A love letter to a regenerative community

Sep 2022

I’ve been fortunate to be able to travel to many wonderful places, interact with and learn from many cultures and ways of life, but my visit to Habiba Community was a game changer. When you travel to so many countries, it’s easy to fall in love with the people, the countryside, the food, or the culture, but there is something palpable, tangible, even electric about this community.

After my first visit in June 2022, I realized that I would be leaving my heart in Habiba, which is why I had to go back two months later…

Habiba = Love

The labour of love that is Camp Habiba Community (Habiba does mean love after all), has risen out of the Sinai sands as a result of elevating and empowering local communities and their collective will to regreen the desert. Their impressive and inspiring initiatives of organic and regenerative farming, finding water solutions in the desert, and research & education is only part of the true success story.  Apart from the vast variety of ecosystem restoration and regeneration taking place, it’s the community engagement and solidarity that has been created that has touched me the most, which I believe to be a direct result of improving and restoring our ecosystems.

Habiba Community Organic Farm in the peak of the dry season! Photo credit: Melissa Croteau-Lacoste, August 2022

The significance of regreening the Sinai

The initiative, founded and led by the inspirational, married power-couple Maged El Said and Lorena Rancati and the amazing Camp Habiba Community team, is proving to be a beacon of hope that is looking to be unstoppable. A true success story of a holistic eco-tourism destination created in 1994 (Habiba Beach Lodge) turned into a globally inspiring initiative that is changing the lives of everyone who steps foot on these warm sands. In 2007, the team decided to start an organic farm to ensure food security in the face of the global economic crisis affecting most of the tourism industries in Egypt.  Today, the farm is over 16,000 m2 at the base of the Wadi Watir delta, a 1-minute drive from Habiba Beach Lodge, which is one of the biggest attractions and highlights of visiting the beach resort for many travelers. The impressive results from the farm steadily sparked the attention of the local Bedouin community due to the visible proof that farming sustainably in the desert is achievable and cost effective.

An amazing example of the vibrant beauty and abundance still possible in August. Photo credit: Melissa Croteau-Lacoste, August 2022

A view of the regenerative farm in August (2022). This is also where volunteers are creating a demonstration space for Bedouin women to come and learn how to create and grow an organic herb garden using Bedouin and Egyptian heirloom seeds. Photo credit: Melissa Croteau-Lacoste, August 2022

Maged shows how the soils in the regenerative farm have improved after one year with organic amendments and regenerative experimentation. Photo credit: Melissa Croteau-Lacoste, June 2022

This photo was taken during a site analysis at a Bedouin neighbor’s property. All GPS markers were recorded as well as soil filtration rates and current growing plants were inventoried. Photo credit: Melissa Croteau-Lacoste, June 2022

“We don’t compete, we complete” – Maged, Founder of Camp Habiba Community

During my first trip, I was fortunate to visit the property of Mohamed, a dear Bedouin friend of the family, who is starting to begin the preparations of turning his degraded land into a regenerative, organic farm. I was lucky enough to take part in the exercise of assessing the land and gained a deeper respect for what families living in these extreme climates must face to create sustainable livelihoods. To date, Mohamed is just one of 70+ farmers and families who have joined the global Mighty Movement of ecosystem restoration through sustainable farming and land regeneration, arm in arm, working to regreen the Sinai, one backyard at a time. But this of course did not happen overnight. Building trust within the neighboring Bedouin communities was essential. Maged and Lorena understood the turbulent history between the Egyptian government and Bedouin communities, and made it their mission to be inclusive, and to never exploit or disregard the tribes. The Bedouin communities face numerous challenges throughout the region due to their traditional lands being encroached upon by the expanding tourism industry, and vast underemployment. But over the years, Maged’s family has succeeded in creating trust and mutual respect, and has also turned neighbors into true family.

