FOOD POLITICS - September 2018 Max Muller

Food Solidarity in the Basque Country

Written by Max Muller

In this piece, we will show how the Basque Country’s former struggle for political independence is nowadays tied to the notion of food sovereignty. We will trace the historical origins of the Basque’s passion for autonomy and relate it to its contemporary reincarnation in the form of a reappreciation of the traditional peasant lifestyle and its accompanying vision of social-economic transformation towards a more just society.

Although strictly speaking it is not a state, the Basque Country sure seems like one. Straddling along the border between Spain and France, this region is home to a culture distinct from either. Akin to the case for Catalan, their language, Euskera, has acted as a catalyst for Basque nationalism, and thus, after a long struggle, they have gained many rights for self-governance. In Spain, the Basques currently dwell mainly in the Autonomous Regions of the (somewhat confusingly called) Basque Country and Navarre.

Today’s Basque Country (Euskal Herria) is home to the rich city of San Sebastián. Or, as the Basques themselves call it: Donostia. In terms of food, this coastal town has a lot to offer.  It has the second-highest amount of Michelin Stars awarded to restaurants per square meter of all the cities in the world. In addition, it features many private establishments that are an idiosyncratic feature of Basque culture called txokos. In these gastronomic societies, people from all social strata of Basque society come together to wine, dine, and cook on a regular basis.

Basque Country has a highly industrialized economy and some provinces like Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa are very urban. However, for many inhabitants, the rural areas are the more familiar territory. This is due to the fact that there is a horticultural and agricultural tradition in the region that is practiced by people who have small farms or gardens on the edges of small towns.

A history lesson

In order to discuss the notions of food sovereignty and re-peasantisation, however, we must leave these gastro-sociological rarities aside for a moment and delve a bit deeper into Basque history. As we remarked before, the people from Euskal Herria in times past are marked by struggle. Sometimes, as in the case of the separatist group ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, which means “Basque Homeland and Liberty”), the struggle was violent. At other moments these clashes did not involve any bullets, only symbolic action.

During the 19th century, there were a number of wars between the Basques, their allies, and their opponents. The Basques and Catalans sided with the so-called Carlists, who were supporters of Carlos V, a reactionary who claimed the throne. He was angry about the onset of Liberalism in Spain and the waning influence of Catholicism and nationalism on the Iberian Peninsula. These differences in political opinion split the whole country into two factions: the Carlists and the Liberals.

The Carlists always lost.

After their third war in 1876, the government abolished the Fueros, laws unique to the Basques that ensured them a certain degree of autonomy. Coupled with excessive industrialization and fast-paced immigration of Spanish-speaking people, the Basques quickly lost much of their cherished culture and their traditional way of life. This put them on the defensive and provided fuel for an ongoing sense of nationalism.

In 1895, Sabino de Arana established the Partido Nacionalista Vasco (Basque Nationalist Party). He was determined to re-establish Euskera as the sole language in the region and to reassert its declining culture. To that end, he created a flag, an ideology, and a myth to reinvigorate the Basque lands, which he named Euskadi.

The Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939 can be interpreted as the Fourth Carlist War, as this conflict erupted between the Republicans (which incorporated the former Liberal faction) and the Nationalists (which included the Carlists). The Nationalists won and one of their generals Francisco Franco became the autocratic ruler of Spain.

Although this time victory was on the Carlists’ side, Francisco Franco did not grant the Basques many favors. The Euskadi government was ousted and General Franco instated a Catholic dictatorship throughout Spain. He was particularly harsh on the Basques: he outlawed their language and tried to get rid of all forms of Basque nationalism. Furthermore, he was responsible for thousands of Basque deaths and imprisonments. Most notably, he supported the German-led bombing of the Basque town of Guernica. Picasso famously depicted this brutal slaughter of civilians in a painting that bears the town’s name.

Photo by stephane333/ CC BY

Guernica held a lot of symbolic significance. It was the place where the Basques once held the ceremony of the royal oath in which the kings of Castille had to swear to follow the Fueros. In doing so, they granted the Basques their autonomy. The bombing of this historical town fueled much anger and Arana’s fervent nationalism. It also later justified, in the eyes of many Basque people, ETA’s violence towards the Spanish state.  

ETA was established in 1959 and originated in the action-oriented efforts of a group of students from the Jesuit Deusto University in Bilbao. In Sabino de Arana’s spirit, it sought for the reinvigoration of Basque nationalism. The organization was committed to a re-establishment of the Basque language and the cultural ideals of its people. Often, it did so violently. During, but mostly after, the end of Franco’s regime — he died in 1975 — they killed more than 800 people through terrorist attacks.

Eventually, the ETA got what it sought: a reasonable degree of autonomy for the Basque provinces within the Spanish Kingdom and the recognition and affirmation of Euskera as an official language in the Autonomous Communities. Nowadays, ETA’s armed struggle is over. It agreed to a cease-fire in 2011 and disarmament in 2017.  

