Andalucia's olive army spoils for a fight Revolt among the Spanish olive groves

An EU plan to tackle fraud could kill a way of life in Spain
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The Independent Online
The sun is high and hot, the earth, after recent downpours, soft underfoot and aromatic. The rolling countryside around the Andalucian village of Bujalance, east of Cordoba, glows, and grey-green olive groves stretch for hundreds of miles beyond the horizon. This is the biggest olive-oil producing region in the world, and there is revolt in the air.

Francisco Haro Priego, head of one of Bujalance's 50 olive-pressing co- operatives, tramps between the neatly trimmed trees. "We constantly trim the trees and keep the earth clear of weeds and grass to increase the quality and the yield," he explains.

This task, with the harvest that lasts about nine weeks, provides the only employment for some 300,000 Spanish day-labourers or jornaleros. Francisco says Brussels' plans to reform the subsidy system will eliminate these jobs. The EU Agriculture Commissioner, Franz Fischler, wants to subsidise each tree, instead of the oil produced, to help eliminate fraud.

"Obviously," says Francisco, "there'll be no incentive to tend the trees, so they'll be abandoned and our jornaleros will be idle. How will they live? There's nothing else here. If Fischler is worried about fraud, he should strengthen controls, not destroy jobs. We are very worried."

Worry and anger brought more than 50,000 olive-oil workers and growers to Madrid last week to protest outside the European Commission's office. The demonstration, joined briefly by the Minister of Agriculture, Loyola de Palacio, crowned a week-long march on the capital from Cordoba.

Jose Alonso Cervilla, who represents the olive sector on the farmers' organisation Coag, was among the marchers and will join dozens of growers taking a battlebus on Monday to Strasbourg, Paris, Bonn, Brussels and Amsterdam, where they will protest at the EU summit on 16 June.

"Fischler isn't even saving money with this proposal," Mr Cervilla complains, as he and Francisco size up the budlike young olives. "It costs the same, 2bn ecu, whether you subsidise the output or the tree. Most fraud is perpetrated by small producers, but our producers are mainly medium and large. Now Italy, they're mostly small producers."

Italy is the focus of resentment. Mr Fischler overestimates the number of Italian trees, while underestimating the Spanish, so Italians win out at Spanish expense, Mr Cervilla says. "Olives are the only thing Spain has got left. EU farm policy has cut production of our milk, meat and cereals, which we now have to import. They can't ask us to cut back on the only thing we still have enough of."

Mr Fischler, visiting the region in April, ruined his grove cred by plucking an olive from a tree and eating it like a cherry, prompting incredulous contempt among those steeped in the lore of transforming this bitter and indigestible fruit into a palatable delicacy.

Back at the almazara or pressing mill, where 500 local growers bring their crop between December and February, Francisco proudly shows me four gleaming stainless steel centrifuges and a vast new storage vat bought last year with 450m pesetas (pounds 1.25m) of borrowed money. "We'll have trouble paying it off if Mr Fischler has his way," he warns.

He takes me into the office and turns the pages of the accounts book that logs the olives coming in, the oil going out. "We have to send copies to the ministry every month, and two or three times a year an inspector descends and checks everything. We might make a mistake sometimes, but there's certainly no fraud," he says, affronted.

Balmy Andalucia, often portrayed as Spain's flowery paradise, has historically been a semi-feudal nest of peasant revolt. In the 1970s, the conservative prime minister, Adolfo Suarez, was constantly afraid of social upheaval by legions of Andalucian jornaleros forced to choose between emigration or destitution. Then, as now, the problem was lack of work between harvests.

Dole, and government make-work schemes, have lessened the danger. But Francisco fears the consequences unless Mr Fischler thinks again. "It'll be war," he predicts.