Reclaiming the Asturian Countryside

By Tadzio Mueller, 13 July 2004

Activist community born in the ashes of post-industrial Asturias, in north-western Spain.

Three or four years ago, a number of individuals rooted in the European activist scene began planning a project that would enable them to develop their political activism beyond short-term campaigns or involvement in spectacular events. They wanted to move towards the goal so often talked about in the social movements — the construction of sustainable alternatives to capitalist social relations, in the form of a space that would actually show the possibility of new kinds of social relation.

Since it was decided that, in the interests of sustainability, such a space should be legally occupied (squatted social centres are often notoriously unstable), it took some time and several failed attempts at negotiating with potential ‘landlords’, until finally the group settled on a space in Asturias, in North-Western Spain, an old farmhouse owned by a local foundation but run autonomously by the collective leasing it from the foundation. The space was christened Escanda, which — aside from being the name of a local grain variety in Asturias – stands for ‘Espacio Social Colectivo para la Autogestión, la Diversidad y la Autonomia’ (Collective Social Space for Self-Organisation, Diversity and Autonomy).

The story of the local political economy within which Escanda is situated is a familiar one: it lies in a little mountain hamlet above the small, run-down (post)industrial village of Pola de Lena, some 20 kilometres south of Oviedo. Until and including the 1970s, the economy of the surrounding region, Asturias, was based primarily on mining, ship-building, and small family farming; politically, in spite of Franco’s crushing of militant workers’ movements, for example in the big strike of 1934, a strong radical left presence continued to live in popular memory. Spain’s entry into the European Community in the 1980s however, lead to the closure of mines and shipyards, generating mass-unemployment and waves of protests, while simultaneously, family farms were forced to reduce their production, due to the quota system of the Common Agricultural Policy and became totally dependent on EU subsidies due to falling prices. Unsurprisingly, Escanda’s founders explain, ‘every day more people (especially youth) are abandoning the countryside in search of better conditions in cities. To make things worse, the state and EU subsidies on which the region relies are due to dry out in the coming years.’

The picture looks fairly bleak, but Asturias’ ‘apparent lack of future prospects’, say Escanda’s founders, ‘is a great motivation for us to come to the area. We believe that regions in crisis offer good possibilities for people to take control of their lives, through the construction of the type of social relations that we want to experiment with at Escanda.’ Not only was the group able to negotiate a no-cost leasing agreement with the foundation that owns the land, due to lack of productive investment entering the area around Pola de Lena, but the very survival of the project is premised on receiving the development funds consequent on European Union, the Spanish state and other administrative layers classifying this area as ‘in need’.

Since the group of activists that set up Escanda made a very conscious choice to locate their project in this particular local political economy, it is important to inquire into the intentions that underpin the project: what is Escanda intended to achieve as a particular instance of a global anti-capitalist movement? According to Escanda’s website, which locates the particular local political economy of Pola de Lena/Asturias in the more general (European) context of weakening welfare systems, strategies of economic growth dependent on war, and increasing repression of radical projects, the goal is to create a space where new combinations and connections between individuals as well as networks can occur, with the aim ‘to create long term alternatives that reduce our dependency on both the market and the state’.

Escanda’s contribution to such a process is envisaged as coming from ‘constructing alternative social relations based on solidarity, equality in diversity, autonomous self-organisation, mutual support, and the integration of human activities with the ecosystems where they take place.’ Escanda have organised a wide variety of projects, from those aimed more at ‘activists’ — a week-long ‘gender and activism’ seminar in September 2003, a conference about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict held in Barcelona, a workshop about the possibilities of self-organising wireless internet access, involvement in the development of a European (and potentially global) ‘network of autonomous spaces’ — to those on a direct local level, in which some of Escanda’s residents are involved in teaching seminars on sustainability, gender, and globalisation in the local school. Aiming both ways are projects attempting to support and develop further possibilities for self-sufficiency farming, or research into alternative energies — bearing in mind that such initiatives are all ‘aimed at the sustainable regeneration of (semi-) abandoned rural areas.’

In short, the intention behind the Escanda project is to construct a politico-economic space of difference, alternatives within a context of crisis that increases the potential for ‘people to take control of their own lives’. On a final note of caution against the dangers of what has been referred to as ‘auto-marginalisation’, the project’s founders affirm that ‘we don’t conceive the two places where we are setting up Escanda as our base to escape away from society and isolate ourselves in closed harmonious communities. Rather, we want them to be continuous convergence spaces open to people from all over the world who identify with these perspectives of social change, where local and global networks of grassroots struggle can share experiences and skills, exchange ideas and create new dynamics of solidarity and resistance.’

KEY STATISTICS EU stats on Atoria

Population (in 1,000): 1,087

Population density (per km): 102

Unemployment rates (%):- Total: 22.3- Men: 18.0- Women: 29.3

Employees per sector (%):- Agriculture: 11.7- Industry: 30.5- Services: 57.8

GDP:- Average 94-96 (million): 11,411- Per capita average 94-96 (): 10,532


Mercado de Trueque and Traditional Ecological Cider