* Farmers say would rather build or sell than farm their
* Pressure on farmland noted by Sisi during campaign
* Experts say buildings and demolitions do long-term harm to
By Maggie Fick and Mahmoud Mourad
KAHA, Egypt, June 18 In the Nile Delta province
of Qalubiya, lifelong residents remember the days when lush
farmland stretched as far as the eye could see.
Today, their view is marred by unfinished brick tenement
buildings with metal rods jutting into the sky - signs of the
growing problem of illegal construction in Egypt's agricultural
The unlicensed building is more than an eyesore - it
threatens plans by the world's top wheat importer to cut its
costly imports bill by growing more locally.
Scarce farmland has been eroded for decades by relentless
population growth and urban sprawl, and the pace of unlicensed
building exploded since 2011 when the overthrow of President
Hosni Mubarak led to a security vacuum.
The Agriculture Ministry estimates that some 30,000 feddans
(acres) have been lost each year to unlicensed construction in
the past three years, up from 10,000 feddans before the revolt.
Around the Qalubiya town of Kaha, about 50 km (30 miles)
north of Cairo, residents are building new homes on farmland on
the outskirts of town in areas where crops such as wheat and
corn or fruits and vegetables used to be grown.
Farmers like Omar Mahmoud saw an opportunity in the
breakdown of law and order after Mubarak was toppled to build an
enclosed pen for his livestock on his own land without
interference from police or the local government.
Although he now faces a lawsuit and the threat of fines, he
says he is considering building a larger structure for his
family on the land.
Local farmers eke out a subsistence living on land they
inherited from their fathers, but some are fed up with the
ever-rising costs - and diminishing returns - of their trade.
"Farming no longer helps me get by," said Mahmoud, standing
amid the rice patties he just planted after harvesting his wheat
crop last month. "I'd rather build on it, or sell it off if
someone offered me a good price."
INFLUX FROM TOWNS
Pressure on the land was noted by President Abdel Fattah
al-Sisi during his election campaign last month, when he
proposed that the state build cities in the desert, relieving
demand on the thin ribbon of farmland which runs alongside the
River Nile and the Delta north of the capital.
The Nile Delta is the one of the most densely populated
parts of the country of 86 million people, and Egypt's
breadbasket. The vast majority of Egypt's wheat production comes
from the Nile Delta and Valley.
Landowners in the Delta are not just building for
themselves. Some families moving out of the increasingly
expensive cities are buying new homes on converted farmland for
less than the price of a small flat in town.
Near Mahmoud's freshly harvested wheat fields, a new
neighbourhood of recently built mud brick homes is further
evidence of the influx of residents from the towns.
Abdel Latif Sabr, 65, was living in a small flat with his
three sons and their growing families before he moved to a
four-room home in a district that was, until two years ago, a
fruit farm on the edge of wheat fields.
"God blessed us and gave us this complete life," he said as
proudly gestured to the bedroom where some of his 12
Sabr fears fines from the local government and possibility
of eviction, but says there has been no word from the
authorities since six months ago when he was told by the city
council that it was bringing a lawsuit against him.
Authorities in the Delta provinces where lush fields hug the
Nile river have stepped up efforts to confront the illegal
buildings, but have struggled to keep up with the pace.
New neighbourhoods spring up as others lie in ruins,
evidence of a dynamiting campaign that has intensified in recent
months, according to Abdul-Mohsen Al-Essily, the top local
official in the town of Kaha.
"The extent of infringement (on farmland) since the (2011)
revolution exceeds the total amount during the 30 years of
Mubarak, given the lack of police presence," he said.
"There must be a deterrent to building on agricultural land
through punishment," he said, flipping through a notebook with
handwritten destruction orders.
While it is unclear if the public demolitions and the sight
of whole neighbourhoods lying in ruin is deterring further
construction, experts say the process could prevent efforts to
Between the clearing of land for building, the construction
of brick and cement structures and their subsequent destruction,
the land loses its agricultural value, says Cairo University
agronomist Gamal Siam. Restoring it for agricultural use is
difficult and takes years, he said.
"If the current rate of farmland loss continues, in 50 years
or so, we will have lost every piece of our agricultural land."
(Editing by Dominic Evans)