Marinaleda: The Utopia Without Unemployment

Article published on July 29, 2014
Article published on July 29, 2014

In Spain, a town of 2,800 tries to keep the ideals of socialism alive. This seemingly magical place is called Marinaleda. But what lies behind the words and slogans? A journey in images to a place where unemployment is 'non-existent'.

Ma­ri­na­le­da is a utopic place: this small town in An­da­lu­sia, at least ac­cord­ing to re­ports by the for­eign press, doesn't have un­em­ploy­ment. Yet, this fig­ure hov­ers at 29% in Spain. But where does utopia stop and the truth begin?

Ma­ri­na­le­da is an An­dalu­sian town of 2,650 in­hab­i­tants. In the 1980s, ac­tivist Juan Ma­nuel Sánchez Gor­dil­lo – the cur­rent mayor of the town – oc­cu­pied a large prop­erty of one of the rich­est es­tate own­ers in the area to­gether with other com­pañeros. Thus, the cur­rent Mari­naleda was born, whose ad­min­is­tra­tion is pur­su­ing a unique urban de­vel­op­ment pro­ject, in a coun­try like Spain, where spec­u­la­tion in the con­struc­tion in­dus­try is largely re­spon­si­ble for the cur­rent cri­sis.

Here, a house isn't pur­chased with a mort­gage; in­stead, you build it your­self. The par­cel of land is given for free to the 'self-builder', and thanks to an agree­ment with the re­gional An­dalu­sian gov­ern­ment, the build­ing ma­te­r­ial and some work­ers are avail­able free of charge. The monthly fee to be­come the owner of a house is 15 euros per month. Since the houses are all self-made (350 up until now), there are still many to fin­ish.

Our first stop is the Mu­nic­i­pal­ity. The mayor, Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo (who was re­cently ac­quit­ted for a lack of ev­i­dence amidst al­le­ga­tions of hav­ing led hun­dreds of peo­ple in a re­volt to raid su­per­mar­kets) is not avail­able for a meet­ing. We make an ap­point­ment with the vice mayor for the af­ter­noon. Mean­while, we stroll in­side the town hall and find a pub­lic com­puter room.

An em­ployee tells us that there are not many people flowing in. Most of the in­hab­i­tants are farm­ers with little more than compulsory education. In ad­di­tion, there are no specialised training programmes offered in Mari­naleda, nor is the entrepreneurial spirit very strong. If it is true that young peo­ple are our fu­ture, a fun­da­men­tal stage of our jour­ney is the pub­lic school.

Jorge Del­gado Mar­tin, Prin­ci­pal of the En­car­na­ción Ruiz Por­ras school, promptly greets us. He then ex­plains that the school's cur­ricu­lum is de­termined by the re­gion, like in the rest of An­dalu­sia.

The public school in Marinaleda focuses its attention on spe­cial ac­tiv­i­ties related to hor­ti­cul­ture, which all children must attend, and civic ed­u­ca­tion that re­flects a so­ci­ety molded by so­cial-com­mu­nist ideals.

We pass in front of one of the two sav­ings banks pre­sent in Mari­naleda. Un­for­tu­nately, no one can respond to our ques­tions for pri­vacy rea­sons. What is the na­ture of fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tions in Mari­naleda? Who are the cus­tomers of the in­sti­tu­tion? Does the Municipality have its own ac­count? Besides the salaries of the pop­u­la­tion — which are rather mea­gre — part of the cash cir­cu­lat­ing in the ter­ri­tory comes from the PER (Plan de Em­pleo Rural — Ed.). An agri­cul­tural sub­sidy of 325,000 euros per year is given to the City of Mari­naleda, to be granted to farm­ers who meet certain conditions. It also helps many residents to purchase construction material to build their housing. 

Face to Face

Once in­side the of­fices of the mu­nic­i­pal­ity, we over­hear a man com­plaining of a theft. Why doesn't he re­port the crime to the po­lice? We di­rect the ques­tion at Es­per­anza Saave­dra, the Deputy Mayor, who fi­nally meets with us.

"In Mari­naleda, there are no po­lice. We be­lieve more in the civic con­scious­ness, not re­pres­sion," she ex­plains. "We pre­fer to fi­nance pro­jects that serve the peo­ple such as an in­ex­pen­sive pool, for ex­am­ple. "

As we were leav­ing the Mayor's Of­fice, we meet a guy in his 20s and a lady wait­ing to speak to the Mayor to ask for a job. But isn't this a utopian place, where un­em­ploy­ment is non-ex­is­tent? "Not any­more," they as­sure us. Every­one works here, but only five days per month on av­er­age for a salary of 235 euros. In other words, the cri­sis has also af­fected Mari­naleda. Fur­ther­more, salaries are not paid im­me­di­ately; some­times, they even ar­rive three months late.

The mu­nic­i­pal­ity could not pro­vide re­li­able data on un­em­ploy­ment. Ac­cord­ing to the Ser­vi­cio Pub­lico de Em­pleo Es­tatal (Na­tional Cen­tre for Em­ploy­ment — Ed.), there are only 199 em­ploy­ment con­tracts reg­is­tered in Mari­naleda, all tem­po­rary and con­nected to agri­cul­ture, de­spite a pop­u­la­tion of 2,800 in­hab­i­tants.

We meet dif­fer­ent peo­ple in a bar, es­pe­cially farm­ers re­turning from the olive har­vest. Here, as else­where in the city (ex­cept at the bank), everyone is wear­ing a track­suit, al­most like a kind of uni­form. The Soviet char­ac­ter of Mari­naleda is also re­flected in the dy­nam­ics of 'reaping': every night, a van equipped with a speaker passes through the streets of the vil­lage and an­nounces which group of farm­ers — each group has its own name — will have to work in which field.

We ar­rived in Mari­naleda hoping to find a utopia. Noth­ing could be far­ther from re­al­ity: Mari­naleda is a vil­lage of farm­ers and res­i­dents who re­ceive neither vo­ca­tional train­ing nor aid to encourage en­tre­pre­neur­ship. The mayor, in of­fice for 35 years, has cre­ated a world in his own image and like­ness: a pseudo-com­mu­nist pro­ject where every­thing is untouched and noth­ing changes.

In this 'non-place', none of the Mu­nic­i­pal­ity's income is gen­er­ated by the work of the peo­ple. Every­thing is based on subsidies from the regional, national and European governments. Mari­naleda was cre­ated for 'Paz, Pan y Tra­bajo' (Peace, Bread and Work — Trans). Still, work that guar­an­tees a decent life (and progress) is non existent.

Spe­cial thanks to Clara Fla­jardo Trigueros, who drove our jour­nal­ist to Mari­naleda and has been an es­sen­tial ref­er­ence point in the cre­ation of this ar­ti­cle.

This ar­ti­cle is part of a spe­cial se­ries de­voted to seville. It's part of eu-topia: time to vote, a pro­ject run by cafébabel in part­ner­ship with the hip­pocrène foun­da­tion, the eu­ro­pean com­mis­sion, the min­istry of for­eign af­fairs and the evens foun­da­tion.