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Struggling after Egypt's pig cull

By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Cairo

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A day in the life of Cairo's rubbish collectors

In the half-light of dawn, the new day in Cairo is greeted with the clatter of dustbins.

The Zabaleen (Egyptian Arabic for "garbage people") are beginning their rounds.

Since the age of eight, Magdi Mosaad has eked out a meagre living recycling Cairo's waste.

Each morning he scurries around the apartment blocks, emptying the contents of festering bins into the canvas bag strapped to his back. He looks like a bee storing honey.

He has done this job for 14 hours a day, for 30 years of his life.

"I am illiterate, I have no formal education," he says. "This is all I know."

But since the advent of swine flu prompted authorities to mount a cull of Egypt's entire population of pigs, his burden has just got even heavier.

Big appetites

The Zabaleen are an Egyptian community of mainly Coptic Christians - vital to Cairo's refuse collection. Around 85% cent of the rubbish they retrieve is sorted, recycled and resold. Tin, paper, glass - even bones are recycled for glue.

Magdi Mosaad
I sold pigs twice a year. To pay for mending the car and the school fees for our three young children. There is no way I can replace that income
Magdi Mosaad
Rubbish collector

In one garage we visited in the Zabaleen neighbourhood of Manshiet Nasser, they were pressing tin cans into bales, ready to be sold to the Chinese.

But this is a fragile existence in which the pigs played a crucial role.

Each month they troughed their way through 6,000 tonnes of rotting food collected on the rounds.

The fattened pigs were sold to supplement the income of the Zabaleen.

Mr Mosaad says the extra money that he raised from selling pork was vital to his family's welfare:

"I sold pigs twice a year. To pay for mending the car and the school fees for our three young children. There is no way I can replace that income."

As the H1N1 pandemic spread around the globe, Cairo was infected with outbreaks of panic and hysteria. The majority Muslim parliament voted to slaughter the entire pig population - 350,000 animals - even though they were not infected.

Riots

It is mostly the Christians that rear pigs in Egypt.

Pigs are buried after being culled in Egypt
The sometimes brutal mass cull caused international concern

The government's decision would have dire financial implications. The authorities had already sought to replace the Zabaleen with the sleek machines of the more modern European contractors.

Now they were targeting one of their other main sources of income - the pigs.

In Manshiet Nasser, there were riots as the government vets began their work.

"They made their decision without any research," said Syada Greiss, one of the Christian MPs in parliament.

"Who would this affect, how many, what damage would it do to the local economy, what would they do to replace their lost income? There was no real thought for the implications for one of the city's poorest suburbs. And that's why it feels like discrimination."

The government says it has compensated the Zabaleen but those who reared pigs say they received only a fraction of what their animals were worth.

It was also a one-off payment - hardly compensation for a twice-yearly income on which men like Mr Mosaad had depended.

"If you walk around this neighbourhood they are piling up the organic waste in the streets," said Ms Greiss. "There is nowhere to put it. No pigs to eat it. It is miserable here."

On top of that there were cruel, inhumane pictures of the pigs being slaughtered that led to an international outcry.

There were live pigs fed into crushers, others doused in disinfectant and buried alive.

Health consequences

On average the Zabaleen family survives on $100 (£60) a month.

Dr Atif Salib in his clinic in the Zabaleen neighbourhood of Manshiet Nasser
Dr Salib says his district is now afflicted by a rat infestation

But Dr Atif Salib, who runs a clinic in Manshiet Nasser, says he is now seeing cases of malnutrition and anaemia in children. Pork was the only affordable source of animal protein.

There are all manner of diseases that come with sorting rubbish by hand. Hepatitis is common.

And there is another risk. With organic waste piling up in the streets, there is plenty for hungry vermin.

"Definitely we have got a rat infestation," said Dr Salib. "I regularly have patients coming into my clinic with rat bites on their bodies."

But Dr Saad Nassar, the chief advisor to the minister for agriculture, makes no apologies for his government's drastic decision to cull all the pigs.

'Unhygienic'

The Egyptians were criticised for acting too slowly with the outbreak of bird flu - now endemic - and they are terrified that two strains of flu could one day combine to create a highly contagious strain.

"The pigs are often kept in dirty conditions, in poor areas, they are rarely seen by vets," said Dr Nassar.

"The government is afraid that if you have H1N1 and H5N1 in the same neighbourhood it could create a new dangerous strain which could be shifted to the people who live there. That would be a disaster."

The government says farmers can restock - but only if the pigs are reared in a more modern farming environment on the outskirts of the city: where pigs are kept in isolation, where they can be slaughtered in a proper way and the meat cooled ready for market.

But the Zabaleen say that involves the added cost of moving waste to the outskirts of the city - another assault on their income.

Increasingly the organic waste is left behind in the streets and that has implications for everyone in this city - not just the beleaguered minority.



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