Following the death of General Franco the Union of Farm Workers was founded in Marinaleda and in the first local elections the Workers Unity Collective won nine of the 11 council seats. In 1979, Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo, who says he is a communist and communitarian, but has never been a member of the Spanish Communist Party, was elected mayor. He started campaigning for land reforms to benefit Marinaleda’s unemployed and landless labourers, more than 60% of Marinaleda’s inhabitants.
700 people were involved in a 13-day hunger strike against local landowners in 1980 under the slogan “land for those who work on it.” The Cordobilla marsh was occupied in 1984 to demand the irrigation of the El Humoso farm owned by the Duke of Infantado who left the land uncultivated for most of the year while so many were living in poverty. Eventually local activists took over the farm and by 1985 there were at least 100 local land occupations.
In 1991, the regional government awarded the farm and its 1,200 hectares of land to the village. Sean Meleady reports that the village’s agricultural cooperative, established soon afterwards, aimed to grow crops that required the greatest amount of labour, such as olives, green beans, red peppers, paprika and artichokes, in order to create as many jobs as possible. A few years later, Marinaleda built its first processing factory, to can and jar the cooperative’s produce.
Every member of the co-operative earns the same daily salary of €47 (£39.40) for six-and-a-half hours’ work – more than double the Spanish minimum wage. Decisions about the co-operative including, for example, which crops to farm, are made collectively in village general assemblies.
Right: a co-operative worker harvesting olives
For the past 24 years, the farm and the factory have provided employment to Marinaleda’s inhabitants, while all of the cooperative’s profits are invested in the creation of new jobs.
The village’s mayor and members of the local council work voluntarily at the cooperative but have other jobs. For many years, the mayor worked as a history teacher at the local high school.
The village has an amphitheatre, workers’ sports ground, house of culture, vegetable canning factory, a library, a botanical garden and the “Sindactio” trade union bar. Hagar Jobse counted 20 companies in the village: seven privately owned bars, three cafes, two pharmacies and a bridal shop. Although large franchises are not allowed to establish branches in the village, the mayor says he doesn’t want to stand in the way of entrepreneurship – “as long as their businesses do not become too large”. Multinationals are not welcome.
Mayor Sanchez Gordillo lives in one of Marinaleda’s government-owned houses
The government provides or pays for building materials so that members of the cooperative can build their own house. Prospective residents have to donate 450 days of their own work to the construction of their new homes, getting assistance from professional builders. The hours spent by the resident on construction are then deducted from the total cost of their house — with a monthly payment of €15.52 (£13.20) to achieve ownership. More than 350 homes have been built in this co-operative fashion in a village of less than 3,000 people. Homes have three bedrooms and a patio. However in order to preserve the special character of the project residents cannot sell their homes.
Hagar Jobse reported that Marinaleda has very little crime and few police officers and a later account says there is no police presence and that misdemeanours are resolved by villagers. On ‘Red Sundays’ villagers gather at 8am outside the Sindactio in order to undertake voluntary work., including street repairs, painting and landscaping.
Life in the village is cheaper than in the rest of the region. For 15 euros a month, inhabitants can pay off their mortgage, become members of the sports centre, or have a kindergarten place for their child. The local government provides three free school meals a day and even the small number of unemployed inhabitants are able to make ends meet with the 400 euro jobseeker’s allowance provided by the Andalusian government.
Though the village has its critics, the testimonial of Vicky Shovelton, born and bred in Sheffield, who has lived in Marinaleda for years carries conviction. She has written an account of the village, ending: “The community spirit of my childhood is alive and well here in Marinaleda. This unique village is filled with a sense of togetherness often lacking in today’s society. The concept of how this village has survived through past times and how the vision of the ideal community that it has become, is certainly popular throughout the world. It has created a place that in some respects is an ideal place to be.”