On the Road in Euskal Herria—the Basque Country
By Eric Holt-Giménez
The farmers of EHNE have us speaking throughout Euskal Herria. So far we have participated in their annual meeting, given presentations in four agricultural schools, a town hall meeting and a group of environmental organizations, held an open question and answer session with young, beginning farmers in EHNE, and given press conferences and book presentations in Bilbao, San Sebastian and Pamplona. The schedule is grueling, but the conversations are stimulating and the food is fantastic. Paul Nicholson and Paxti Gaztelumendi of EHNE accompany me in the presentations.
We pulled in to Segura—a mountain town in Gipuzkoa—just as a large group of its citizens and mayor were holding a short rally and press conference in the town square. The Spanish federal government has insisted that local government buildings in the autonomous Basque Country fly the Spanish flag along with the Basque “Ikurriña.” Segura, is one of 13 counties that have refused. After reading a pronouncement in Basque, the town mayor, a young woman in her early twenties, invited us to the town cultural center. There we were greeted by a lively group of about sixty townspeople.
The topic was food sovereignty. I introduced the session with an overview of the food crisis and a brief description of the rise of global food movements. Paul Nicholson followed with an analysis of the situation of food and agriculture in the Basque Country. A discussion ensued regarding how to better localize the food system to bring it under democratic control, breaking the “dictatorship of the supermarkets.” Afterwards, we proceeded to a nearby txoko, a gastronomic club run by an inter-generational group of Segurans with a taste for good food, cider and txakoli. The txokos look a lot like the old Basque restaurants of San Francisco, CA; long tables filled with food and wine, no menus and apparently no end to the servings! Just when I thought things were winding down (around midnight), someone produced a bottle of patxarán. Short cigars were lit. Then the singing started…
The agricultural schools we have visited are two-year technical programs. Students range from 17-20 and 18-22 years of age. Enrollment is up because there are fewer and fewer employment opportunities due to the recession. This has resulted in a growing return of young people to the countryside in an attempt to enter agriculture. The problem is that getting established in conventional agriculture is prohibitively expensive, requiring at least a quarter of a million dollars worth of investment in land, machinery, infrastructure, etc.
The farmers of EHNE have demonstrated that establishing CSAs of fresh fruits and vegetables, cheese and cured meats can serve as a viable avenue for new farmers. In much of the Basque country a CSA of 30 baskets can provide a living wage to two farmers working one hectare of land and a couple of low-cost greenhouses.
I visited one of these farms in Bizkaia. Farmers work hard and live simply, but they make a living producing good, healthy food for their neighbors. The limitation in Euskal Herria—like much of the developed world—is the cost of land. Just like in the United States and elsewhere, beginning and returning farmers rent, lease, borrow or occupy land however they can to get started. So, much of the discussion in the agricultural schools centered around land access. This leads me to believe that the land question—from land access to land grabs—is rapidly going to become a global issue in the industrial North as well as the agrarian South.
Paul, Patxi and I presented in the breathtaking port city of Donostia (San Sebastian) at the invitation of Eguzki, an activist environmental group. The topic was “Independence, Autonomy or Sovereignty?”
Donostia is a strongly albertzale—in favor of Basque independence from Spain. The question addressed was whether or not independence from Spain would in and of itself fix the food system. Was an autonomous (or autarkic) food system needed, desirable or even possible? The farmers from EHNE argued that independence and autonomy were not possible without food sovereignty, which is a call to transform the neoliberal food system into one that is sustainable, equitable and democratic. They also argued for the “re-ruralization” of the countryside in order to food sovereignty in Euskal Herria.
My last presentation was in Iruña (Pamplona), Navarra at the Hormiga Atomica bookstore collective. About fifteen people showed up to hear the story of Food Movements Unite! (Movimientos Alimentarios Unidos!). Some were gardeners, some belonged to a CSA, others simply wanted to understand the food system. It turns out that Pamplona had a thriving urban farm on communal land along the banks of the river that circles the old Roman walls of the city.
Unexplainably, the city threw the farmer off the land and established an “urban farm interpretation center.” In doing so they ruined the soil and water conservation structures that the farmer had painstakingly installed. The first heavy rains of the year promptly washed the interpretation center into the river… After a long discussion about food sovereignty in Navarra, Patxi of the Basque Farmer’s Union EHNE, drove me back to Bilbao. We stopped at a friend’s bar along the way for pintxos and beer made at a local micro-brewery. When Mikel the owner learned I was from the United States he promptly doubled my portions. Then, despite my protests, he gave me several pounds of vacuum-packed cured ham and sausage to take home with me.
On the flight home my suitcase was filled to bursting with the gifts of the Basque Farmer’s Union: jars of fruit conserves, bottles of paxtarán and txakoli, and of course, the cured ham and sausage—which US Customs promptly confiscated on my arrival in San Francisco. My friendships and experiences in Euskal Herría, however, will always be with me.