Riots in Spain's 'vegetable patch'

Moroccan farmworkers on Monday ended a week-long strike launched amid antiforeigner unrest.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

At sunset, the view from the rugged hill above the town of El Ejido is stunning: Mile after mile of plastic sheeting shimmers as far as the eye can see, testament to a miracle of modern agricultural techniques.

But as night falls, the 300 men who work here, sharing an encampment of squalid shacks built around the ruined walls of an ancient farmhouse, sleep out in the open for fear of attack. They are mostly Moroccans, and many are here illegally. They tend produce planted in the plastic "grow bags" of sweltering hothouses, and themselves live sandwiched between cardboard walls, without power, without running water, and without the respect of their Spanish neighbors and employers.

This is Almeria, in southern Spain, the vegetable patch of Europe where man makes the desert bloom, producing tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, zucchini, and melons worth $1.5 billion annually. And recently, its is where Spain has seen its worst racial violence in years.

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"They call us 'Moros,' " says worker Abdel Kadr Chahabar with a rather bitter laugh, referring to a derogatory name for the Moors who ruled southern Spain for 700 years. "But if you take away the 'm,' that leaves 'oro,' which means gold, and that is what we bring them."

Immigrant labor has vastly enriched this formerly impoverished corner of Spain. Almeria's unemployment rate is 3 percent, compared with the national average of around 15 percent. El Ejido, a boom town of 50,000 people, has 49 banks and a wealth of shiny new four-wheel-drive vehicles.

But to a large extent, the two communities live in uneasy proximity, in ignorance, prejudice, and fear, with the Muslim customs of many Moroccans and other North African immigrants viewed with unease by traditionally Catholic Spaniards. Tensions boiled over last week in three days of riots that left more than 80 people injured.

The murder of a Spanish woman, allegedly by a mentally ill Moroccan, touched off the unrest Feb. 5. Gangs of Spaniards attacked immigrants, fire-bombed their homes, and destroyed local businesses either run by or known to serve foreigners.

Afterward, terrified immigrants, including Mr. Chahabar, went on strike until Feb. 14 to demand significant improvements in living conditions. The government responded by promising to legalize at least 5,000 workers and to fund better housing for them. Problems remain, however. The right-wing mayor of El Ejido yesterday refused to allow the Red Cross to build a camp for Moroccans who lost their homes.

Lawyers from SOS Racism, a nongovernmental group with offices across Spain, are trying to help the Moroccans with legal advice, but complain that the real problem is a failure to integrate. In most of the country, foreigners rarely top 1 or 2 percent of the population. In Almeria, however, they make up a quarter of the populace in some towns.

"If the local authorities do not provide help and programs to sensitize local people to the real plight of the immigrants, the problem of racism and xenophobia will just get worse," warns Angeles Garzon of SOS Racism.

Spain is not the only European country to wrestle with a rise in antiforeigner sentiments. But unlike Germany, France, and Austria, which have tightened immigration rules over the past decade in response, Spain has been relaxing its laws. With one of the world's lowest birth rates, Spain is looking to increased immigration as one solution to its population decline. By some estimates, it will need to admit 12 million foreigners over the next 50 years.

But for most Moroccans, getting in is not easy. Thousands cross the Mediterranean Sea - less than nine miles wide at the narrowest point between Spain and Morocco - in leaky wooden boats, paying as much as $1,500 for the privilege of risking shipwreck or deportation. Those who find employment in the agricultural industry earn about $27 for an eight-hour day, but few work full time, since farm needs vary depending on the harvest. Most immigrants clear about 50,000 pesetas ($312) a month and send most of that to families back home. The immigrants say landlords in El Ejido will not rent to them, regarding all Moroccans as "dirty."

In fact, the men (and they are almost all men under 30) wear impressively clean clothes, considering that they must launder their few possessions by hand in water fetched from leaking pipes and irrigation systems.

"They say the Spanish are racist, but we are not. They get exactly the same as us; the same money, the same housing, everything, and then they kill people," says Antonio - who declines to give his full name - as he picks tomatoes with his mother in the family greenhouse.

Up the road, Jos Andres Rodriguez, another farmer, is almost unaffected by the strike. His 12 workers live in a house with lights and water. Like other farmers, he was forced to shut down during the riots, but today his workers are busy picking eggplants for export to the US. Mr. Rodriguez says he can sympathize with his employees. "My father came here with nothing, absolutely nothing. He bought a tiny piece of land, and he worked a lot," he says.

While Chahabar is hopeful for the long term, he doesn't expect immediate improvement. "I think there will be a solution," he says. "Perhaps when we die, our children will have the chance to live well, but it will never happen for us."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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