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Catalan farmers explode as Russian fruit veto ‘ruins’ producers

Sector demands prompt action by Brussels as peach and nectarine perish-dates loom

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11 August 2017 03:01 PM

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Guifré Jordan / Helle Kettner | Barcelona

How is it possible that the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 has had a crucial impact on the life of some farmers in Western Catalonia over the past few years? The explanation is not that odd and it is evidence of how globalized the world is. The European Union imposed sanctions on Russia after its controversial takeover of the heretofore Ukrainian peninsula three years ago. Vladimir Putin’s government retorted with a veto on certain agricultural and food products coming from the EU, the United States, Canada, Australia and Norway. The impact of this conflict in Western Lleida was dramatic: a surplus of stone fruit production and a drastic price drop. Farmers are not willing to sit back and do nothing.

Three years after the beginning of the Russian veto the situation is still critical in Lleida, according to some local farmer organizations and unions. They say that the price drop as a result of the production surplus is not only reducing their profit, but also making them lose money in some cases. The crisis prompted most farmers’ organizations and unions to join in a united event in Lleida in late July to protest the situation.  

They claim they are being paid half of the production cost

Unió de Pagesos farmers union (UP) claims that they are being paid around 15 to 25 cents for a kilo of peaches or nectarines which has a production cost of 30 to 35 cents. “Farmers sell their products at a price below its real cost, with a 700% difference compared to the price paid by consumers” which might be more than €1.50, said UP sweet fruit manager, Xavier Gorgues. This situation is “ruining” producers, he added. 

  • “We are talking about people dying of hunger in the third world while we have to throw out the products that we make here"

    Pere Roqué · President of Asaja Lleida farmers association

The problem has been dragging on since 2014, but it worsened this year, as the stone fruit production is expected to increase in Catalonia, while the exports to Russia are now virtually impossible. When the veto started, Catalan farmers managed to sell fruit to Putin’s regime by selling it through Belorussia so that the Eastern European country could export it to Russia. This year, though, Minsk has also closed borders for technical health reasons.

40,000 tons should be taken off the market

The farmers in Catalonia are asking the Catalan and Spanish governments to lobby before the European Commission to take action. Brussels has been compensating farmers for their losses since 2014, but this year the sector is demanding that an extra 40,000 tons be taken off the market, with the corresponding compensations for producers. The Catalan Minister of Agriculture, Meritxell Serret, traveled to the EU capital on Tuesday to ask for a quick answer since stone fruit perishes within weeks. The Catalan Socialist MEP Javi López issued a parliamentary question to the Commission on the same topic.

Slow march to Barcelona

The sector has celebrated a number of protests in the past few days, including a slow march from Western Catalonia to the European Commission Office in Barcelona, 180 km (112 miles) apart. Mayors of towns affected by the crisis have also signed different manifestos over the past few days. The core message of the whole outcry is one: the need to act quickly. Peaches and nectarines cannot be preserved in refrigerators so they perish in a matter of weeks.

Flooding the Catalan capital’s main avenue with fruit might be future protest

That is why during the march towards the Catalan capital on Monday one of the industry leaders, Pere Roqué, said if they get no response within 10 days, they will cut off Diagonal Avenue, the longest road in Barcelona, and will fill it with fruit. “How is it possible that we are talking about people dying of hunger in the third world while we, on the other hand, have to throw out the products that we make here, which is food as good as any other. So if the European Commissioner, Phil Hogan, doesn't get up to speed… Today we protest in Barcelona, but next time we’ll go directly to Brussels,” he added.

Temporary harvest workers sleeping on the streets

The conflict broke out when this year’s harvest started some weeks ago. Because of that, between 23,000 and 25,000 temporary workers have come to Lleida and asked for work in the harvest, according to the city’s local government. Some of them do not even have a place to sleep, so Lleida has been flooded with people sleeping on the streets. Lleida, Catalan and Spanish administrations in the area agreed to launch a hostel network to bring the situation to an end in 2018. 

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  • Protests with nectarines and farmers throwing eggs to a government office