Hélène et Thomas Chassaing fr / en Menu

The Garden of Europe or the Third World

The story

From October 2006 to the end of the year 2007, I made numerous trips to Spain to document the different fruit and vegetable harvests throughout the country.

I was shocked, while on a wedding trip to Andalusia in May of 2006, by the extent of the ecological catastrophe in the province of Almeria (where 400,000 hectares of arid land, as I read later, are devoted to cultivation under greenhouses and make up the greatest concentration of intensively produced vegetables in the world), and by the extent and the monotony of the olive orchards between Granada and Cordoba, subjected to a great deal of erosion.

Lost, not far from the Cabo de Gata national park, in a maze of encircling plastic greenhouses that block out the horizon, we saw also dozens of young Blacks and Maghrebians, on old bicycles, following rutted roads that led under the sheets covering the fields. Hélène said to me, "You can really believe you are in Africa here."

Several months later, I was once again in what is commonly called the sea of plastic, in order to learn more. The first days were a little difficult, alone and hesitant, circling around in an old GS (Citroën) that was my grandmother's and in which I slept, I ran into mistrust on the part of the Spanish, and a fear on the part of the migrant labourers.

I am overwhelmed, the air is rank, there are few trees and even less water, large billboards promote various unknown phytosanitary chemicals.

Emaciated dogs wander the roads, thousands of bits of plastic hang from stubby bushes; wrecked mattresses, old clothes, suitcases, shoes and cans, are sometimes heaped up in unruly dumps near the greenhouses.

And above all, the tidy partitions within Spanish society, which seems to profit without any compunction from its new wealth - thanks to this type of agricultural "Eldorado" which, according to the New York Times, generates $500 million a year (although several decades earlier the inhabitants of this very poor region were forced to leave) - and the immigrant labourers who survive here with or without papers, under sub-human conditions (as I heard later from the mouth of an official).

In fact, I saw that except for a minority of immigrants who were able to rent expensive apartments in some "ghetto area" in town or in cortijos (little agricultural sheds near the greenhouses that are loaned or rented by the employer), most lived isolated, frequently far from roads, in appalling makeshift shelters (chabolas).

After a fortnight of wandering and observing (I would often witness, very early in the morning, the crowds of countless day labourers on the sidewalks and at the sides of the road waiting hopefully where the vans from the farms would stop to pick up those lucky enough to get work), I made contact in El Ejido with the SOC (Sindicato de obreros del campo : Union of Farm Workers). This union, in spite of meager funds, undertakes to defend the abuse of rights of what are said to be 80,000 immigrant labourers who work in the region. The sector's collective agreement provides for a daily wage of 37.2 euros. But wages actually hover around 30 euros per day.

At the time that I was shooting in Paco's greenhouses, I had the good luck, a few days later, of running into some trade unionists who allowed me to accompany them on their rounds among the field workers.

At the end of November, many workers leave to look for work in the province of Jaén. The work of harvesting olives is beginning. I followed them. This region is the biggest producer of olive oil in the world. I went to Baena, a village very proud of its olive production, situated at the border of the provinces of Jaén and Cordoba. It was there, a few months earlier, that I had become acquainted with Juan, Salud! a major landowner and farmer who had invited me to return to do a photo report of the harvest. In addition to documenting the work in the fields, I am interested in what makes for more favourable accommadations here, and that makes many migrant labourers say that this is the harvest they prefer. I am also intrigued by workers coming from Eastern European countries on the basis of programs with a predetermined limit of stay (the famous "contrato en origen" following the "contrat OMI" in France).

At the beginning of March, after spending some time in Almeria to follow Paco during the height of the tomato harvest, I went to the province of Huelva, still staying within Andalusia, to photograph the work going on in the strawberry fields and orange orchards. Disoriented at first, I quickly come across some day labourers I met before in Almeria or in Baena. Some had already found work, others waited for the peak season, sleeping in the street or in the forest at the edge of the fields. The physical and mental suffering endured here, as in Almeria, is extreme. Here, the work of picking strawberries is mainly carried out by women come from the countries of the east and Morocco, under agreements between the several countries (contrato en origen). For about three months, I documented as much as possible :

- the situation of migrant workers from all over Spain, whether they have papers or not. Put into competition with each other, they are condemned by the new immigration policy (contrato en origen) to particular jobs such as spraying phytosanitary chemicals or to serve as stop-gap like supplementary workers (on weekends, for example, or on public holidays and during peaks of production).

- the actual work done on the farms and in the cooperative packing houses.

- the intercultural relationships that are formed between the many nationalities present.

I also got in contact with the WWF, the organization that had just alerted public opinion about the ecological situation confronting the Doñana National Park. Part of the World Heritage sites designated by Unesco, it is in danger from the cultivation of 95% of Spain's strawberry crop on a surface of 5,000 hectares. With "massive use of chemical products for the preparation of the soil, grown on sand and under plastic, consuming massive amounts of water for irrigation, making completely illegal use of the land..."* I am undertaking work on the subject.

At the beginning of June, I returned to Almeria to follow Paco in his greenhouses through the harvest and marketing of his watermelons.

From mid-July to the end of September I returned several times to Lerida.

The Capital of Fruit, as the village office of tourism proclaims: "39,000 hectares of apples, pears, peaches, cherries, apricots and plums that produce more than 900 million kilos of fruit under good weather conditions. One out of two apples and pears produced in Spain come from Lerida, which, with her 700,000 tonnes, is the main producer of almost all varieties."

I found there a lot of the acquaintances I had encountered earlier in Andalousia, and once again, unfortunately, I witnessed the same suffering. Finding work is difficult due to the CEN program (contrato en origen) which brings in 15,000 Columbians for the fruit harvest.

In many of the little villages, I encountered the same "patera" sheds (from the name for the small fishing boats on which immigrants reach Spain) that I had seen in Andalusia.

Enquiring about the situation of the Columbians is also very interesting.

In October, I followed some of the migrants who were going to Logrono, in the province of Rioja, to attend the grape harvest.

The season is short, work is scarce because of the grape harvesting machines that I was told can replace 80 workers, and work as well at night.

A telephone call at the end of March, from a member of an NGO in the Huelva region, alerted me that the humanitarian situation in Huelva is even more worrisome than the previous year.

PS: We no longer have all the links to the quotes made here because at the time of this writing (probably in 2008) we did not have the reflex to put the references at the bottom of the page.

* Article of 01/03/2007 from Agro Media: "WWF denounces Spanish strawberry producers." (https://www.agro-media.fr/actualite/la-wwf-denonce-les-producteurs-de-fraises-espagnoles-378.html)