04 November 2005

Egypt: French project to save reef did more harm than good

Last year, French diver Alain Deguine came to the Red Sea on a self-professed mission to "protect the coral reef." While he came with good intentions, marine biologists allege his methods proved harmful to both the coral reef and the people involved.

Deguine dubbed his idea the jardin corallien (coral garden). The idea was to start a coral farm off Hurghada to help replace reefs damaged by pollution and careless divers in the protected underwater national park. The local and national governments, alarmed at the gradual disappearance of one of the region’s prime tourist attractions, saw promise in the idea. So did local divers, marine biologists, conservationists, university professors and several volunteers from Deguine’s organization in France, Compagnons des Mers (Friends of the Sea), who lent their services to the project.

Things quickly turned ugly. Only a few months after the project began, local divers discovered missing colonies of coral reef. They alerted the custodians of the national park, who launched an investigation. To everyone's horror, a marine biologist hired by the park to assess the damage concluded that 370 colonies of coral reef, each one roughly 0.7 meters in diameter, had been dislodged and removed to Deguine's coral farm. Worse, the park's investigator concluded, roughly half of the transplanted coral colonies had died upon removal.

On 22 July, national park rangers came to Deguine's site, shut down the project, fined him LE359,232 (US$62,300) and announced that the Seafari diving center, through which Deguine operated, would be shut down.

Deguine, chairman of Compagnons des Mers and self-styled "international diver," has dedicated years of his life to protecting coral reefs. A frequent visitor to Hurghada, Deguine chose a site just offshore from the Safir Hotel as the perfect place for his coral farm.

Dr. Mahmoud Hanafy, the general supervisor of the National Parks of the Red Sea, and Red Sea Governor General Saad Abu Rida signed a written agreement with Deguine outlining the specific conditions that would govern his activities in the Red Sea. For administrative reasons, Deguine was instructed to operate through a local diving center in Hurghada. He struck a deal with Seafari, a French-owned diving center that operated in collaboration with the Safir Hotel. According to the arrangement, Seafari would provide him the equipment necessary to do his work. Work officially began on 9 December 2004.

Under the terms of his agreement with the Hurghada authorities, Deguine was allowed to grow artificial reef on the designated site as long as he did not cut or remove any healthy reef colonies for the project. Hanafy says he specifically told Deguine that he could use only the broken coral found floating on the surface or littering the bottom. "We told him he could do transplantation, but only on our terms and under our supervision," Hanafy says.

A promising start sours
Things started well enough. Deguine had chosen a site partially destroyed ten years ago by construction on the coast. He said the site could still sustain coral reef with some help, but that it would need frequent cleaning to remove plastic bags, empty bottles and other litter discarded by vacationers at the nearby resorts. The first step was to construct a base for the coral. This task was completed quickly, and Deguine said he and the crew saw an increase in sea life at the site within a few months of the project's start.

Seafari was initially pleased, too. As veteran divers, they were happy with any project "whose main goal was to give new life to corals of the Red Sea," according to a Seafari report on the events. Jean Henon, the center's owner and manager, had established a sound reputation for the shop over his ten years as its head.

Deguine's coral garden represented an opportunity to restore the reef his customers came to see, to collaborate with an accredited French organization and perhaps to get some media coverage in France. He never imagined the project would destroy his business. On 6 August, the dive shop closed its doors on government orders. Deguine has returned to France, leaving Henon with the financial burden and legal headaches.

"The local diving center is a victim here," says Amr Ali, the general director of the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA), an organization dedicated to preserving the reefs off the Red Sea coast. "When the assessment was done, the national park had no other solution than to calculate the amount of the reef destroyed, multiplied by the reef value. The fine came out to $62,300. When [Deguine] sought approval [for the project], he proposed the whole thing under the dive shop's name and using their papers. That's why the guy is free as a bird. He came through an Egyptian partner to offer his services, so for us the diving center is the victim."

Hanafy says the national park's biggest mistake was failing to check Deguine's scientific credentials. "It's very hard to check everyone’s credentials," he tells Cairo. "And [Deguine] came through a French organization that has a website. He was supposedly reputed for doing environmental work and research. But was not a marine biologist. My concern is that he came and said that he was there to protect our reef, but he destroyed it instead. Anybody coming to destroy these things is wrong. We have to protect these sacred environments."

