The Marinaleda Model

Picture of a Marinaleda mural

I recently visited Andalucía in southern Spain. I was there as a journalist and a friend, and because I wanted to know more about what was happening in Spain after the financial crisis that had been devastating Europe the last two-three years. Not at least I looked for alternatives for coping with the crisis.

On November 15th 2012 there was a general strike in Spain. I participated in Cordoba where the streets were packed with discontent people of all ages. Later that evening we could see on the news that there had been severe fights in Madrid and Barcelona. At one point they showed how the police hit a young boy until he bled. The police director defended himself by saying that no youngsters should stay in the streets during protests; implying that the assault was the boy’s own fault.

Spain has changed since the last time I was there. Everyone is concerned about how to survive the austerity policies that has been implemented by the EU and the Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy. My friends told me about the impossibility of getting a job, living at home with their parents at the age of 33 and that they knew many families that lived off their grandparents. When will things get better? And can there be an alternative way of living in Spain?

A few weeks before my arrival, I read an article about the small town of Marinaleda in Andalucía and got fascinated. I decided that a small autonomous town in Spain that prides itself to be a “utopia for peace,” definitely was worth a visit.

Fight for Land

In 1979 the charismatic young man Juan Manuel Sànchez Gordillo was elected mayor in Marinaleda. The Franco-era was over and agriculture in Spain was in ruins. The farmers were tired of seeing the land not being used for agriculture, and also occupied part of a large estate called El Humoso.

In the following decade there were clashes between the police and the inhabitants of Marinaleda. They marched the streets of Cordoba and Sevilla to make a statement against the rich landowners, and for the many farmers who had no land to cultivate. Their cry for justice was heard all over the world, and Marinaleda became an example of resistance. The mayor Gordillo created controversies wherever he went.

Finally in 1992, the old slogan “the land belongs to the ones that work on it” came true in Marinaleda. 1200 hectares of land were transferred to the small defiant town and turned into an agricultural cooperative. The main products of the cooperative were olives, artichokes, and pepper.

Meeting Marinaleda 

Marinaleda has a population of 2700 people and is located about an hour outside of Cordoba. The olive fields are the scenery that meets you when you enter the town. Me and my friends arrive in the town hall, a white and relatively new building. In the reception there is a Danish journalist and we are told that a Russian journalist visited yesterday. Marinaleda is an interesting place for journalists worldwide. The mayor is not in town at the moment. He travels a lot since he also is a politician and a representative in the Andalucian parliament.

Finally, one of the mayor’s advisors agrees to give us an interview. Her name is Dolores and she shows us into the mayor’s office. The room is filled with gifts from people all over the world. There are three flags, the local Marinaleda flag, the Andalucian flag and the Spanish republican flag.

Dolores explains that we will not find the Spanish flag anywhere in Marinaleda. “We do not agree with monarchy and therefore we will not hang it outside. Many people have reacted negatively to this decision, but we explain, and then they understand. We will rather use flags as symbols. For instance, we have had the Palestinian flag hanging high outside, this to show support to the Palestinian population, and we have had the West-Sahara flag to support them in their fight to be free from Morocco,” she says.

Dolores continues to point out other small, but important details from the town. I noticed that the streets had names like Che Guevara, Salvador Allende and Libertad (Freedom). She says that the street names were something they changed immediately. They did not want to have names after generals or kings, but “true heroes.” Everywhere you see paintings and slogans of resistance on the walls, mainly from Spain and Latin America.

Food, Housing and Direct Democracy

I ask Dolores to explain how Marinaleda works, and how they have managed through the current crisis. Dolores explains that they consider Marinaleda to be “outside of Spain” and sees the town as autonomous. “We even export to Venezuela without the Spanish state interfering,” she says. “We don’t have a police force – this makes us save a lot of money in benefit of the population. Everyone plays a part in the decision-making, and direct democracy exists in everyday life. We are self-sufficient and do not lack food even in times of crisis. We have a system of ‘cooperativism’ which include ten cooperatives. How many workers we have depend on the season of the vegetable. We also have a factory where we produce olive oil. It is not so profitable for us, but it is profitable for the Marinaleda community. What we gain, we invest in our town.”

A few times every year Marinaleda organize something called red and green Sundays. On these days everyone participates in making the town and the cooperative better for the whole. ‘Red Sunday’ means that everyone does something to improve the town – paint houses, fix pipes, improve pavements and similar jobs. ‘Green Sunday’ means that everyone works extra in the fields, harvesting, packing and so on. This free work benefits everyone who lives in Marinaleda, and according to Dolores it is important to maintain solidarity and unity of the population.

Everyone in Marinaleda is employed and nearly everyone has a proper house. The housing policy is that once you have lived in Marinaleda for two years, you get materials to build your own house. This house cannot be sold, but given away to your children or to someone you choose. Just in recent years three hundred houses have been build.

This is quite unique in the ongoing crisis in Spain. The news about evictions and suicides due to evictions were repeatedly discussed in the media every day when I stayed in Spain. The fear of losing your house is the biggest fear a Spanish family can have my friends tell me. “If you don’t have a house and security you are nothing.”

Dolores tells us about the organization of work and the cooperative. “Everyone works less so everyone can work,” she says. “There is no competition of who works the most, who earns the most and makes the most profit by selling products. We are all a part of a collective ‘winner-team’.”

Criticism and the Future

A hero or a villain? The mayor of Marinaleda has both been criticized and adored for his beliefs through more than 30 years. Recently he organized an action that consisted of taking basic products from large super market chains and distributing the food to the poor. The media calls him a modern Robin Hood, while politicians and other society actors criticize him, saying that a mayor and a political representative could not do this and that he was a criminal. However, Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo does not care about the critics. He says he will do whatever it takes to people to have a worthy life. He has been in jail seven times and suffered two attempts on his life. 

Some critics claim he has made the population dependent on him, and that he lives well by exploiting his own village. His response is that Marinaleda has free elections every four years, and that he has been re-elected every time, in good and bad times, since 1979. “We get used to criticism”, says Dolores. “We just don’t care, because our small town is functioning well, and does not depend on the State.”

So, with no end to the crisis in the near future, does Marinaleda represent an alternative way of living for Spain? Recently, the media have started to talk about “a lost generation” and “brain drain” from Spain to Latin-America, USA and Europe. The youngsters that need security from unemployment and homelessness believe that Marinaleda is a good alternative, because it brings a sense of solidarity in the midst of a crisis where young people feel excluded from the rest of society.

Dolores is afraid the youngsters of Marinaleda will stop to fight for their rights, just because they have it all and they do not know how it is to be young in the rest of the country. “We try and implement everyday that everyone has the same right to work, education, housing and food. We try and motivate them to keep on fighting for what they believe in, like their parents did, but it is not easy. The capitalistic system attracts them too, like many young ones today. The truth is that Spain was never ready for a strong, capitalist system and it all went wrong,” says Dolores.

When we leave this small village my friends concludes with some thoughts about how the Marinaleda- system could work, not only in small villages, but also in neighbourhoods in cities. You don’t necessarily have to have a strong ideology. It is sufficient to solidarize with others and share services. Throughout Spain, people are helping each other. What else can one do when the state prefers helping the banks? Marinaleda certainly is a breath of fresh air in a dark Spanish crisis, and might motivate others to live differently.