Poppies replace tourists in Egypt's Sinai desert

Egypt's unrest has starved Bedouins in the Sinai of tourist dollars. They are turning instead to illegal opium production, risking the death penalty if caught.

By , Correspondent

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    A Bedouin standing in his opium field in South Sinai, Egypt. As tourism slumps in politically volatile Egypt, some are turning to opium growing as a way to make ends meet.

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Mohamed and his companions are nervous. The poppy field they have tended for the past six months is almost ready for harvesting, the small, bright flowers waving in the breeze. Inside the plant's pod is a sticky-white substance: raw opium. When harvested it will net each of them $2,850. 

But Egypt is trying to stamp out the budding opium trade in the Sinai Peninsula, and that morning, the Army blocked the field's access road, only leaving as the day neared sunset. 

"Normally there are two weeks left to the harvest. But we are not taking any chances. We are harvesting everything right now, and we're not leaving any evidence behind," says Mohamed, squatting in the desert sand as the others cut the pods for sap before hacking away at the plants.

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A sharp slump in tourism is rippling across the southern Sinai, where resorts catering to foreigners line the Red Sea coast. Bedouins like Mohamed, who made a living from tourism before Egypt's political unrest, have turned to growing poppies.

The road to Mohamed's field leads past vegetable patches and stops after less than a mile. From there an all-terrain vehicle ride for another mile or so leads to the poppies. 

But it's still dangerously close to the main road: If the Army finds the field and burns it, the farmers will not only lose their crop, but could face the death penalty for drug trafficking.

The Egyptian Army later announced that its operation near Mohamed's field destroyed 286 Sinai poppy fields. Mohamed and his friends got off scot-free.

Poppy cultivation takes off

Opium has been consumed in Egypt since antiquity, but the growing of poppies is a recent development. 

Joseph Hobbs, a professor of geography at the University of Missouri and the author of the only scholarly work on the Sinai's opium culture, says that poppy cultivation there began in the early 1990s. Until then, opium had been smuggled from Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, before the Syrian Army – then occupying Lebanon – began cracking down on poppy farmers in Bekaa.

The Sinai Peninsula had the right climate and terrain: soil that doesn't become waterlogged, and mountains to shield the fields from the wind. It also offered the protection of lawlessness. In his 2010 study, "Troubling Fields," Hobbs estimated that the Sinai at that time contained 476 poppy fields.

Since then, growing opium has become virtually risk-free. Egypt's 2011 revolution chased police off the streets, creating a security vacuum in which drug seizures – mostly hashish and heroin smuggled in via the Sinai Peninsula – dropped to almost nothing.

Yet for many first-time poppy growers, the deciding factor was not the retreat of law enforcement but the collapse of tourist arrivalsOf six poppy growers interviewed by the Monitor, all had previously worked in tourism.

Mohamed and his friends catered to Europeans and Israelis seeking desert adventures. They rented camels and organized overnight safaris, serving Bedouin tea and food, and playing traditional music in the evenings.

Barely covering costs

Now they've turned to poppy production, not because it's a get-rich-quick scheme, but because they saw no other choice. Indeed, they expect to be out of pocket this growing season after paying for a power generator and an irrigation system. 

"Who would willingly do something like this? It is illegal, dangerous, and shameful," says Abu Saleh, an oud player and father of four turned poppy grower. "I would go back to tourism even if it meant making a tenth of what I now make from opium. But as you see, there are no tourists."

By all accounts, the Bedouin aren't getting rich from opium. 

Abu Saleh reckons he will make 18,000 Egyptian pounds (about $2,575) over six months. In the peak tourism season, he could clear 10,000 pounds ($1,430) a month, he says, and 5,000 ($715) during the low season. And then there's the risk of interdiction by security forces. 

"The Army has already destroyed several fields in my valley. I could lose it all."

Both Hobbs and Faisal Hegazy, from the UN drug agency's Cairo office, say the opium is not being processed into heroin in Egypt.

"I can say with certainty that no heroin is produced locally in Egypt. For one, the precursors needed for heroin production are tightly controlled in Egypt and hard to get. But more importantly, the heroin that is smuggled in from South Asia is so cheap that it just wouldn't be economically viable," Mr. Hegazy says. 

Hobbs says he suspects most of it is sold on the local market as raw opium, which is smoked or absorbed by placing it under the tongue.

Tourism takes a dive

Until 2011, Egypt's tourism industry employed 3.7 million people, many of them indirectly, representing 15.5 percent of the country's work force.

But between 2010 and 2013, the number of visitors dropped from 14 million to 9 million, and tourism revenues more than halved to $5.8 billion. According to the tourism ministry, revenues slumped by a further 43 percent in the first quarter of 2014 compared to the year-earlier period. 

At first, Egypt's Red Sea resorts weathered the storm because the turmoil was mostly in the cities. But then came a military coup in July 2013 against Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, spawning a jihadist insurgency from strongholds in the Sinai – and a steely military response.

The terrorist groups mostly operate in northern Sinai, close to Egypt's border with Israel and Gaza and hundreds of miles from the touristy South. But the effects are being felt in the South: The bombing of a tourist bus at Taba in February, near the Israeli border, killed four South Koreans, and scared away foreign travelers – even Israelis who used to pack the beaches. Many European countries now caution citizens to avoid all of Sinai.

The remaining tourists, mostly Britons and Russians, are warned against booking safaris with the Bedouins. Only government-sponsored tour groups are allowed to venture out into the desert now, and Bedouin drivers who carry foreign tourists are stopped at Army checkpoints.

"They call all the Bedouins terrorists now," grumbles Mohamed. "But we are the last people who would want anything to happen to the tourists."

Honey and herbs

The Bedouins of the Jabelya tribe in St. Catherine have been the protectors of the Greek Orthodox monks in the town's Christian monastery for centuries. Apart from the beach resorts, the 6th century monastery is the main tourist attraction of the Sinai.

Ahmed Saleh, a Bedouin businessman and member of the Jabelya tribe, reckons that opium farming is a dead end. So he tries to persuade Bedouins to instead produce herbs and honey, a tradition he learned from his grandfather.

"If you tell people that growing poppies for opium is bad and they shouldn't do it, then you have to provide them with an alternative," he says.

A local man, also named Abu Saleh, is one of Ahmed Saleh's converts. Two years ago, he decided to give up opium growing. Last year, he made 12,000 ($1,715) pounds from growing herbs, and 10,000 pounds ($1,430) from honey. In his best year growing opium, he made about half that, he says.

But more importantly, he once again has a livelihood his family isn't ashamed of, he says.

"My wife and children gave away the clothes I bought for them with the poppy money as zakat (charity) during the next Ramadan. They were ashamed."

Ahmed Saleh's project began before the 2011 revolution, and so far 60 families have switched. It's not enough: Thirty other families are on his waiting list, but he worries that overproduction could dilute profits of existing growers. He also frets that the foreign tourists may not return. 

"Since the revolution, I've had to do my utmost to prevent those 60 families from returning to opium," he says. "In order to sell enough herbs and honey, we also need the tourists to come back."

Ahmed Medhat contributed reporting.

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