Although Deguine spent one night in an Egyptian prison on 27 July, Egyptian authorities did not have the legal right to detain him. Under Egyptian law, authorities could request the French government extradite Deguine to Egypt to ensure he pays the fine, but as Ali says, there is "no way they would go through that kind of trouble over coral reef. If he had murdered someone, then maybe. But the Egyptian authorities would never do anything to hurt relations with a country like France over damaged coral reefs."

Seafari and Deguine initially contested the National Park damage assessment. The dive shop hired Dr. Mohammed Qotb—a marine biologist at Suez Canal University, one of the biggest marine biology institutes in the country—to do an independent survey. "This guy is well known for his honesty and professionalism," Ali says. "When I saw his name [Qotb] on the report I was like, OK, he is for real. So if he says the national park was exaggerating, then they will be in a very embarrassing situation."

The plan backfired. Qotb's investigation concluded that 500 colonies of reef were cut and misplaced, not 370.

The blame game
Deguine expressed his frustration in a 15 September letter titled "A night in Egyptian prison" published in the French "citizen journalism" media outlet Agoravox: "Somebody told them [national park authorities] that a French diver with a hammer broke the coral. How can I be a destroyer of coral reef when my main goal was to protect it? The report was exaggerated. I was a killer! Do they have any photos of me destroying coral?"

Ali explains that the dive shop initially defended Deguine because they thought he was a scientist and therefore did not interfere in his work. According to Ali, it wasn't until the authorities launched their investigation that the dive shop realized Deguine was just a diver, not a marine biologist.

"I have 6,500 dives under my belt" Ali says. "I can brag about this. But I am not a scientist. So I could never do this work or touch anything to do with science. This would be totally unacceptable."

Henon says he feels confused and betrayed. "Deguine, this Don Quixote of the sea, got carried away by his enthusiasm and his goodwill, and neglected the essentials: respecting the binding terms of his contract with the Egyptian authorities. He was required to ask the National Park to supervise his work on a regular basis, and forgot to do it. He should not have moved reef for his garden, which he did several times, without authorization," he says.

Deguine maintains he did nothing wrong. "I am sad that the project of our association Compagnons des Mers was not appreciated by the Egyptian authorities," he tells Cairo. "It was a beautiful project, promising for Hurghada. This affair put me in trouble because today, the diving center accuses me for its problems. I have to recover in my work to pay for this all my life. But I can make nothing against the politics and the money. It is their word against mine."

In his letter, Deguine emphasized that he acted for the "good of Hurghada." He described the Red Sea capital as a place with "a bad reputation for diving because it's dirty... and has lots of prostitution." He maintained that many dive boats in Hurghada are not environmentally friendly because they offer passengers toilet paper—which is flushed into the ocean—and that they throw non-biodegradable garbage in the sea. Most harbors are polluted, he wrote, and the seabed and coral is damaged from diving and snorkeling.

"There is lots of dead coral on the bottom of the sea," he wrote. "Twenty-five percent of coral reef in the world has disappeared in the last few years. By 2025, 40 percent of reef will be dead. There is an urgent need to do something. My project [in Hurghada] saved 60 square meters of coral reef, but 25 square kilometers of reef die every day all over the world."

Ali scowls at the mere mention of Deguine's published letter. "This kind of attitude of foreign entities coming into this country believing they are changing it for the better... Who is he? Not even a marine biologist, he's an enthusiastic sailor! ... This sailor comes and tells four people with doctorates in the National Park office—including Dr. Hanafy, who is recognized worldwide, his papers are everywhere—he comes in and says, "I am going to show you how to do artificial reef." No, thank you. Not every blonde, green-eyed European can come into the country and tell me they are doing something good for me."

During the early stages of the court proceedings, Hanafy told Seafari that under Egyptian law, 50 percent of the fines could be waived if they paid the fine on the spot. Otherwise, going through court procedures could drag on for five years, potentially costing thousands more. But Henon, whose dive shop is still closed, is still fighting the case in court since he cannot afford to pay even half the fine in one lump sum, let alone the full amount. "If I can find a solution with the National Park, I prefer to pay a smaller amount," he says. "What can I do? I don't want to pay the money at all. I did not create this problem. But the National Park wants somebody to pay this, and Monsieur Deguine is in France."

While Deguine says he is "tormented" by the situation in Hurghada, he has moved on "to another mission in another more understandable country."

Source: www.cairomagazine.com


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