Cultivating new human ecosystems – inclusivity without borders

Due to the scorching heat and time of the year, there weren’t many ecosystem restoration activities available to participate in but what I missed out on doing concerning ecosystem restoration, I made up for in building human connections. While on my latest visit to Camp in August, I had the enormous honor of being introduced to so many amazing people. I remember one of these days, I was sitting with Maged and Lorena, discussing a future project to partner with more international universities to use Camp Habiba Community as a living lab and education program for university credits. And then Maged just stopped mid-sentence. He said “Melissa, I must introduce you to those people right over there” pointing across the other side of the beach lodge. As I was travelling on my own, I was delighted at the prospect of meeting new people. I was soon surrounded by guests from Israel, Jordan, Italy, and Egypt, and then there was me, a French – American solo traveler. It was a beautiful and surreal experience, because when you think about the ever-pressing geopolitical tensions around the world, here we all were, sharing our life experiences, our life’s work, and connecting on a human level that was not determined by geographic location, religion, or political stances. We all had several things in common, a deep love for the Habiba Community and a relentless desire to ensure a world that will be better for future generations.

“Regreening our societies has great significance that goes far beyond our hometown borders; they are transversal.” – Melissa Croteau-Lacoste

The long-term volunteers and employees at Habiba were equally as spectacular. Some have been with the team for decades. Ali, a young man in his 20’s has been with Habiba Organic Farm for over 5 years and is a member of another Bedouin tribe, while other volunteers have been there for months or just a couple of weeks. Because I wanted to learn more about what daily life at Habiba was like, I latched on to the very warm and inviting group of volunteers. I had the opportunity to help with an experimental Medjool date project, which required getting very messy (and laughing A LOT) while we peeled, pitted, and set the dates to dry under the sun. The flesh of the dates will be eaten, and the skins are to go through a fermentation experiment to determine how all parts of the date can be used. Nothing goes to waste at Habiba!

Peeling and pitting the soaked dates recently harvested with three amazing women volunteering at the farms, with veteran volunteer, Ali, behind the camera. August 2022

Now the pitted and peeled dates will cure under the hot August sun. Photo credit: Melissa Croteau-Lacoste, August 2022

I also gained a true appreciation of the roles of the volunteers and what value they are adding to the initiative. As August is the hottest period of the year, not much farming is underway, although a surprising amount of vegetables, flowers, fruit bearing trees are still in production, and of course the Medjool date harvesting is in full swing!

A lovely morning spent with Camp Habiba Community farm workers and volunteers, prepping, and cooking a delectable brunch together, while overlooking the regenerative farm and the Red Sea. Photo credit: Melissa Croteau-Lacoste, August 2022

Creating international solidarity and friendships through Ecosystem Restoration Camps Partnerships. Photo credit: Melissa Croteau-Lacoste, August 2022

Creating community through knowledge and science

Camp Habiba Community officially joined the Ecosystem Restoration Camps movement in 2019, around the time that the regenerative farm was implemented, and they began officially adding another branch to their sprouting tree of accomplishments by becoming a research and experimental science hub in 2020! The well-oiled machine that is Habiba, has so many moving parts, but each runs smoother, more efficiently because of each additional initiative. As a science hub, the concept is an “open-air lab & learning center for regenerative farming—a space for experimentation and open for pioneering projects & research”. This concept has caused quite a buzz in the local and international community. Universities and research centers from around the world have started sending (very large) groups of students to Habiba Community to receive hands-on education about land restoration in desertified, drought-stricken environments, land regeneration through sustainable agriculture, water resilience, sustainable irrigation techniques, and community building – but there is so much more!

A recent group of students from The Center of Excellence for Water – Egypt, representing the American University in Cairo. Photo credit: Camp Habiba staff, July 2022

Not only was I blown away by the student initiatives, but what really touched my heart was discovering the school tucked away inside of the organic farm.  The Learning Center, which is funded by another one of Habiba Communities’ inspiring projects, the Sinai Date Palm Foundation, was created in 2013 as a way to fund the Learning Center for Bedouin children. Here they have the opportunity to expand their visions of the world, and learn sustainable agriculture, plant biology, nutritional awareness, personal hygiene, new languages, and other essential life skills that they may not be receiving in their homes. The goal is to give these beautiful children the equal opportunities to succeed in life and to provide sustainable livelihoods.

