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Marinaleda: The Road to Utopia?

by Melissa García Lamarca

It is unusual to come across a town website with menu items like "struggles (successes)," "social democracy" and "utopia." But there aren’t many towns like Marinaleda.

Located in rural Andalusia in southern Spain, Marinaleda is a settlement of 2,770 inhabitants that has been run as a farming cooperative since 1989. But the town's olive groves and 3,000-acre ecological farm are not its only innovative elements.

Workers at a farming cooperative in Marinaleda, Spain. Source: New York Times

Marinaleda has virtually full employment, in a country where over a quarter of the population is unemployed. It also has wage equality and communally owned land. The majority of the town’s housing was built through a mix of government subsidies and future residents’ sweat equity. About 450 days of labor during construction enabled rents of 15 euros per month. The resulting houses have three bedrooms, a bathroom and a garden of 100 square meters. The garden is an adaptable space that can be built upon in the future. Marinaleda’s residents have access to a variety of social services, including free home care for the elderly, cheap nurseries and sporting facilities. These are financed through co-operatively run farms and factories.

Marinaleda's subsidized resident-built housing. Source: Spatial Agency

Yet the town’s transformation over the past decades has not been without controversy. Behind both is Marinaleda’s mayor, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, who has held office since 1979. He has been a committed militant for decades, deeply involved in the labor movement and a deputy with the United Left political party in the Andalusian Parliament. Sánchez Gordillo recently made it into the English press for his role as the "Spanish Robin Hood" and his march to convince other mayors in Spain to ignore austerity measures.

Mayor Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo. Source: Contrainjerencia

For Sánchez Gordillo, it is as simple as this: “An agrarian revolution is necessary. ... In Andalusia, five percent of landowners own 50 percent of the land. Land needs to be expropriated from the large landowners.” He and others occupied land in Marinaleda in the late 1970s. After fines, detainment, jail time and threats by the authorities, they won their battle in 1991, when the regional government purchased the land, owned by the Duke of Infantado, and leased it to Marinaleda’s cooperative.

Occupation (left) and house building (right). Source: Marinaleda municipal government

Critics note that while Marinaleda is portrayed as a Communist oasis (although a more accurate description would be Socialist), it depends heavily on money from the regional and central governments it decries. They say that the mayor has succeeded in dividing up misery rather than creating wealth by promoting low-productivity farm jobs. Others say the political atmosphere in Marinaleda is stifling and that the mayor has ostracized his opponents.

Anthropologist Salvador Becera from the Center for Andalusian Studies in Seville noted that, while Sánchez Gordillo has "brought social equity to an uneducated, economically oppressed community," his agriculture-based vision is anachronistic. "Right now, they can puff out their chests because the economy is in crisis," Mr. Becera said. "But what if they had the chance to get rich? Then who would stay in this little paradise that Sánchez Gordillo has created?"

Public service announcements. Source: Spatial Agency

The crisis in Spain shows little sign of abating anytime soon. If one believes that the country's current system faces inherent ecological, social and economic crises, then Marinaleda — while not utopia — can certainly provide inspiration.

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