Squatting the land to rise up against unemployment

Laborers occupy a farm near Córdoba in protest at the intended sale of the site by the Andalusian government

Members of the Andalusian Workers' Syndicate tend crops on the disputed farm at Somonte.
Members of the Andalusian Workers' Syndicate tend crops on the disputed farm at Somonte.F. J. VARGAS

A woman in her mid-forties, with dark eyes and skin tanned by the wind and sun, wakes up from the siesta she has been enjoying on a mattress lying on the ground. Suddenly, she sees the man mounted on a horse trampling on the vegetables she has been tending so carefully for the last two months. He begins to shout at the 30 or so day laborers, who along with her have been staging a sit in at the Somontes farm in Palma de Río, in Córdoba province.

"What on earth are you doing on that horse?" shouts the woman, who has emerged as a leader among the men.

Lola Álvarez has spent her life working in the fields, and has fought long and hard for the rights of farm hands since the days of the Andalusian Workers' Syndicate (SAT), but says she has never been through such a difficult time as this. She hasn't worked for months: the orange harvest was ruined by late frost, and there was no other work available. So, she and her fellow day laborers have decided to occupy the 400 hectares of Somontes owned by the regional government of Andalusia in Palma del Río.

They have taken up the slogan ¡La tierra para el que la trabaja!, a call to arms dating back to the days before the Civil War, and which translates as "The land for those who work it." These day laborers have taken their inspiration from the village of Marinaleda, in the neighboring province of Seville, where the mayor of 33 years' standing, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, decided back in the late 1970s to occupy unused land and work it. More than three decades later, the community is one of the few in the area with full employment. Gordillo has backed Lola Álvarez and her colleagues, as has the ombudsman of Andalusia, José Chamizo, who has visited Palma del Río in support of their initiative.

They decided to occupy the land at Somontes on March 4, the day that it was due to be auctioned. This was the third time since June 21, 2011 that the regional government of Andalusia had tried selling the land, at a starting price of 1.5 million euros. There were no bidders at that price, and fearing that the land would be sold privately, the SAT decided to occupy it.

I never went to school. All I know how to do is work the land"

"It will be easier for the government to sell it now, because they can negotiate the price," says Álvarez. If the government does manage to sell Somontes, it won't be the first time that it has been in private hands.

This strip of land which has been used to grow oats, barley, beans, and sunflowers was the property of the Marquis of Montesión until 1991, when it was bought by the now-defunct Andalusian Institute for Agrarian Reform following laws passed in the mid-1980s aimed at increasing agricultural output and with it employment. The land was used for non-irrigated crops, which meant that over the course of three months, three laborers could manage the land.

With funding cut by the central government, the regional government of Andalusia has decided to sell the land. Hoping to raise some 75 million euros from 15,000 hectares, it has so far only managed to to generate 10.6 million euros.

The day laborers at Somontes have taken their case to court, where they hope to demonstrate that they are putting the land to good use by irrigating it. "At least we making something of the soil, because this land has just been lying here for the last few years without being worked," says Javier Ballestero Osuna, one of the men occupying Somontes.

"I never went to school. All I know how to do is work the land, so tell me what I'm supposed to do if I can't find work."

The 15-M movement is finding that rural communities fit well with its philosophy

The day starts at 7am. Lola and her husband are staying in farm buildings, as is another family that was made homeless last year. Over a cup of coffee, they plan out each day in the kitchen. For the last week they have been fixing the irrigation system ahead of planting peppers. So far they have grown water melon, cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce. They say that this is just the start, and they say that they soon hope to start selling their produce.

The regional government evicted the laborers on April 19. But the next day they were back to occupy Somontes for a second time. Since then they have stood firm. In June some were called to testify in the local court, accused of disobeying a public order. They gave testimony, and then returned to the farm.

The 15-M nationwide grassroots protest movement has also thrown its weight behind the day laborers of Somontes. Although the 15-M is largely based in Spain's cities, working at neighborhood level, it is increasingly finding that rural communities are more receptive to its share-and-share-alike philosophy. Lola traveled to Madrid last month to take part in a number of popular assemblies, meetings where everybody gets a chance to speak. Now the group at Somontes has decided to call its own assembly meeting for next weekend, and more land-squatting actions are likely to follow.

In Somontes, Lola and her colleagues are still unsure how things will turn out, but all agree on the principle that as long as there is land unworked, and people without work, the only thing to do is occupy the land and work it.

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