It is estimated that around one hundred thousand migrants work in the greenhouses, scattered in the area. Credit: Floris Cup/IPS
  • by Floris Cup, Arnaud De Decker (Almería, Spain)
  • Interpress service

It is a sunny Saturday afternoon, warm and dry, when we leave the city of Almería, in the southern province of Andalusia, to drive towards the countryside. When you leave the freeway, the lane narrows and turns into a dirt road. The hot desert breeze blows a dusty, brown cloud of sand into the air that completely covers the car in no time. We take a small detour and drive past impressive mountain ranges.

After a ten minute drive, in the shadow of a row of imposing rocks, a sea of ​​white plastic appears before us, stretching as far as the eye can see before merging into the Mediterranean Sea. Thousands of greenhouses are neatly arranged in endless straight rows that fade the arid landscape. In total, the greenhouses cover an area of ​​30,000 hectares, visible from outer space.

We park the car along the road near the village of Barraquente, a thirty minute drive east of Almería, and head out into the hot desert. A day earlier we received word of a slum, a “barrio de chabolas“, around here. Undocumented workers who pick fruit and vegetables in the greenhouses and work in the fields for small wages are said to have built semi-permanent homes with scrap metal over the years.

Deadly cocktail

Since Spain joined the European Economic Community, the precursor to the European Union, in the 1980s, agriculture in the province of Andalusia has been increasingly intensified and industrialized. Small farms gave way to agricultural giants as monoculture gradually became the norm and has since become a very lucrative business, with a total annual export value of twelve billion euros of agricultural products, destined for the entire European market.

To meet the ever-growing demand for fruit and vegetables from the rest of Europe, more and more hands are needed in the fields. And although Andalusia is one of the country’s poorest regions, with sky-high unemployment rates, it is mostly underpaid undocumented migrants who perform the thankless jobs. Temperatures in the greenhouses soar above 45 degrees Celsius in the summer, drinking water is scarce and, combined with the intensive use of pesticides, the work on the southern edge of Europe forms a deadly cocktail.

Estimates vary, but according to trade union representative José García Cueves, around one hundred thousand migrants work in the greenhouses scattered throughout the area. Together with his wife, José García represents the union SOC SAT, the only organization that exposes and represents the interests of the victims of exploitation in the greenhouses around Almería.

Punctured tires

“Spaniards prefer to leave these jobs to migrant workers. They come from North and West Africa, from countries such as Morocco, Senegal, Guinea or Nigeria, and in most cases they do not have residence permits, which makes them easy targets for the local greengrocers, he says from behind his cluttered office in a poor area of ​​Almería.

Despite his noble mission, José is not loved by most Andalusians, on the contrary. “The peasants could drink our blood. The tires on my car regularly get punctured and physical threats are not exceptional either.”

“Even the local governments are turning a blind eye to the region’s problems and challenges. All in the name of economic growth,” Garcia said. “Look, there are only 12 inspectors responsible for greenhouse inspections, and it’s in a large area where you can drive around for hours without running into anyone. Do you think that’s realistic? Workers are reduced to expendable tools, overnight someone can lose their job.”

Afraid of the sea

In the roadside slum, we talk to one of the workers, Richard, a 26-year-old man from Nigeria. Bathed in sweat, he arrives on his bicycle. His morning shift in the greenhouse is over and he takes us into the village. The sun is at its highest, it’s scorching hot.

– The shifts start early in the morning, when the temperature is still bearable, he points out. “We have the right to a break at lunchtime, because it’s too hot to work then. Around 5 p.m. we’re back in the greenhouse picking tomatoes and peppers until after sunset.” He says the hard work earns him about thirty euros a day.

The young man blows, takes a bottle of water from a dilapidated refrigerator and slumps into a dusty chair in the blazing sun. His clothes and worn shoes are covered in dust. “I’ve lived here for two years now,” he says between large gulps of water. Via Morocco, he crossed the Mediterranean by boat. “It was dangerous, I can’t swim and was afraid of falling overboard.” Through a shadowy network of people smugglers, Richard ended up here in Andalusia, without papers.

Traces of destruction

We move further into the village, along with Richard, as several residents gather around us. They point to a large pile of sand, one meter high, which has been raised like a wall around one part of the camp. Two years ago, a large fire broke out in which one person died. “We were able to stop the fire by digging a large moat and prevent it from spreading throughout the camp,” they say. The traces of the fire are still clearly visible; blackened shoes and charred clothes are still scattered in the moat.

Fire is the biggest danger for many residents. Unionist José Garcia confirms this. The different homes in the slum have grown together. They are made of wood and recycled plastic from greenhouses. Combined with the hot weather and dryness of the desert, these neighborhoods form a dangerous cocktail of flammable fuels.

Homemade gym

Still, the residents of the camp try to make the best of it. They take us to a small hut where they stare furiously at an English Premier League football match. Further down in the camp, a man is washing dishes. They illegally drain running water – and electricity – from the regular grid. The atmosphere is good. Boubacar, 24, from Senegal, proudly shows us the gym he was able to cobble together with his own hands using little materials lying around: empty cans filled with concrete have been turned into homemade dumbbells and a large bag of sand acts as a weight to exercise your back.

Next to the gym is a vegetable garden where traditional African crops grow. The peace is disturbed when a Spaniard arrives in a red van. Half a dozen men rush up to it and begin to negotiate forcefully with the man. It turns out he sells fish. “Straight from the sea,” he proudly proclaims. The boys don’t care what kind of fish they buy. “We don’t have a choice. Because of our limited budget, we can’t really afford to be picky.”

Many residents of the camps are eager to get out of the area. “Once we have worked for five years, we will become long-term residents in the EU, so we can travel freely around Europe,” says Boubacar. He doesn’t know exactly how it happens. “It depends on my boss and how well I do my job. I hope to live in France or even the Netherlands and build a life there with my family, away from Spain. There is no future here.”

© Inter Press Service (2023) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service