The Habiba Community Learning Center puts a welcoming, splash of color in the desert.
Photo credit: Melissa Croteau-Lacoste, August 2022

The Sinai Date Palm Foundation farm. Proceeds from this initiative funds the children’s Learning Center. Photo credit: Melissa Croteau-Lacoste, August 2022

Seeing the love firsthand from the eyes of the Bedouin children

To get to the organic and regenerative farms, you must leave Habiba Beach Lodge and actually enter a tiny village, set off the main road. The spray of the sand coats everything it touches so that the small stone homes and cement walls almost blend into the natural landscapes. Riding into the Bedouin village was like stepping back into time, to another century, where the world was wilder and raw. Life here is simple, straightforward, traditional. The women spend their days tending their children and their homes, the men work, and the children during the summer are always outside, running around, laughing, exploring, and are often found at the Beach Lodge or taking their camels for a dip in the sea.

A Bedouin property near the Habiba Community Farms. Photo credit: Melissa Croteau-Lacoste, August 2022

Much of the village was teeming with roaming goats who have no fear of the enclaves of children running around barefoot or any oncoming traffic for that matter.  Photo credit: Melissa Croteau-Lacoste, August 2022

The boys from the Bedouin village taking their camels for their daily cool down. Such a wonderful sight to see every day. Photo credit: Melissa Croteau-Lacoste, August 2022

I had several opportunities to visit the Bedouin village during both of my stays, and it was always a highlight of my day. I loved making this short trip back and forth to the farms, not only to step into a true desert oasis, the jewel and inspiration to so many new initiatives around the world, but the true gift for me were the interactions between us and the children. On one of my trips to the village, there was a moment when Karim, Camp manager, son of Maged and Lorena, and a wonderful guide, would just stop the truck every 3 meters or so, talking, laughing, and giving money to the children to buy sweets. They would jump into the truck bed to go for a ride, and then jump right out again once they found a more enticing adventure. As a mom, I was internally cringing, thinking surely someone would get run over. But no, this is a daily practice for them, and the kids adore and trust Karim. It showed me how the whole Habiba Community family has such a strong bond with these children and knows that these smiling, happy faces and the regreening of this community is going to touch them the most. Just looking into the eyes of these children is enough to make you understand the love, trust and respect that has been so organically grown. And this my friends is what the Ecosystem Restoration Movement is all about, starting ground up, sowing the seeds of change, and growing communities to rebuild our environments.

Two very special friends that I will never forget. Even though there was a significant language barrier, they allowed me into their worlds, and for that I will always be grateful. Photo credit: Melissa Croteau-Lacoste, August 2022

Camp Habiba Community, a shining jewel in the middle of the desert, leading by example for an abundant future

Nature is perfectly imperfect, and we should only try to emulate that, nothing more, nothing less, and Habiba Community is leading the way to do just that. I have learned that even in the desert, life thrives and can continue to do so, in hopes of greener, brighter tomorrows , even in the face of water and food insecurity, drought, poverty, scorching heat and pollution. After 28 years, Habiba Community has become a beacon of hope, supporting the empowerment of a people who have been pushed aside, mistreated, forgotten, leading by example.

And in this desert of sun kissed yellows, magnificent rose skies, majestic mountains, and the vast jewel toned sea, I have learned that ecosystem restoration comes in so many more forms than what is scientifically stated. Humans are part of ecosystems, and communities are our roots that bind us to the earth, the animals, the plants, and the future. At the end of the day, we are all brothers and sisters.

Shukran, Habiba Community, for allowing me and so many others to be a part of your world.

Photo credit: Melissa Croteau-Lacoste, August 2022