Rangers working in several of Egypt’s protectorates staged sit-ins earlier this month for the first time to protest problems related to their work conditions and to call attention to the ongoing threats to Egypt’s protectorates, which they work to safeguard.

In what Waleed Hassan, one of the protesting rangers who spoke to Egypt Independent, called an “unprecedented show of support,” recently appointed Environment Minister Mostafa Hussein Kamel traveled to meet with them only days after the sit-ins were organized to hear their complaints in person and to try to find solutions to the problems posed.

Environmentalists have often voiced concerns in the past, believing Egypt’s protectorates have been gravely neglected. Consequently, some question over whether this recent event might usher in a new era whereby the issues plaguing Egypt’s protectorates might finally start receiving their due attention from the government.

As per Law 102/1983 on natural protectorates, a natural protectorate is defined as an area of land, coastal or inland, characterized by flora, fauna and natural features having cultural, scientific, touristic or aesthetic value. This law prohibits any activities that pose an environmental threat to be undertaken in the designated protectorate areas.

Egypt currently has 29 protectorate areas covering about 15 percent of Egypt’s total land area. The Gulf of Salloum Protectorate near the Libyan Border is the most recent habitat to be declared a natural protectorate as of March 2010. Ras Mohamed, a unique coastal and marine habitat off the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, was the first to be declared a natural protectorate in 1983.

The Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency — the executive arm of the Environment Ministry — serves as the main entity responsible for the coordination, implementation, monitoring and follow-up on protectorate areas through its Nature Conservation Sector.

Hala Barakat, deputy director of the Center for Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage, told Egypt Independent that protectorate areas are important because they are tied to implementing a sustainable development agenda in Egypt, seeing that these represent an “invaluable resource for scientific research, richness in biodiversity and the possibility to implement ecotourism.”

But unfortunately in recent years, an array of problems has plagued the protectorates, jeopardizing their very existence.

For starters, Barakat highlights the lack in enforcing environmental protection laws within protectorates. Consequently, several protectorates “should only be referred to as ‘paper parks,’ meaning their protection and management often does not go beyond the label of being PAs.”

Protectorates also suffer from institutional and technical challenges, though the degree of such problems varies from one protectorate to the next.

Barakat said that “some PAs have well-developed infrastructure systems, staffing and programs while others still have very limited management activities occurring on the ground. Usually, the better developed [PAs] are the results of donor-funded, site-specific projects.”

With such a scenario, it should come as no surprise that rangers organized sit-ins earlier this month.

Sit-ins were held simultaneously throughout several protectorates in South Sinai and Red Sea governorates. The demonstrators’ demands bespoke of grievances experienced by all rangers working in protectorate areas throughout Egypt.

Speaking to Egypt Independent from Sharm el-Sheikh, Hassan said the main problem that instigated the sit-in was “workers’ rights being overlooked alongside the persistent environmental threats PAs are subjected to.”

Rangers demanded a review of existing work contracts to ensure their needs are met and rights are safeguarded. Hassan said current contracts do not take into account the difficult work conditions often faced by rangers or the security risks posed for those located in remote areas. The rangers also seek compensation for being relocated far away from their families alongside the need to be provided with training and educational opportunities to be able to develop and grow in their work as rangers.

Abdallah Nagy, a ranger at St. Katherine protectorate, said another demand is the need for an overhaul of the current institutional and managerial framework in place at the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency, and an urgent need to assign high-level managers who are in fact knowledgeable about protectorates.

Nagy said because the director of the agency’s Nature Conservation Sector retired, the next in line, a military general, has been left in charge, which has “created problems due to his lack of experience and knowledge in issues related to nature conservation.”

But both Hassan and Nagy expressed some level of optimism in light of the Environment Ministry’s response by traveling to meet with them days after the sit-ins were organized.

In response to their expressed grievances, the ministry announced the formation of the National Committee for the Development of Protectorates to consist of about 40 academics with knowledge about environmental issues. This committee is meant to assess the situation and put in place a relevant plan of action.

Though no concrete outcomes have materialized yet, this show of goodwill has left some rangers optimistic and with hopes that this could signal the start of a new era for Egypt’s protectorates.