The Egyptian government's May 2009 decision to cull the country's entire pig population - ostensibly to stem the spread of H1N1 influenza - has hit the livelihoods of 70,000 former pig farmers and unofficial rubbish collectors and their families in the Cairo area, according to local NGO Association for the Protection of the Environment.
The rubbish collectors, known as `Zabalin', used to sell much of their organic waste to the pig farmers; there was a symbiotic relationship between the two marginalized groups in greater Cairo.
"I used to collect 1,000 kilos of rubbish every day for the pig farmers, and to recycle and sell to factories," said Nabil Abu Mazin, a rubbish collector. He lives in Cairo's al-Muqattem suburb, also known as Garbage City. "Now I collect about 150 kilos a day, because the pig farmers have gone out of business."
The pig population - most of it in the greater Cairo area - was estimated at 300,000 and it took about a month for the slaughter to be completed, according to the Agriculture Ministry, though rumours abound that many pigs were spirited away.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has long questioned the link between pigs and H1N1, and many health experts have criticized the government's decision to cull all pigs.
According to WHO, Egypt has 1,053 laboratory-confirmed cases of H1N1, and has had two deaths.
Some of Egypt's Christian minority saw the cull as an attack on their community, which makes up about 10 percent of the country's 80 million people, according to CIA World Factbook.
Change of tack
Slideshow of children and former pig farmer residents of al-Muqattem suburb in Cairo
The government now says the cull was a general health measure.
Agriculture Minister Amin Abaza told the media the government had been planning to "get rid of the pigs for three years" and that the advent of H1N1 had presented an opportune moment. He also said the cull would ensure that no new strain of avian flu and H1N1 emerged.
According to media reports, and most Egyptians IRIN asked, the public generally supported the cull because they saw pigs, and the manner in which they were kept in Cairo, as unhygienic. However, with heaps of rotting waste in the streets, some are calling for the return of the `Zabalin', who used to collect roughly half of Cairo's rubbish, according to various studies, such as a 2004 report by NGO WASTE.
Health experts are concerned that if nothing is done, infectious diseases will spread.
Impact on education
Photo: Emmanuel Dunseath/IRIN
|Residents of Cairo suburb al-Muqattem say 50 percent of the children living there have droppped out of school since May|
Abu Mazin said that since the cull six months ago, he has only had the means to send two of his five children to school. During school hours, IRIN found hundreds of children running around the rubbish-strewn streets of al-Muqattem, a Coptic Christian stronghold on Cairo's periphery.
"About 50 percent of our children have dropped out of school over the past few months and around 75 percent of the men are now unemployed," Karim Aweida, a former pig farmer, told IRIN. He said he had got rid of 10 of his 12 staff as there was much less to do.
He received the equivalent of US$9-45 in government compensation for each pig culled, depending on its size. Prior to the cull he used to sell pigs for $45-146.
Local pig farmers estimated there had been some 3,000 pig farms in and around the city, with some holding up to 2,000 pigs.
No compensation for `Zabalin'
Unlike the pig farmers, there has been no compensation for the `Zabalin'.
Photo: Emmanuel Dunseath/IRIN
|Rubbish being picked up in Cairo by an unoffical garbage collector|
Abu Mazin said the `Zabalin' were now leaving organic waste in the streets of Cairo as they had no buyers for it. They only collected items that could be easily sold, or moved rubbish if people paid them directly.
Poorer neighbourhoods, such as Imbaba in Cairo's Giza governorate, now have piles of rubbish accumulating in the streets, despite residents paying three pounds ($0.5) a month as part of their electricity bill for municipal rubbish collection. Commercial enterprises pay 25 pounds ($4.5) a month.
Compounding the problem has been a feud between the Giza municipal authorities and an Italian company contracted to collect rubbish there.
"The police increasingly harass us when we try to take garbage because we do not have licences to do so. They promised to give us licences before but we are still waiting," Abu Mazin said.
The ministries of health, agriculture and environment have also promised to build new farms for pigs, sheep, goats and cattle outside the city for those who have lost their livelihoods. However, no deadline has been set for the project, leaving most of the `Zabalin' sceptical.
"The government... promised to give us new farms. We are still waiting for that but losing hope by the day," said Tareq, a former pig farmer in the Batni Baqarah area of Coptic Cairo who refused to give his family name for fear that he may never get a farm if he revealed it.