The Zabbaleen (Egyptian Arabic: ‘Garbage people’) are teenagers and adults who have served as Cairo’s informal garbage collectors for the past 70 to 80 years.  They are also known as ‘Zarraba’ (‘pig-pen operators’). 

Spread out among seven different settlements scattered in the Greater Cairo Urban Region, the Zabbaleen population is between 50,000 and 70,000. The largest settlement is Mokattam village, nicknamed ‘Garbage City,’ located at the foot of the Mokattam Mountains, next to Manshiyat Naser, a slum settlement on the outskirts of Cairo. The Zabbaleen community in Mokattam Village has a population of around 20,000 to 30,000, over 90 percent of which are Coptic Christians.

For several generations, the Zabbaleen supported themselves by collecting trash door-to-door from the residents of Cairo for nearly no charge. Notably, the Zabbaleen recycle up to 80 percent of the waste that they collect, whereas most Western garbage collecting companies can only recycle 20 to 25 percent. The Zabbaleen use donkey-pulled carts and pick-up trucks to transport the garbage that they collect from the residents of Cairo to their homes in Mokattam Village, sort the garbage there, and then sell the sorted garbage to middlemen or create new materials from their recycled garbage. The living situation for the Zabbaleen is poor, they live among pigs which they feed organic waste. Nevertheless, the Zabbaleen have formed a strong and tight-knit community. However, their existence and way of life has come under threat after the Cairo municipal authorities’ decision in 2003 to award annual contracts of $50 million to three multinational garbage disposal companies.

The government authorities do not compensate the Zabbaleen for these changes, and as a result, the takeover of waste collection threatens the socio-economic sustainability of the Zabbaleen community. More recently, the Zabbaleen have faced another challenge when the Egyptian Agricultural Ministry ordered the culling of all pigs in 2009, in response to national fears over the possible spread of the H1N1 virus (swine flu). This governmental decision poses a major setback to the Zabbaleen because pigs are an essential component to their recycling and sorting system. Immediately after the culling of pigs, observers noticed a visible increase of trash piles and piles of rotting food on the streets of Cairo. There are also worries that the Egyptian government is seeking to remove the Mokattam village entirely and relocate the Zabbaleen further outside of Cairo by a further 25 km to a 1-acre plot in Cairo’s eastern desert settlement of Katameya.

The Zabbaleen culture dates back to the 1910s, when a group of migrants from the Dakhla oasis in the Western desert of Egypt relocated to Cairo in an area known as Bab El Bahr, which is situated between Attaba and Ramses square in downtown Cairo. These people are known as the ‘Wahiya’ (‘people of the oasis’). The Wahiya assumed the sole responsibility for the collection and disposal of Cairo’s household waste under the framework of contracts with building owners in Cairo. In this system, the Wahiya paid the owners of buildings an initial sum and then collected monthly fees from the tenants for their services.

In the 1930s and 40s, there was a second wave of migration. This new group, mostly landless peasants, were the first people called Zabbaleen. The descendants of subsistence farmers, they originate from a rural region the south of Egypt. As farming ceased to be a viable way of life they migrated to Cairo in search of work. They developed a relationship with the Wahiya, purchasing waste for use as fodder for pig farming. Initially, the Zabbaleen settled in the Imbaba district of the Giza governorate, but were given a four-day eviction notice from the governor of Giza in 1970. Thereafter, they settled mainly in an abandoned quarry at the foot of the Mokattam hills, east of Cairo, which is under the jurisdiction of the Cairo Governorate. Although the governor of Cairo granted the Zabbaleen administrative permission to settle in the area, he did not issue a lease or legal tenure. Thus, because of their precarious situation, the Zabbaleen initially lived in makeshift settlements of tin huts, made mostly of discarded barrels.

Prior to the migration of the Zabbaleen, the Wahiya had used the refuse, after drying it, as a source of energy, specifically as fuel for public baths and bean cookeries. However, this use of dried refuse became obsolete in the 1930s when oil became the preferred fuel most purposes. This coincided with the migration of the Zabbaleen, who used the organic components of the wastes to feed their pigs. Because the Zabbaleen needed to obtain waste food before it rots, they preferred to collect the refuse themselves using their own donkey carts.

