Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, made the headlines recently by leading a "forced expropriation" of food stuffs from several supermarkets.

Aided by his allies in the Andalusian Farmers' Union (SAT), the food was then distributed to the most needy. Clearly, the mayor of Marinaleda stands out among Spanish politicians.

Sánchez Gordillo is a historic leader of the Farm Workers' Union (SOC), the backbone of the current SAT. He has been the mayor the little village, which numbers fewer than 3,000 people and is in the Seville region, since 1979. There, thanks to the participation and support of the local population, he launched a unique political and economic experiment which turned the village into a kind of socialist stronghold in the midst of the Andalusian countryside.

New utopia

With the economic crisis, Marinaleda was given the chance to verify that its 25 square kilometres of utopia is a genuine solution to market forces.

Its current rate of unemployment is zero per cent. A good part of the residents are employed by the Cooperativa Humar-Marinaleda, created by the farm workers themselves after years of struggle. For a long time, the farmers repeatedly occupied the land of the El Humoso Farm, which belonged to an aristocratic family.

Each time, they were dispersed by the Guardia Civil [police] and would chant: "The land belongs to those who work it." In 1992, they were finally beat the authorities. They now own the farm.

They grow beans, artichokes, peppers and produce high-quality olive oil. The workers themselves control each phase of the production while the land belongs to "the community as a whole". The farm includes a canning facility, an olive mill, facilities for livestock and a farm store. No matter what their position, the workers all get a salary of € 47 per day.

They work a 35-hour work week over six days and earn a monthly salary of €1,128, at a time when the minimum wage in Spain is €641 per month. In high season, the cooperative employs about 400 people and never less than one hundred. But positions are not attributed to a specific person. They are done on a rotation basis so as to insure a revenue for all. "To work less so that all may work," that is the basic principal. In addition, some people work their own small land parcels. The rest of economic life is made of shops, basic services and sporting activities. In practice, all of the residents of the village earn as much as a worker at the cooperative.

Marinaleda’s experience

In an interview in Público last month, Mayor Gordillo himself explains the repercussions of the crisis on Marinaleda. "In a general way, the crisis was less noticeable in farming and food production," he says, adding "What happened was that those people that had left the countryside to work in construction came back, looking for work. As a result, existing employment needs to be not only maintained but increased. But remember that organic farming creates more jobs than traditional agriculture."

For decades, as Spain was gripped by a real estate boom. Speculation took over the construction sector. Marinaleda decided to swim against the current. here, it is possible to rent a house of 90 square metres, in good condition, and with a terrace for only €15 per month. The only catch is that everybody must participate in the construction of their home, in accordance with the philosophy that guides all of the activities in Marinaleda. The local council obtained some land through a mixed policy of purchase and expropriation.

Thus, it offers the land and provides all the building materials needed to construct the house. The labour is left to the tenants themselves, unless they pay someone to do it for them. Furthermore, the council employs professional masons to provide advice to the residents on the more complicated tasks. One last point, the future tenants do not know which home will be theirs, which helps fosters a community spirit.

"A person working to build a house is paid €800 per month," notes Juan José Sancho, a resident of Marinaleda. "Half of the salary is used to pay for the home," he says. Aged only 21, this young man is already a member of the village "action squad", whose mission, through the village assembly, is to manage daily business. According to him, "if this measure was taken, it was so that real estate speculation would not be possible".

Previously, a large number of the farm workers barely knew how to read. Today, they have a kindergarten, a primary school and a secondary school. School lunches cost only €15 per month. Yet, according to Sancho, "The dropout rate is a little high. People have a home and are assured a job, so many don't see the need to study. That is one of the points on which we can improve."

In Marinaleda, there is no police force and political decisions are taken by an assembly in which all citizens are asked to participate. As for the "action squad", it deals with "all urgent questions, on a day-to-day basis," explains Sancho, adding, "It is not a group of elected officials. It is people who, together, decide how to allocate tasks and what needs to be done in the best interest of the village."

As for taxes, "They are very low. They are the lowest in the entire region," if Sancho is to be believed. The budget is decided in a plenary session of the assembly, which also approves budget items. The process then shifts to the neighbourhood level, with each neighbourhood having its own assembly. It is at this level that the decision is made on how to invest each euro of each budget item devised by council.