in Cairo and globally to produce the income they needed to operate. She described a fundraiser a rich, woman in New York City did for them every year around Christmas time where they sold their products, producing one-third of their annual income. She was a ball of fire and had built an amazing organization, even if it was so one-off as to be both dramatically important and clearly nothing that could be easily replicated or sustained by others.
What was the same were the issues of globalization forced fed to Cairo municipal policies by the IMF regardless of the local culture. Less than 10 years ago Cairo moved from a system that had one of the highest recyclable rates in the world (85%+) based on the zabaleen business model to one that focused on trucks and centralized pickup, contract bidding, and the creation of the first landfills in the Cairo area. They campaigned aggressively against the contracts that had been awarded to replace them with routes and trucks and gone directly to the clients to continue to provide door-to-door collection. Their system was thriving because it was culturally appropriate, despite the fact that the zabaleen clients were paying double, partially as an extra charge on their utility bills for the new, ineffective compact truck and pickup system and also directly to the zabaleen. By successfully organizing the market the zabaleen had survived and thrived, but the compact trucks reduced recycling because everything was pushed together. Furthermore, rejecting the advice of the zabaleen, the outside contractors tried to get a German system with four separations, which people would not do, rather than just organic and non-organic. The community seemed to be busy and thriving. Each ton of recycling provided 9 jobs. One of our delegation asked Leila about whether any of the young women had gone from the school to higher education, and she answered that “No, and she would kill them if they did!” After 30 years working on the project and training them in these livelihoods, she and the NGO were focused on sustainability and financial self-sufficiency for the family, not some exceptional circumstance of escape. Like I said, there were no liberals on this tour!
Another reason that waste management has deteriorated significantly could have been a classic story of unintended consequences or an act of brute oppression where “what goes around, comes around.” The Coptic community is a minority in Cairo, roughly 10% in the dominant Muslim city. The community raised pigs on the organic waste, and then ate them, which was a great solution to both situations since Muslims cannot eat pork. During the swine flu epidemic, Mubarak ordered all of the pigs in the country killed, and special forces came into the area, did the job, and then buried them under line in huge pits elsewhere. Now here was a problem though in many areas of Cairo though these many years later, since the zabaleen only collect what they believe they can sell. They can’t sell organic waste or eat the pigs that no longer exist, so organic waste piles up all over the cities and swells the landfills as well.
The bottom line is not huge riches for anyone involved. The guess was that a recycler makes about 1200 Egyptian pounds per month or about $200 USD or about $6.50 per day, which is better than Dharavi, though certainly not a princely income, is also a long way up from precarious poverty. The Organizers’ Forum delegation had a masters’ course in organizing and development with the zabaleen.
The only thing that did not ring true was the response to a question about the communities plan, where the answer claimed that the community wanted to relocate the sorting and processing to another location in order to separate the work more from the residence. More commonly communities demand, just as they do in Dharavi, that they live as close as possible to their work, reducing costs and separation for the families. I would bet the monthly wage, there is little real support for any relocation, but we will have to see what the future brings for the zabaleen.