Unlike the Zabbaleen, the Wahiya retained control over the access and collection rights to the monthly fees paid by the residents. In fact, the Zabbaleen are often obliged to pay the Wahiya in order to gain access to the waste garbage. Hence, the relationship between the Wahiya and the Zabbaleen was hierarchically constituted. The Wahiya acted as the middlemen between the Zabbaleen and Cairo’s households. Quoting Assaad, ‘The wahiya assume overall responsibility for regular removal of the wastes vis-à-vis residents and building owners and are responsible for collection of the wastes from individual dwelling units to the street level. The Zabbaleen, on the other hand, are responsible for the haulage and disposal of the wastes.’

Because Cairenes are generally not aware of the distinction between the wahiya and the Zabbaleen, they continue to refer to both groups as Zabbaleen. In response to government pressures to upgrade and modernize the refuse collection system, the Wahiya and the Zabbaleen made an agreement which resulted in the establishment of the Environmental Protection Company (EPC), as a private-for-profit venture in 1989. Within the framework of the EPC, the wahiya contracted groups of Zabbaleen to collect and dispose of municipal solid waste (MSW).

The municipal authorities grew increasingly intolerant of the Zabbaleen’s donkey carts, which, according to Assaad, were considered an eyesore and a traffic hazard by the government. Ironically, this was precisely in the neighborhoods that were being more fully served given Cairo’s narrow, winding streets that are not wide-enough for large garbage trucks. Regardless, in the early 1990s, according to Fahmi & Sutton, the garbage collectors had to comply with the municipality’s requirements to use motorized trucks, rather than donkey carts, as the authorities introduced a system of mechanization to transport solid waste.

Because the Zabbaleen were required to accommodate to these new requirements for a mechanized system without any government support, including technical, financial, or educational support, they resorted to the selling of small plots of land back in their ancestral villages, use of personal savings, or credit loans to acquire the necessary capital to purchase the trucks. According to Fahmi, within the EPC, the Wahiya conducted administration, marketed the company’s services, collected the fees from tenants, and supervised service deliveries. On the other end, the Zabbaleen, ‘many of whom might otherwise have been homeless and without employment, collected and transported the waste.’ In more recent years, as the Zabbaleen became more involved in the work, some received a minimal fee from the Wahiya.

Although Mokattam village is relatively close to the center of Cairo, it is very inaccessible because it is situated on a plateau surrounded by the cliffs of the Mokattam hills on one side and by the Manshiet Nasser squatter settlement on the other side. Vehicular access to the Mokattam is possible only through three entrances, two of which are accessible only by crossing through the crowded, narrow, and steep streets of Manshiet Nasser. Because of the high congestion and road traffic, conflicts between the residents of the Manshiet Nasser settlement and the Zabbaleen have often broken out. Occasionally, these conflicts took on religious overtones, as the inhabitants of the Manshiet Nasser settlement are mostly Muslims, whereas the inhabitants of the Mokattam settlement are mostly Coptic.

Mokattam village is situated at the foot of the Mokattam mountains, which has proven to be a precarious geographic location. In 1993, there was a rockslide from the mountain, which fell near the bordering area of the Zabbaleen settlement, resulting in the deaths of 40 people. More recently, in 2008, another rock slide from the Mokattam hills killed more than 100 people in El-Duweiqa, another shantytown in the Mokattam district. These rock slides have brought attention to the precarious location of shantytowns located below the Mokattam mountains as well as to the Zabbaleen. Some attribute these frequent rock slides to various development and construction activities on Mokattam Mountain’s upper plateau on which the upper middle class residential district of Mokattam City is located.

The living conditions in Mokattam Village, and the other Zabbaleen settlements, are poor. According to Assad, in the 1970s, ‘the streets were so stacked with heaps of assorted refuse that some of them could not be located. The air was heavily polluted by the smoke generated from fires that were either lit deliberately to dispose of unwanted waste, or resulted from the spontaneous combustion of organic residues.’ There have been frequent fires in Mokattam, two of which were particularly severe and devastated the settlement in the 1970s. In its early years, the settlement lacked basic services; there were no health centers, pharmacies, or schools. Basic amenities such as piped water, sewage networks, and electricity were also missing.

During the beginning decades of the Mokattam settlement, the community suffered from ‘high mortality and morbidity rates (especially among children), poor environmental conditions, and low income.’ However, the living conditions of the Mokattam settlement improved after receiving significant funding from the World Bank, in its upgrading program known as the Zabbaleen Environmental Development Program (ZEDP) in 1981 and from other international donors.

