Protests in the olive-producing sector in Spain

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The recent proposal by the EU agriculture commissioner, Franz Fischler, to alter the method of granting Community aid to olive farmers fell like a bombshell in Spain. This reform would not only have serious economic repercussions, but would also lead to the loss of at least 70,000 jobs, according to some trade unions in the sector. Farm-owners' organisations, cooperatives, trade unions and the regional and central administrations have rejected the proposal and are preparing all kinds of protest action.

Since Spain entered the European Union, its land surface area devoted to olive-growing and olive oil production has increased. Oil production has increased in particular, with an average production of 560,000 tonnes per year, and the prospect of reaching 800,000 tonnes in the year 2000. This growth is due to an increase in the number of trees and in productivity brought about by the extension of irrigation and the improvement of farming techniques. Spain exports to around 100 countries, the most important of which is Italy, the second producer in the world. In other words, Spain is by far the most important olive oil producer in the world.

The Community aid that had existed up to now was based on production - that is, aid per kilo of oil produced - and was favourable to increasing production. But the proposal recently advocated by commissioner Fischler, in the context of the reform of the common organisation of the olive oil market, will change matters considerably.

Indeed, the European Commission, which wishes to reduce the enormous proportion of the budget that is taken up by agricultural policies, argues that the current system encourages fraud and makes it difficult to control what is produced. It is therefore proposing a payment per tree, and defines tree productivity standards. The change of criterion and an out-of-date tree count mean that there will be a considerable decrease in the volume of aid (according to all the social partners and the Spanish Government, the EU attributes 166 million trees to Spain, whereas there are almost 250 million). The difference between the two criteria involves some 60,000 million pesetas per year. The discrepancy in the Spanish olive tree count is because many trees planted in recent years are not included by the EU. This would lead to wide variations in the effective payment per tree in Mediterranean countries: ESP 574 in Spain, ESP 833 in Greece and ESP 934 in Italy.

The Oil Round Table, which is composed of organisations of farm owners, cooperatives, trade unions and the administration, has rejected the proposal. In particular the Spanish Government and the Junta(regional government) ofAndalusia- a region that produces 80% of Spanish olives - are radically opposed to the proposal.

The basic reason is that this reduction in aid would lead to loss of income equivalent to over 70,000 jobs. Olive farming is the main activity of many thousands of temporary and permanent workers in the large farms of Andalusia and Extremadura. This measure will seriously undermine social cohesion. Therefore, the Spanish representatives of the farmers and workers in the sector, and the Government, say that they are prepared to take the protest as far as is necessary to have the proposal revised. The visit of the commissioner for agriculture does not seem to have improved matters. The Spanish parties involved plan to demonstrate in Amsterdam at the forthcoming meeting of heads of state on 16 June, coinciding with the end of the Dutch Presidency of the EU. The Spanish side does not accept a proposal that could lower the quality of a product in which the EU - and within it, Spain - is the world leader in a growing market.

It should be stressed that the economic and labour problems of Spanish farming, and specifically olive farming, are very complex and it is not appropriate to reduce them to this unfavourable proposal. Employment has increased in recent years, thanks to increased production, but it is now beginning to fall as a result of mechanised olive harvesting (which is replacing many temporary workers), automatic irrigation and other technical innovations. The social cohesion of the rural areas of Andalusia and Extremadura is of key importance, but it cannot depend only on olive farming.

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