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Sardinia’s farmers fend off the sharks

December 4, 2007

by Guy Dinmore in Decimoputzu, Sardinia

Published on FT: December 4 2007

Sharks are circling Sardinia. Tourists need not worry however – it is bankrupt farmers who are having to fight off speculative predators grabbing land at forced auctions. Criticism of the European Union is rare in Italy but, on this Mediterranean island, farmers are cursing Brussels, their regional government and Rome for the mess they feel they were duped into with offers of cheap loans 20 years ago.

“Our natural calamity comes not from God or the land but those politicians in Brussels,” said Gino Mazo at a packed meeting in the town of Decimoputzu, the epicentre of a farmers’ revolt. One after another, smallholders related how their lives were being ruined. Cheers greeted the farmer who answered demands for loan repayments by literally walling up a bank manager in his local Bank of Sardinia branch. Working on the fringes, activists of the small Sardinian independence movement handed out leaflets pledging non-violent action to stop the court-ordered auctions.The crisis reflects tensions between Sardinia’s relatively autonomous regional authority, the central government and Brussels. Renato Soru, the region’s governor, founded Tiscali, the communications company, in the capital Cagliari. The wealthy businessman sees a future in education, technology, science parks and tourism.

But globalisation is a dirty word among farmers, who contribute a small part of Sardinia’s economy but the core of its culture. They might be gruff – and some have squandered their loans – but they are politically attuned.

The farmers anticipate a deathblow in 2010, when a Mediterranean free trade zone between the EU and North Africa is scheduled to come into force. “Europe will be a continent of consumers, fed by outsiders, by exploited workers in Egypt paid $2 a day, in joint ventures. This is the destiny prepared for you,” said one activist. “Enough.”

The saga began in 1988 when the regional government passed Law 44, offering cheap loans to poor farmers and hoping to reverse postwar emigration. Gianfranco Sabiucciu, mayor of Decimoputzu, says more than 5,000 loans were taken. Only banks know the total owed now, but Mr Sabiucciu reckons the figure is over €200m ($293m, £142m).

Alas, the region had failed to consult Brussels, which in 1992 started taking action against what were in effect unlawful subsidies. In 1997 farmers were ordered to pay them back with interest at prevailing rates. Events came to a head recently when courts started ordering auctions of land used as collateral.

“Fifteen years of agony,” said Mr Sabiucciu, a right-winger who finds himself in an unlikely alliance with the left. The farmers are also supported by Beppe Grillo, a famous and politically explosive comic. “What has the world come to when a comic has to defend the interests of farmers?” said Mr Grillo.

In Rome last week, the agriculture ministry said it had found a solution. The regional government, with a private agency, would buy the debt from the banks and reschedule it for farmers. Auctions were said to have been cancelled.

Hearing this claim, Riccardo Piras, a local activist, said: “I am standing in front of the municipality where two women have started a hunger strike to protest against the forced auctions. Francesca Pinna from Villacidro was forced to sell a week ago just as the agriculture minister declared that there was going to be an agreement. “The sharks are hurrying up in case an agreement is made. Mrs Pinna’s house was sold for €102,000, and her farm with two hectares was sold for €30,000. Now it will be the turn of Maria Ruviu. So they have gone on a hunger strike.”

As the drama goes on, so does the debate over whether Mr Soru’s “new deal” can carve out a future in the wider world for Sardinia’s 1.5m people.

Alberto Scanu, president of Confindustria, the employers’ association, laments the endless red tape that deters investors. “We are in the middle of the maritime motorway, but the danger is that everyone will pass us by,” he jokes. He might have been quoting D.H. Lawrence, who wrote of Sardinia in 1921: “Lost between Europe and Africa and belonging nowhere.”

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