Dropping seed bombs

Environmentalists, activists and bystanders gathered Saturday at various locations around Cairo and Alexandria to join a seed bombing campaign known as “Bozoor Baladi” (Seeds of My Country).

Seed bombing is considered a political act of “guerilla gardening” in which small, tightly compacted balls of clay, fertilizer and seeds are thrown into public spaces and parks to create awareness about a particular agricultural cause, establish dialogue, and reclaim and beautify public spaces in the process.

These seed balls sprout very quickly — some had already begun sprouting before the march had begun — making it a very efficient technique to create awareness and dialogue with skeptical onlookers.

In Egypt, the particular cause was the advocacy of using local, organic seeds rather than imported, genetically modified seeds, which are both expensive and yield harmful and poor crops. Access to quality, low-priced, organic local seeds has become one of the most pressing issues facing farmers over the past years.

A native seed is one that has been growing in a specific place for a very long time and that has adapted very well to this specific environment. Industrialized agriculture, and its monoculture ideal, has introduced all over the world limited varieties of standardized seeds produced by a handful of multinationals.

These seeds have gradually replaced the local, organic seeds that farmers had perfected over generations, which has caused a series of problems. First, this is foreign seed and, in order to adapt to its new environment, it needs to be sprayed with large amounts of fertilizers and pesticides to resist and grow. Second, these seeds are patented, meaning they are owned by these companies, which consequently have the power to demand royalties from farmers and control the market. In Egypt, organic native seeds have become a rarity, only to be found in remote small farms where farmers have been saving their seeds for years.

Various environmental and agricultural NGOs, such as Nawaya, Greenpeace, 350.org and Nabta, initiated the campaign. They had been hosting workshops for several weeks to create awareness about the project and create the seed balls.

“We’re calling for a reform in agricultural policy through the engagement of the street in opening the discussion about these issues, because of a lack of discussion about it in the public sphere,” says Greenpeace communications officer Hoda Baraka, who thinks hands-on seed bombing with public engagement will have a more positive effect than isolated, abstract, environmental lectures.

Reem Saad, an American University in Cairo professor of social anthropology with a strong interest in rural Egypt, also joined the campaign, advocating the need to create awareness about food sovereignty rather than simply food security.

“Food security really relates to just having enough to feed people, but food sovereignty is an integrated concept — a comprehensive approach that emphasizes not just the quantity of food, but the quality, and the work and the effort of the producers themselves,” she says, adding that the seed “crisis” is at the heart of the destruction of food sovereignty in Egypt.

Between 8,000 to 10,000 seed balls containing seeds of bitter oranges, peas, wheat and barley were prepared for Saturday’s event, organizers say.

Four specific locations were marched through and seed bombed last weekend: three in Cairo — downtown, Heliopolis and Maadi — and one in Alexandria, starting outside the Cairo train station.

Organizers and participants arrived with wheelbarrows and bags full of thousands of seed balls, as well as flyers and stickers to promote the cause. Marches started at about 2 pm and were made from square to square, as seed balls were thrown apace, interrupted only by continual discussions with curious bystanders.

Having joined the downtown march, which moved from Opera Square in Zamalek to Abdeen Square downtown, passers-by, homeless children and police officers instantly congregated around the growing crowd, trying to understand what was going on.

“Is this a protest against the Brotherhood?” and “Are you going to throw those rocks at people?” were among some of the initial questions floating around.

However, after organizers explained the cause behind the march and event, supported by the chant, “Enta Masri! Tezra Masri!” (“You’re Egyptian! Plant Egyptian!”), onlookers and passers-by became some of the most active marchers.

Several young boys instantly grabbed a wheelbarrow and ran around, handing out flyers and throwing seed balls into public spaces.

“We weren’t doing anything and had nothing else to do but hang out on the street. Why not join in something that is fun and active like this to promote Egypt?” one of the boys, Mahmoud, said.

Many others asked if they could take bunches of seeds to use in their areas, rooftop gardens or to give to farming relatives.

“My brother has a small farm, so I thought I would take some to him; let him try them and see what he thinks,” said one man who was watching the campaign unfold while sitting with his wife.

As the march moved into Tahrir Square, more people continued to gather. An inquisitive police officer even praised the initiative, ironically stating how for a long time he’d been thinking about growing corn in the square to make better use of the space.

“Just don’t grow things too high so we can still see over and monitor the square,” he said, before returning to direct traffic.

Public reception, eventually, was overwhemingly positive. “I never knew you could grow food with a simple ball, I always thought you had to plant all the items separately at different times,” said Khaled, one impressed onlooker.

Meanwhile, a worker — separate from the campaign — was simultaneously watering Tahrir Square with a hose. “At least now I have something to water and watch grow,” he said with a smile.

Reports from Alexandria, Maadi and Heliopolis were also extremely positive and similar to the downtown march; however, the turnout was reported to be slightly smaller.

Gameela Ismail, journalist-turned-political activist, also attended the downtown march in support, telling reporters that seed bombing is a means of protesting by example about crucial issues that aren’t given enough attention.

In terms of the seed bombing campaign creating awareness and discussions about the seed issues facing Egypt, Baraka said Saturday’s seed bombing were not a one-time event and there would be follow-ups.

She said organizers have already been contacted by residents of various governorates who also want to host seed bombing events in their own areas.

“The media is also now on board and interested to talk to us which means the dialogue has been established, already making the event something of a success,” she said.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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