Marinaleda, a remarkable Spanish town

marinaleda In Andalusia, one of the poorest parts of southern Spain, almost 700.000 properties are empty, due to bank foreclosures. But not in Marinaleda, a remarkable, social-democratic village. Anyone who wants to build their own house can do so for free. There is a spacious allowance of 192 square meters per family and materials and qualified workmen are provided by the town hall. After the construction, families pay just 15 euros per month for the rest of their lives, with the agreement that the house cannot be sold for private gain, it remains the property of the town. In this way, the mayor, Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo, has removed housing from the market in Marinaleda, by using a combination of state housing subsidy for building materials, free labour for construction and land given by the town.

In 1979, Sánchez Gordillo was first elected as the town’s mayor. He led an extensive campaign to change Marinaleda’s course, which began with hunger strikes and occupying under-utilized land. The local community decided that something had to be done to stop the migration from the town. They began a weeks-long occupation of a nearby reservoir to convince  regional government to allocate them enough water to irrigate the land. After this proved successful, they then went on to occupy 1,200 hectares of the newly irrigated land, which at that time was owned by an aristocratic family. In 1991, the plot of land was officially expropriated and turned over for local use. The aim was not to steal and create private profits, but to create jobs to end huger in the small town. That’s the reason the town chose to prioritise labour-intensive crops to create more employment for local people. Agricultural employment, whether in the fields or the factory, is  seasonal and varies from year to year. But unlike many small agricultural towns, Marinaleda shares the work amongst those who need it. If there are 200 people looking for work, but only 40 workers are needed, they will gather those people, make groups of 30 to 40 people and each group works for two days.

1-_MARINALEDADividing available work
As a result, there is virtually no unemployment in Marinaleda, while in Andalusia unemployment is at 37% (55% for young people). Extensive fields of olives, artichokes, beans and peppers form the backbone of the local economy. The land is collectively managed by the cooperative El Humoso and a canning facility has been set up on the edge of town. Just like in another Spanish village, Mondragon, this collective consists of many enterprises, such as a farming cooperative, where workers all earn 1200 euros per month, and a cooperatively-owned olive oil factory. Most people have at least some work and those that don’t have a strong safety net to fall back on. When citizens pay only € 15 per month for housing, this has a massive  impact on work requirements.

Collective problem solving
Rather than rely exclusively on cash to get things done, the inhabitants of Marinaleda have put their blood, sweat and tears into creating a range of alternative systems in their corner of the world. They have turned to one another to do what needs doing, be it collectively occupying land owned by the Andalusian aristocracy and putting it to work for the town, or sharing the burden of litter collection. Although there is still some degree of central authority, the local council has devolved power into the hands of those it serves. General assemblies are convened on a regular basis where townspeople can be involved in decisions that affect their lives. The assemblies also create spaces where people can come together to organise what the community needs through collective action. The assembly is a place for people to discuss problems and to find their own solutions. Even minor crimes are collectively addressed via the assembly, as the town has no police or judicial system since the last local cop retired.

The current mayor,  Sánchez Gordillo, has managed to leverage considerable financial support from the state government. As a result, the small town has extensive sports facilities, a beautifully-maintained botanical garden and many other facilities. Access to the public swimming pool only costs € 3 for the entire summer. When the financial crisis began in 2008, the mayor organized and carried out a series of supermarket raids in a direct action. Basic groceries such as oil, rice and beans were loaded in carts, wheeled from the supermarket and taken to divide amongst the poorest people. The mayor, who earned the nickname of the Spanish Robin Hood, declared that this was no theft, but a nonviolent act of disobedience. “it is an absolute disgrace in the 21st century that there are  families who cannot afford to eat. Food is a right, not something you can speculate.”

Common interests
While capitalism views human relationships as self-interested economic transactions, in Marinaleda locals work together to meet shared needs, with far less money circulating. They have not forgotten that money is simply a way of facilitating action, which creates an incentive for people to do tasks that might not be done otherwise. Direct action and mutual aid are rooted in common interests. The local community of Marinaleda   explores what needs to be done, based on who is there to do it. These kind of relationships eliminate the consumer-provider divide, as those who want something done, and those doing it are the same people. Marinaleda reminds us that alternative economic models are not only possible, they already exist.

Watch a video on Marinaleda

Sources:, Le Monde diplomatique, The Guardian.

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