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Why Are Farmers Protesting Across Spain?

12.02.2024 16:57

Desperate farmers have left city centers in gridlock, blocking traffic across Spain and Europe in recent days and weeks Major sticking points for protesting farmers include delayed payments, EU regulations, international trade dynamics Local authorities and EU officials alike have given...

By Alyssa McMurtry

OVIEDO, Spain (AA) — In provinces across Spain, farmers have been waking up in the dark morning hours, jumping on their tractors and driving toward capital cities. On their diesel-heavy journeys, they join up with more farmers at gas stations, forming slow-moving convoys decorated with signs of desperation.

In Oviedo, the capital of Asturias in northern Spain, around 200 tractors converged on the city center late Thursday morning, their shrieking horns calling attention to their plight. This protest, part of a broader national and European movement, underscores the deep-seated issues between farmers and policymakers, ranging from delayed payments and bureaucratic hurdles to the impacts of European Union regulations and international trade dynamics.

"For a dignified future for the rural environment," said the leading banner of Thursday's march in Oviedo, which was organized by the local USAGA and URA unions.

But to the dismay of the protesters, no one from the regional government would receive them, despite the protest being organized days in advance.

The unions called off the protest by Thursday afternoon, but the farmers refused to leave until they could talk to the regional head of agriculture.

"It's a joke that they aren't receiving us. Do they think we're here for a stroll? This just shows how they don't listen to us, they never listen to us," said Aquilinio, a businessman who provides services to local farmers. Aquilinio said he has not been paid for months because the farmers don't have the liquidity.

"Would you work every month just to lose money?" he said to Anadolu. "They are lucky we're peaceful. But of course, this could get tense. I'm not making it to the end of the month."

By Friday morning, the tractors remained frozen on the downtown streets. The farmers had dozed in their vehicles, or others like Victor Valdes, a 28-year-old farmer, hadn't slept at all.

"It was a long and cold night, but it's nothing compared to the problems we are facing as farmers," he told Anadolu. "If it was just up to me, we would keep protesting until we get real solutions. There comes a point when you don't have enough money to live. So instead of robbing, we're here to protest."

What do they want?

The protests in Asturias mirror a continental upheaval, challenging local, European and Spanish governments alike. The tired farmers in Oviedo form part of nationwide mobilizations in Spain and a wave of protests that have shaken other countries like Belgium, France, Italy, Germany, Portugal and Romania.

The complaints of the protesters include a patchwork of local issues, problems with national governments and grievances with overbearing EU regulations, international trade and the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

In Oviedo, protesters told Anadolu that the bureaucratic burden was one of the major issues, as well as huge delays in receiving payments from the regional government.

"We tick off all the boxes and jump through all of the hoops the government asks us to," said Fernando Marron, the spokesperson for USAGA. "But they don't hold up their side of the bargain, delaying overdue payments for months."

Ana Isabel Fernandez, mayor of the rural community of Navia, told Anadolu that many farmers in her community were turning to loans and credit as they waited for payments.

Another complaint common across Spain is that farmers often have little choice but to sell their products below the cost of production.

Under Spanish law, that practice is technically forbidden. However, a lack of enforcement and minimal fines on distributors caught lowballing producers means that it remains an unpleasant reality for farmers across the country.

The unions and farmers say this practice is caused, in part, by cheap food products imported from non-EU countries that do not have to comply with costly EU environmental and labor standards.

Environmental policy is another source of conflict. In Asturias, many farmers complain about the growing populations of wolves and bears, which has been promoted by official green policy, but which farmers say is not compensated properly when their livestock is attacked.

In other parts of Spain, especially those suffering from prolonged drought, water policy is another massive issue. Governments like Catalonia have greatly limited the amount of water that can be used in the agriculture sector.

A fight for future generations

One common thread across Europe is the fear that traditional family farms are at risk of disappearing due to the growing bureaucratic and market pressures.

The protesters noted how hardly any young people want to join the sector due to the hard work and low pay. That, they say, will have negative consequences on the quality of local gastronomy and environmental health.

"The entire territory is being abandoned. Anything that happens, like a forest fire, is massively destructive," Jose Gonzalez, a 34-year-old farmer, told Anadolu. "People in the city have no idea."

"But if I could go back and make the decision on whether or not to be a farmer, I wouldn't do it," he said, describing his future as "terrifying."

Yet 15-year-old Nuria Llaneza said she was passionate about farming and came out to protest because she wants to be a farmer when she gets older.

"I think it's something really beautiful and something that very few people are working in now. And when you have something so lovely, you have to conserve it," she told Anadolu.

She also explained how her father has to work another job to be able to stay afloat while also farming and says the government should provide more aid so he'd have even a little bit of free time to "live his life."

Politicians making concessions, trying to win farmers' support

In Asturias, protesters finally forced a meeting with government officials. By Friday evening, organizers announced they had struck a "historic" deal with the regional government, which committed to meeting eight of the unions' ten demands.

The Spanish national government and EU leaders have also announced significant concessions in recent days and weeks.

Since the protests erupted, the EU has said that it will scrap a controversial bill that would have forced farmers to reduce pesticide use by 50%. The bloc also stopped negotiating a free trade deal with the Mercosur group of South American countries, according to French officials.

With EU elections scheduled for June, experts suggest that European politicians are particularly receptive to demands.

Meanwhile, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez announced last week that his government will also take concrete steps to improve the lives of Spanish farmers.

In parliament, he said Spain will reinforce a national law to ensure that farmers are not forced to sell products below the cost of production, add "mirror clauses" to international trade agreements so they comply with more EU standards, and vowed to lobby the EU to simplify bureaucratic procedures.

But so far, the Spanish announcements have not materialized in concrete actions.

And while members of the Spanish government have expressed "absolute empathy" with the farmers' claims, they have said that some of the platforms organizing traffic blocs and non-authorized protests are promoting far-right ideas such as the claim that the UN's 2030 Agenda aims to create a "new world order."

For instance, Plataforma 6F, which has organized protests since last week, attempted to converge in front of the Socialist Party headquarters in Madrid on Saturday, noting a political slant. One of the group's leaders, Lola Guzman, has proven links to the far-right party Vox, though she insists the platform is independent.

But what is certain is that opposition parties are trying to seize on the discontent.

From Vox to the Popular Party to the far-left Podemos, political leaders say the government and the broader system are letting farmers down.

But within the main unions, such as those that led the protest in Oviedo, leaders say it is important to stay politically neutral as they seek real solutions to on-the-ground problems.

"It's not a question of ideologies. It's a question of a sector that is genuinely at risk," said the mayor of Navia. -

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