Egypt once again turns to 'Garbage People' and pigs to solve growing trash problem

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Overwhelmed by garbage, Egypt is turning once again to two marginalized parties for help: Coptic Christians and pigs.

For years, pigs raised and handled by Egypt's Zabaleen, or "Garbage People," were the linchpins of an extremely effective, if primitive, system of processing garbage in cities including Cairo and Alexandria. The Zabaleen, part of the Coptic Christian community that makes up 10 percent of Egypt's population, were paid to collect garbage and haul it to the outskirts of town, where pigs they tended picked out and ate the organic matter. Even the pigs' waste was recycled in many cases, dried and burned to provide heat.

But in 2009, at the height of the swine flu epidemic, the government in Egypt ordered hundreds of thousands of pigs killed. The Coptic community bitterly believed the swine flu fear was a mere pretext for Muslim Brotherhood elements within the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak regime to rid the nation of an animal held as offensive to Islam. An estimated 300,000 pigs were confiscated and killed.


“It was the only source of income for these people,” Michael Meunier, president of the U.S. Copts Association, told “The swine flu was used as an excuse. This was about something seen from a religious eye. It was not a health issue.”

While can never be known if the pig cull was driven by religious or health concerns, it was not the only aggressive measure Egypt took. Schools were closed for weeks, and in some cities hookahs, the communal smoking pipes used by men in dens, were even banned. With 90 percent of Egypt's 80 million population crammed into an area the size of Denmark, public health officials feared an outbreak, which never came.

Some 2.5 million Zabaleen throughout the nation were left without their meal tickets, and Egypt's cities were quickly overrun with huge piles of rotting garbage – and the rodents that came with it. Cairo's Zabaleen, who live in a slum on the outskirts of town,  were plunged into poverty. Pig farms run by wealthy Copts were shut down, as were slaughterhouses. The Zabaleen were typically paid 10 cents on the dollar for their pigs, which were buried alive in landfills and then doused with acid.

The pig massacre came before Mubarak’s ouster, but the ban was solidified when the Muslim Brotherhood-linked regime of Mohammad Morsi rose to power a year ago.

Now, following the military's ouster of Morsi in July, and with no other solution to the nation's growing garbage problem, the military-led provisional government is embracing the Zabaleen.

“Over the years the Zabaleen have created an efficient ecosystem that is both viable and profitable, with a recycling capacity of almost 100 percent," Leila Iskandar, the new minister of the environment, said recently. "It provides work for women and young people who are the first to suffer from Egypt’s unemployment. We need to use this local organization.”

A recent report from Voice of America said the Zabaleen's pigs have quietly returned to the place just outside Cairo known as Garbage City, where Cairo's garbage is brought by truck. The pigs once again, though discreetly, are picking through the massive mountains of garbage and winnowing out organic matter. The remaining garbage, reduced by as much as 80 percent, is then taken to landfills.

This time, the government is not seizing the porcine processors. Zabaleen advocates say the system is safe, and always was.

"The management of the central laboratory of the Ministry of Health examined the pigs before and after slaughtering, and did not find any evidence of any pigs carrying the swine flu virus, but there was a deliberate intention to eliminate the pigs and the trade," Eshak Mikhael, the head of the garbage collectors association in Mokattam, told MidEast Christian News.

Back at work, even if not officially, the pigs have a massive backlog. And the Zabaleen can once again feed their families.

“They didn’t choose to be trash collectors,” Meunier said. “They do it because they have no income.”