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Siwa Dates: A Chewy Treat in the Desert Heat

Crossposted from the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet.

Siwa Date Many deserts that appear bone-dry actually have plenty of water flowing just below the ground’s surface. In these cases, when the ground level dips below sea level, the water will literally gush to the surface and create an oasis—a fertile, lush space that is perfect for cultivation.

For three thousand years, the farmers of the Siwa Oasis along the western edge of Egypt have been taking advantage of the abundance of water in the desert to grow siwa dates. Despite its isolation by the hundreds of miles of desert, bountiful surplus has fueled trade with Bedouin nomads and Mediterranean urbanity.

Three varieties of dates are planted, including the Ghazaal, the Takdat, and Amnzou. Most people are only familiar with dried dates, a step necessary for preservation if the fruit is exported. Fresh dates however are drastically different with a taste and texture similar to an apple.

According to the economist Torben Larsen, over 250,000 date palms and 30,000 olive trees, are being cultivated in the Siwa Oasis, on over 5,000 hectares of land. To sustain such a large area of cultivation, extensive preparation of the soil is necessary. First the topsoil layer is completely stripped and the subsoil is mixed with sand and manure. The grainy compost is continually flushed with fresh water and planted with medicinal herbs. Once the preliminary vegetation takes root, palm and olive trees are planted.

Today, production is organized under the Siwa Community Development Environmental Conservation (SCDEC). Each of the thirteen villages elects a representative to the SCDEC where they play an administrative role in directing agricultural activity as well as marketing decisions.

The farmers also work together to preserve the surrounding deserts and scarce resources that their livelihoods depend upon. New production technologies have been carefully introduced after much scrutiny to minimize water use from and contamination of natural springs. In addition, soil samples are frequently monitored for warning signs of salination—which can be devastating not only to the date trees but to the other crops, such as alfalfa and a variety of Mediterranean fruits that grow on the oasis.

The result is a lush agricultural landscape in the midst of an otherwise hot and barren environment, and at least one indigenous crop that has been helping to support the diets and livelihoods of desert farmers for thousands of years.

To read more about crops indigenous to Africa see: Finger Millet: A Once and Future Staple, Lablab: The Bountiful, Beautiful Legume, The Green Gold of Africa and Potato, Potahto.

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