This interview was slightly edited for length and clarity.
Sherif Bahaa al-Din is one of Egypt’s most prominent environmentalists. Born in Ras Ghaleb, Hurghada, Bahaa al-Din spent the early years of his life with the Red Sea as his backyard, which prompted him early on to be attuned with nature, birds, and the environment. He is one of the cofounders of Nature Conservation Egypt (NCE), an NGO that was established in 2005 and works on conservation of natural habitats and biodiversity in Egypt. But Dr. Sherif started with a patchy background. He studied art as an undergraduate, but even then he would go on birdwatching trips. Then he got his masters in regional and urban planning at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Eventually, he got his PhD in Ecology from Nottingham University. In this interview, we chat with Dr. Sherif about his love for nature, the start of his career, NCE, biodiversity, climate change, and more.
SJP: Let’s start with the most basic question. What are the biggest challenges to biodiversity conservation in Egypt?
BD: Biodiversity is a little bit different from nature, and at NCE we sort of have this bigger picture of “nature.” That can include mountains and geological formations, you know. But back to your question, there was a conference that took place recently, back in July, Egypt’s biodiversity action plan. I saw that an optimistic picture was being painted in that conference, which I think is not always very useful. It’s better to show that something’s going on. If it’s all good, then we don’t need to do anything. So, the current state of biodiversity? What can I say? It’s bad. And it’s not only bad because of its current situation, but because of its future situation as well. So even if we have some resources that are okay now, there’s nothing that’s going to stop what’s happening next. It’s coming. We really have very little, you know, it’s like you have this very nice looking vase coming from space and heading to earth, and you look at it and say oh it looks perfect, but where is it going? It’s going down to get smashed.
SJP: You are one of the co-founders of Nature Conservation Egypt. How did you first get into the field of conservation?
BD: It started early on. And it really came from a place of wanting to do something about what was going on. I remember participating in bird surveys in 1979, or maybe 1980. There was this mid-winter water birds-watching that a couple of Dutch scientists would come do here, so I went with them. I participated and counted birds. Next thing I was part of an expedition by the Academy of Science in Egypt to do a survey of the Red Sea because there was a very big oil spill. I was able to do this because I approached the right people, even though I had nothing to do with this field at first and was studying arts. But I was writing papers about birds. And on this expedition, they wanted to go look at the impact of the oil spill on the ecology of the Red Sea, and part of that were the birds. The expedition lasted for two months; we were looking at and counting dead birds. Then it rolled from there. In 1984, I became the first environmental officer in an oil company. This whole field was just starting in Egypt. 1983, the EEAA was established. I was the first person to occupy such a position in Egypt. Before that no one was really saying anything about how oil companies are spilling their oil everywhere. I had this job for a couple of years. And this was before I got any formal education in this field. In 1989, I contributed to the classic book “Common Birds of Egypt.” Again, no formal education, which shows you that academic degrees are not really the measure of things. I pushed myself into the field more or less. So that’s the beginning of how it happened. I established a particular reputation and expanded. In a lot of ways I was lucky. But I also had the interest, motivation, and obsession.
SJP: OK. And what about Nature Conservation Egypt? What were the beginnings of the organization?
BD: It started with the start of my career in a way. Back in 1981 or 1982, I had seen how the US and Europe had many strong NGOs that worked on conversation. And I had dreamed of seeing something similar in Egypt. And so we were sitting one day, me and a couple of professors of al-Azhar University, and we thought, why don’t we establish our own ornithological society in Egypt? A society for studying birds. You be the president, you can be the treasurer, and I was the secretary. Within a few months, we had a society. We got a few people who were interested from here and there, students. We even made a publication. We published three issues. And it was going well, focusing on birds from a scientific perspective. But over the years, it declined. I went to the States to do my masters. I don’t want to go into all of the details, but unfortunately for many reasons it kind of collapsed … I was then married to Mindy, my late wife. I didn’t mention her until now but I should have. We met in 1989. She is a very critical part of my story. Mindy and I talked about how much we need an NGO in Egypt. There was a big gap. No nature conservation NGOs.
SJP: And NCE was established in 2005?
BD: Yes, but that was the culmination of a lot of years’ work, meetings with lawyers, talking to different people. A lot of effort was put into it. And initially we saw it as a tool for different people who are interested in doing different things. We had someone who was interested in a particular plant, for instance, and wanted to do research on that. Others were interested in other things. So we viewed the organization as an instrument to get resources to pursue such interests. But it evolved from there. And Mindy was the driving force there. She pushed and pulled. But in 2013, Mindy passed away. And I have to say really, from that moment on, the staff of the society carried the burden onward. We were also lucky to have a cooperative board. That was a key thing.
SJP: Mindy was also a conservationist?
BD: Yes. Mindy really deserves an investigation of her own. She was and still is a very unique person; she had a huge impact on conservation in Egypt, not the least that she actually kept me in Egypt for a long time. At times when I was giving up, she was the one pushing forward. Till the end, she was the one who actually had the energy and the optimism and the drive and all of that. So we tried to look for existing NGOs in Egypt who could fulfill that additional role. There was the “Tree Lovers” in Maadi for instance, but they were limited. We, and especially Mindy, invested a lot of time and money to hire the lawyers to see how we can establish an NGO on our own, because all other organizations were not suitable for the work we wanted to do. But we weren’t sure of the ever-changing laws. We were also weary of investing a lot in an organization that would get demolished, much like what happened with the ornithological society. So we were very cautious. We wanted an NGO that actually fulfills its mandate. So we spent 10 or 15 years really trying to find a way to do this. And we included people whom we really trust, people who are sincere enough and who were really in it because they care about conservation. And so we went ahead. We bit the bullet as they say, and took the plunge.