Back to Food

What the history lesson has hopefully shown is that the idea of a struggle for identity and political self-determination is of immense importance to the Basque people. While not violent anymore, the fighting continues symbolically and culturally through the efforts of the ikastolas (Basque language schools) and a commitment to self-governance. The Basque people are unusually engaged with political activities and are committed to taking part in public meetings of local municipalities to let their voices be heard.

Recently, however, the struggle has manifested itself in quite a different way. The Basque agrarian sector has suffered severe economic blows during the 2008 recession. In addition, the concurrent processes of industrialization, mechanization, and a subsequent rural exodus have intensified the malaise. Between 1999 and 2009, the number of farms in the Autonomous Basque Community fell by more than 33%.

In order to counteract this trend, there has been an explosion of processes and activities centered on the notion of food sovereignty. This concept is linked to political sovereignty that emerged as part of a struggle of baserritarras (small peasant farmers) to protect their traditional way of life. Furthermore, it takes a stand against the propagation of agrarian modernization and the imposition of neoliberal policies of the Basque Government, who favored large-scale food industry projects over the baserritarras, which operated on a much smaller scale. As such, it is also connected with the desire for a more equal society.

It is not a coincidence these efforts are focused on the baserritarras. The language survived Franco’s dictatorship largely thanks to the small farmers in the countryside, who usually hardly spoke any Spanish at all.

Food as a way of life  

It is in this socio-cultural environment that the food sovereignty movement has emerged, gaining momentum after the financial crisis. As mentioned above, it is especially geared towards baserritarras. The organization EHNE-Bizkaia aims to preserve and support their traditional lifestyle. It is a member of the worldwide overarching peasant organization called La Vía Campesina and has 800 paying members. They determine its politics, elect its board, and receive technical services. In 2007, EHNE-Bizkaia launched a community-supported agriculture scheme called Red Nekasarea.

Red Nekasarea strategically connects 80 baserritarras to 700 households. The households are divided into consumer groups of no more than 30 households. Each peasant is linked to one consumer group. The peasants provide these groups with food baskets that usually include vegetables, meat, milk, eggs, and pasta.

Photo by Elaine Casap

Before the initiation of this project, the peasants were in a predicament. The baserritarras would sell their products as faceless producers in the globalized market. In addition, they were forced to lower their prices substantially, understandably leading to much discontent. Through Red Nekasarea, they are always able to sell their vegetables for a fair price. In addition, they know their customers personally and are told how tasty and good their products are. Whereas being a baserritarra used to be seen as something derogatory, the project brings back a sense of pride among the peasants. This feeling is reinforced because people feel that they are participating in a project for social change.

Not only does EHNE-Bizkaia engage in helping existing farmers, it also actively seeks to recruit new ones. Currently, only 10% of farmers are under 40 years of age. As such, youth are a critical part of the food sovereignty movement in the Basque Country.

In order to rejuvenate the agricultural sector, EHNE-Bizkaia offers training courses in agroecology. These courses especially attract young people, as agroecology is advantageous for its low dependency on investment, technology, and external inputs. Furthermore, they aim to foster the urban youngsters’ resurgent enthusiasm regarding the way of life as a farmer by organizing gatherings and sharing information.

You may wonder why there’s such a renewed interest for agricultural living among these young people. In most cases, they aren’t born into the peasant lifestyle. They are usually brought up in affluent families, are socially well-integrated, and have a university degree. Although the economic crisis did lead to job loss, labor instability, and a lack of opportunities — conditions that may have motivated some to migrate to the countryside — the crisis does not seem to be the deciding factor.

To many, food production and agriculture are linked with a larger goal of social transformation. Their ideal is autonomy. It is linked to self-realization and the satisfaction that comes from control over one’s own life. Their choice represents a craving for self-sufficiency and a move away from large industries. They feel that by producing food themselves, control is taken away from multinationals. The re-peasantization process is intimately tied to a desire for social change in the overall socio-economic system.

As such, the Basque peoples’ fight for autonomy has changed to yet another front. It has moved successively from actual warfare to linguistics, and now to peasant food struggles. This last endeavor is tied to important questions: how do we reconcile local values and customs with an ever-spreading economic system that favors efficiency and uniformity? How can control be regained by people in a world dominated by an increasingly small set of conglomerates aiming solely at making more profits?

Thus, the Basque food movement is emblematic of the current socio-economic tensions between the local and the global, autonomy and dependency, and finally between heterogeneity and homogeneity. Whereas the Basques used to rebel against some Castilian King or Roman Emperor, by now they protest against economic rule. Although its efforts may have marginal effects, it offers guidance and prospects to those seeking to grow a different world.

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