Spanish farmers' invasion

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The Independent Online
MORE than 100,000 farmers invaded Madrid and nine other Spanish cities yesterday, some with tractors and livestock, others destroying or selling off their products wholesale, to protest against the Socialist government's agricultural policies.

The farmers' action, after an 18- day 'Green March' from all around the country, was the latest in a series of labour demonstrations against Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez as he prepares for an election this year.

They were demanding more government financing and support to defend the industry and reverse the trend away from the countryside and into the cities. 'I'm defending the countryside more than Solbes,' said a placard carried by a donkey, referring to the Agriculture Minister, Pedro Solbes. 'Justice for the countryside', the marchers shouted. They complained that imports from the EC and North Africa were helping put 80,000 of them out of business each year. Less than 25 per cent of the population now worked the land, they said.

In Pamplona, farmers caused havoc by releasing flocks of sheep. In Lerida, official buildings were showered with eggs. In Murcia, farmers set up a makeshift market to sell fruit and vegetables wholesale or give them away.

But Madrid was the centre of the protest, with tens of thousands of farmers (they estimated 100,000) converging on the central Plaza de Espana. More than 1,500 police were called in to maintain order and the march appeared to pass peacefully.

The farmers demanded more state financing, lower interest rates for borrowing - Spain's base lending rate is about double that in Britain - and urgent moves to ease Spain's yearly worsening drought problem.

Mr Solbes, who had already granted pounds 160m in new low-interest loans to farmers since the marchers set out, promised to listen to their complaints. But he suggested the march had political undertones, noting ties between farmers' leaders and the conservative opposition Partido Popular (PP).

Mr Gonzalez has already seen iron industry workers march into Madrid and has come under increasing attack from labour groups on one side and the employers' federation on the other. He faced a grilling in parliament this week over unemployment, after the jobless total passed 3 million.