Egypt is a Muslim-majority country. However, over 90 percent of the Zabbaleen community in the Mokattam village are Coptic Christians. Communities where almost everyone is Christian are rare to find in Egypt outside of the Zabbaleen. According to Engi Wassef, in her commentary in her documentary film ‘Marina of the Zabbaleen,’ many people in the Zabbaleen village say that even if they could live outside of the village or buy a house elsewhere, they would not because they are happy to live within their own religious community and freely practice their religion.

The local Coptic Church in Mokattam Village was established in 1975. After the establishment of the church, the Zabbaleen felt more secure in their location and only then began to use more permanent building materials, such as stone and bricks, for their homes. Given their previous experience of eviction from Giza in 1970, the Zabbaleen had lived in temporary tin huts up till that point. In 1976, a large fire broke out in Manshiyat Nasir, which led to the beginning of the construction of the first church below the Mokattam mountain. Currently, there are seven cave churches inside Mokattam Mountain. The Monastery of St. Simon the Tanner is the largest and it has an amphitheater with a seating capacity of 20,000. It is the largest church in the Middle East and is named after the Coptic Saint, Simon the Tanner, who lived at the end of the 10th century, when Egypt was ruled by the Muslim Fatimid Caliph Al-Muizz Lideenillah. Simon the Tanner is the Coptic Saint who is associated with the legend of the moving of the Mokattam Mountain.

The Zabbaleen are able to recycle up to 85 percent of the waste that they collect through their family-run micro-enterprises that generate jobs, including those for production of handmade crafts from rags and paper, and incomes from some 40,000 people. In fact, according to Fahmi, ‘in the mid-1990s, nearly 700 Zabbaleen families owned collection enterprises, 200 owned and operated small- and medium-scale recycling enterprises, and 120 owned trading enterprises, in addition to maintenance workshops and community-based service businesses.’ What is distinctive about the Zabbaleen from many other urban informal waste collecting-groups that scavenge trash for useful products is that the Zabbaleen invest heavily in their tools and know-how for recycling.

These Zabbaleen micro-entrepreneurs have invested  ‘an estimated 2.1 million Egyptian pounds in trucks, plastic granulators, paper compactors, cloth grinders, aluminium smelters, and tin processors.’ By investing in such infrastructure, the Zabbaleen continually upgraded and enhanced their methods of recycling plastic, paper, cardboard, glass, metal, and fabrics. Thus, the city of Cairo and its administration had been able to manage its solid waste at almost no cost to the municipal administration. There is a gender division of labor in the process of collecting and sorting the trash in the Zabbaleen system. Usually, it is the Zabbaleen men, sometimes accompanied by children, who go pick up the trash door-to-door from each household. This trash is completely unsorted because there is not a system of recycling at the source in Egypt. It is rare for girls to go to collect the trash and it stops almost entirely after girls reach the age 10.

When the men return to the village with the collected trash, usually their families are waiting for them so that they can begin sorting the trash. The majority of the those who sort the trash are women, while certain families specialize in sorting certain materials such as paper, plastic, aluminum, glass, etc. The women and children sort the garbage into 16 different types of trash and sort out the recyclables. The sorting of garbage is a time-consuming task in which women and children may spend up to 10 to 12 hours each day. Then sorting within individual categories takes place. For instance, paper would be sorted into white paper, yellow paper, thick paper, newspaper, thin paper, etc. Each sub-sorted material is then sold to factories and middle-men for a marginal profit.

Of the trash collected, PT plastic, which is the plastic used to make plastic bottles for water and other beverages, is one of the most highly sought out materials. For other opaque-colored plastic, granulators are used to make small plastic pellets. From these plastic pellets, a variety of plastic product can then be made, including garbage bags and plastic hangers.

The initial and very integral step of sorting the trash is the responsibility of Zabbaleen community members who own pigs. The pigs are fed the organic waste. After the organic waste has been eaten by the pigs, the rest of the trash is sorted into different categories. Thus, as Engi Wassef, the director of ‘Marina of the Zabbaleen’ notes, ‘One of the reasons why Coptic Christians are given a kind of monopoly status on the garbage collection and sorting system is because the Muslim religion does not allow for breeding or eating or living near pigs. It’s considered a dirty animal.’ After the pigs have grown, the Zabbaleen sell the pig-meat to large tourist facilities. According to Fahmi and Sutton, ‘Hitherto, the Zabbaleen claimed to collect 6,000 tons of MSW a day, of which 60% was food waste and organic garbage which their pigs consume. Every 6 months, the waste collectors sell adult pigs, 5 to 15 pigs to a trader for LE 7 per kilogram (US$ 1.25 per kilogram). The trader then takes pigs to the slaughterhouses, where a kilogram is sold for LE 30–35 (US$ 5–6.25). The waste collectors can earn around LE 450 (US$ 80) per pig.’