SJP: How did the role of the organization change over the years?
BD: We talked about the role of the organization as a tool, and I believe that the organization is still a tool that’s not completely formed yet. We are definitely now closer to having a more robust structure like that of an NGO. Our role is definitely growing. We were just working on the strategic plan of NCE, which is not yet finalized. But the aim or vision is to preserve nature in Egypt altogether, for the future generations now. Of course this boils down to different areas and interests. You have species, you have habitats, and you have landscapes. Now we’re mostly active on species issues, and it mostly has to do with donors’ interests, which I believe is fine. We work on bird hunting. We work on raising awareness in certain protected areas. We have many different initiatives, and NCE also became a partner with Bird Life. We also work on sustainability in the energy sector. So we try to work on issues that are urgent. It is still a work in progress though, because I think we should have more advocacy. So yes, there are things that donors are interested in and will only provide funds for, but I think we should start having a voice when we see something happening. There are a lot of bad things happening.
SJP: Can you elaborate more on the difference between nature and biodiversity that you mentioned earlier?
BD: This is something I had to explain, with some difficulty, to the people of NCE. And at one point we knew we had to narrow down our focus to something like biodiversity, but nature is larger. You have landscapes in nature, geo-morphological features that sometimes get destroyed by certain practices—construction, development, etc. A few years back we actually had a campaign against Porto Fayoum, a big development project that they were going to implement close to Lake Qaroun on top of a very important geological area—there is petrified wood, fossils, etc. And I think we succeeded in stopping that. This was in 2012, back when things were a bit loose. Now we have to be a bit careful. Now there isn’t a lot of tolerance. But we are losing a lot of nature, without any documentation. So this is a tough situation.
SJP: I appreciate that you brought up this story of Porto Fayoum, because my next question was going to be about engaging communities in the projects that NCE undertakes. What were the experiences that NCE had in that sense of going beyond the staff and working with people on the ground?
BD: Until now I don’t think we have a lot of experience in this area. I wouldn’t say that what we had in Fayoum was engagement with local communities. We mostly focused on an internet campaign, and we had the support of some local people there but it wasn’t the entire people of Fayoum. So we haven’t reached that yet. We had an attempt before to get local people to participate in conservation issues and discussions, but it never reached a point where it became self-sustaining. So I think until now we’re still playing in the electronic realm. Especially now in the current climate. That’s what’s possible now. But in planning for our future strategy, I communicated that we need a whole objective on education and raising public awareness, sensitizing people regarding some issues. NCE is not an implementation agency. We can implement some things on a small scale. But our role is to inform, educate, and sensitize. To create an awareness about environmental problems.
SJP: In the course of your work, have you witnessed the effects of climate change?
BD: In Egypt specifically, how do you draw the line between climate change and direct and immediate human practices? I don’t know. We are not a rainy country. The impacts of human activities here are much greater than impacts of climate change. So actually climate change is upstaged by what humans are doing. Look at the high dam, a complete change in the Nile. Look at the Suez Canal, a complete change in the Mediterranean. Removing a whole habitat in the North Coast. The Red Sea is completely different now. I used to camp in Hurghada, there was nothing. Now, everything is different. There are new trees there, new birds. I don’t know. Our impact is so huge that it’s difficult to focus on and measure how climate change factors in. Take the North Coast for example, maybe a natural habitat has become more arid, or some plants changed features or locations. But compare that to the effects of development, for example. Development obliterates the habitat, it no longer exists afterwards. Climate change changes things, but there’s no comparison to what urban development does. It’s so rapid.
SJP: I appreciate the distinction that you are making, especially that I feel like it’s easier to talk about climate change and the impending danger because it’s not always tangible. But with biodiversity, it’s literally there in front of you. The concrete steps to fix it are there, but it just doesn’t happen.
BD: Exactly. That’s what I always say. In Egypt, it’s like there’s a train that is on its way right now to smash you, but instead you’re talking about a faraway danger. And it’s like, we won’t even be there when that second disaster comes. Let’s deal with what we have on the ground now. For climate change adaptation, we tell people to take care of their natural vegetation, to reduce overgrazing, all of these things that would preserve biodiversity anyway. Focusing on resilience, back up plans, reduce erosion, all this. It’s all about better management of resources. In a country that is not a main emitter of greenhouse gases, what are you going to do? The best thing is to improve the health of your environment, so it is actually capable of withstanding what’s next. But if the environment is already destroyed, then what now? If there’s nothing to hold the soil, strong rains will destroy everything. If you don’t have healthy corals, then the next heatwave will kill not only the corals, but everything else. There are so many resources that get channeled to such discussions about resilience and climate change and this and that, which is fine, but things we immediately need are ignored. People like to “meet and chat” about such things, and there are many funds for that. And like you said, the more distant it seems, the more they “want” to talk about it. That doesn’t happen enough with conservation. They don’t want that because it’s too much work. It will involve action and conflict.
SJP: And there are people whose interests lie in not doing anything.
BD: Yes, exactly. And this is a crucial issue. Climate change is real and disastrous, but I think it’s often co-opted in a way to deflect responsibilities.