Workers picking peppers on the occupied Somonte farm
HORNACHUELOS, Spain — Outmaneuvering the police, hundreds of jobless farmworkers charged through a hole in a fence and turned the manicured gardens of a vacant estate here in Spain’s agricultural heartland into a lively fairground of protest this week. Men more accustomed to working in the fields lounged in the shade beside a pink palace, picnicked on paella and spent a night relaxing. Some even took a dip in the pool.
“We’re here to denounce a social class who leaves such places to waste,” said Diego Cañamero, the leader of the Andalusian Union of Workers, addressing the demonstrators who had occupied the property, the Palacio de Moratalla. For all of the estate’s grandeur, the owner, the Duke of Segorbe, lives in Andalusia’s capital, Seville, about 60 miles away.
The occupation was a demonstration of the class conflicts that simmer amid complaints about austerity and joblessness in Spain. Such protests have gathered pace in this farm region in Spain’s south in recent weeks, adding a volatile dimension to the country’s economic downturn. They have also pointed to a deeper anger about the shape of Spain’s economy and democracy.
The resentment here over land that has been left uncultivated at a time of deepening recession and record joblessness reaches beyond local politicians and landowners to European Union bureaucrats. Agricultural subsidies are criticized by many here as favoring landed interests, paying them not to grow crops when nearly a third of the work force in Andalusia is unemployed.
Mr. Cañamero said that European subsidies reinforced landed interests because the payments’ value was based on the size of the landholding rather than on its productivity. “There is zero incentive for these already wealthy owners to grow anything,” he said.
Three years into the crisis, the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has faced protests by miners, students, teachers, legions of jobless workers and any range of others unhappy with his austerity policies. But the protests here in rural Spain, which have tipped increasingly toward lawlessness and civil disobedience, contain the echoes of conflicts that have a special place in Spain’s history. As Spain’s biggest region and farming heartland, Andalusia was the site of many of the confrontations over land ownership leading up to the Spanish Civil War, when a landed elite resisted an agrarian reform meant to give farm hands better work conditions and job security.
“We’re not anarchists looking for conflict, but our claims are similar to those of the 1930s,” Mr. Cañamero said, referring to the war years, “because the land is, unfortunately, under the control now of even fewer people than at that time.”
José Luis Solana, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Jaén, said that even if some of the claims made by the farm unions were questionable or exaggerated, “an agrarian reform and proper land distribution in Andalusia is one of the missing elements of our transition to democracy” — both in terms of social justice and improved economic efficiency.
Farming use, as measured by the surface area of cultivated land on each farm, rose 18.5 percent in Spain between 1999 and 2009, according to data released last year by Spain’s national statistics institute. In Andalusia, however, the rise was 6.9 percent, the lowest among Spain’s 17 regions.
The occupation of Palacio de Moratalla from Tuesday morning to early Wednesday was part of a march that Mr. Cañamero has led since Aug. 16, walking about 15 miles a day across the parched countryside with around 500 demonstrators. In recent months, the protests by unemployed farmworkers have mostly singled out unused state land, either in the hands of Andalusia’s regional government or Spain’s Defense Ministry, which previously required it for military purposes. Increasingly, the demonstrations are spreading to vacant private estates as well.
Another leader of the march, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, has taken increasingly strident actions to draw attention to his complaints. This month, Mr. Sánchez Gordillo, the mayor of the farming town of Marinaleda and a member of one of Spain’s opposition parties, the United Left, created a national controversy by helping coordinate food raids on two supermarkets. Seven people were charged with robbery with violence.
He and others say that the pain of Spain’s downturn is being felt not by the bankers and property developers who set off the financial crisis, but by the most vulnerable, particularly as the country struggles to meet the mounting demands for austerity by European Union policy makers and investors.
“I will do whatever it takes to show that this crisis is not about the bond market and Spain’s risk premium but about hundreds of thousands of families struggling to survive,” Mr. Sánchez Gordillo said, wiping off perspiration with his necktie.
A strong dose of communalism infuses the thinking of many of the demonstrators. The march’s itinerary this week passed close to Somonte, a government-owned farm that has been occupied by about 20 people since March. With the help of a donated tractor, the demonstrators there have been growing red peppers, tomatoes and eggplant.
“Just like the big aristocratic landowners, our politicians have no interest in generating more farm jobs,” said Lola Álvarez Márquez, 44, who has held seasonal harvesting jobs since she was 16. “In only a few months, we’ve already shown that if people are given the right to work the land, they will be able to forget poverty and joblessness and take pride instead in forming a self-sufficient community.”
So far, the Andalusian authorities have hesitated to clamp down on the farm occupations. Somonte was evacuated by the police in late April, but the occupiers returned a day later. Earlier this month, the police cleared another farm, Las Turquillas, owned by the Defense Ministry, after it was occupied for 18 days.
Meanwhile, unemployment in the farm towns has been worsened by the fall of the property sector along Andalusia’s coast, which has sent construction workers back to the countryside.
The occupation of Palacio de Moratalla was a homecoming of sorts for at least one demonstrator, Andres Vargas Montero, a 50-year-old jobless farm laborer whose grandfather had worked on the estate as a stable groom in the 1940s.
“Nobody lives here now, but the sprinklers are functioning and keeping the lawns beautifully green,” he observed. “Just imagine how many farming wages you could pay instead of using the money to water empty gardens.”