In 2003, the government of Egypt sold annual contracts reaching US$ 50 million to international companies to collect Cairo’s solid waste. The three companies that were awarded with contracts for cleaning Cairo are FCC and Urbaser, Enser (both Spanish companies), and AMA (an Italian) company. The Egyptian Company for Garbage Collection (ECGC), a domestic company was also awarded with contracts. There was a precedent for this approach to trash collection two years earlier, in 2001, when the government agreed to sign a contract with Onyx, a French company, to manage the waste of Alexandria, the second largest city in Egypt. Through this contract, the Egyptian government agreed to pay $446 million to Onyx for the treatment of one million tons of waste per year for 15 years, a sum that was ten times greater than what the government had previously paid before for its municipal waste management.

Significantly, the foreign companies, despite the large value of their contracts, are only required to recycle 20 percent of the waste that they collect; the remaining 80 percent are placed into landfills. In contrast, the Zabbaleen recycle up to 80 percent of all the MSW that they collect. The foreign companies collected the trash from garbage bins placed at central collection points on the streets. However, many inhabitants of Cairo preferred the door-to-door garbage pick-up done by the Zabbaleen, especially because the bins were not plentifully located or located in inconvenient places. Thus, residents expressed their discontent with the new system, especially because they were being charged more for what seemed to be a more inconvenient system.

Under the new system, residents were required to pay a monthly bill for garbage collection that accompanies their electricity bill. The garbage collection fee was based upon the percentage of each electricity bill. Two years after the new system was imposed, Rashed writes in the ‘Al-Ahram Weekly,’ ‘residents of the governorate have been voicing increasingly vociferous complaints that the companies are working well below full capacity. The streets are not as clean as they were during the first days of the privatization  Both company workers, and garbage receptacles, appear to be increasingly thin on the ground.’

The subcontracting of MSW collection to foreign companies had an immediate negative impact upon the Zabbaleen community as documented in Mai Iskander’s film, ‘Garbage Dreams.’ Contracting out MSW to foreign companies meant that the Zabbaleen would lose access to garbage, which was the basis of their recycling and sorting activities. In the documentary, Laila, a social worker in Mokattam Village, says, ‘The city contracted with foreign waste disposal companies because they perceived the Zabbaleen to be old-fashioned. But they didn’t come tell us, ‘You need to modernize your ways.’ This was all done behind our backs. ‘we’re replacing you with the companies.’ So we can be like the developed countries.’

In contrast, because officials from the Cairo Cleaning and Beautification Authority (CCBA) regarded the Zabbaleen recycling methods as unhygienic and backwards, they were optimistic about the process and hoped for a positive impact on Cairo’s environment. However, because the mechanized equipment of the foreign companies are too large for the streets of Cairo, citizens were required to bring their trash to designated collection centers and bins, which were not always placed in easily accessible locations. Eventually, the foreign companies realized that they needed the Zabbaleen and subcontracted them. Unfortunately, because the companies underpaid the Zabbaleen, this system failed.

In April 2009, the first cases of the H1N1 virus (swine flu) were found in Mexico. By the end of that month, it was estimated that up to 169 people died due to the epidemic. All of the deaths, except for one, occurred in Mexico. Egypt responded to this outbreak by ordering the culling of its swine population, an act which had a devastating impact on the livelihood of 70,000 Zabbaleen families. International organizations, including the United Nations criticized the Egyptian government for its decision. Egypt was the only country in the world to take such a drastic decision as to cull an estimated 300,000 pigs. This decision was made despite the general agreement that H1N1 is not transmitted by pigs. Furthermore, there were no cases of swine flu found in Egypt during the time when the pig cull was executed.

In a ‘New York Times’ article, Michael Slackman asserted that, ‘The Zabbaleen are Christians. Egypt is a majority Muslim country. The Zabbaleen are convinced that the government wants to use the swine flu scare not to help improve their lives but to get pigs out of Egypt. Islam prohibits eating pork.’ In another article for the ‘New York Times,’ Nadim Audi writes, ‘Most of Egypt’s pig farmers are Christians, and some accuse the government of using swine flu fears to punish them economically.’ The pig cull also resulted into increased cases of malnutrition and anaemia in Zabbaleen children because prior to the cull, pork had been the only affordable source of animal protein.

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