Monday, 2 February 2009

The Cretans are coming! The Cretans are coming! (Έρχονται οι Κρήτες!)

The Cretan people know how to make themselves get noticed. Now the farmers of the island are the top news story in the country.

The farmers of the whole country blocked the roads linking the north to the south, while the Cretan farmers blocked the roads leading from the west to the east. The government heard their pleas, and offered a 645 million euro salvage packet for Greek farmers who have lost a quarter of their income over the last decade (and from what I understand, this is a problem in farming worldwide). But this package did not include Cretan farmers.

Why? Maybe because they think we're rich(er than other Greek farmers). But we're still a part of Greece, so why did the government discriminate against the Cretan farmers whose produce feeds the country throughout the winter? I know the sunshine is free, but surely Cretan farmers also run up costs, suffer losses and work hard to produce a good crop. They certainly don't have the same field area as farmers in the north, who need a huge expanse of land to produce crops like cotton and tobacco (neither of which are eaten).

The Cretan farmers have rejected the package saying it offers too little for their region. Other agricultural groups are keeping a key border crossing with Bulgaria closed, complaining that the government assistance plan provides no long-term solution to their declining income.

Now the Cretan farmers have taken their protest over handouts to Athens today by driving their tractors into the city center at the same time that Agricultural Development Minister Sotiris Hatzigakis will be attempting to convince the European Union that the 500 million euros the Greek government wants to pump into the ailing sector does not contravene the bloc’s rules.

Despite an attempt by a prosecutor on Crete to stop farmers driving dozens of tractors onto a ferry bound for Piraeus last night, hundreds of disgruntled locals boarded the vessel and plan to drive the vehicles to the Agricultural Development Ministry today.

The farmers did eventually get to Pireaus with their tractors. Riot police blocked groups of protesting Cretan farmers from leaving the port of Piraeus, Greece's busiest, early Monday morning. The farmers, roughly 1,100 strong with scores of pick-up trucks and a few dozen tractors, disembarked from three ferry boats arriving from the large Aegean island in order to hold a protest in front of the agriculture ministry in downtown Athens.

Police used tear gas to prevent protesting farmers from leaving the port area, which is located in congested Piraeus. Tension continued for the following hours, while farmers claimed four of their colleagues were injured and several others were arrested.

My compatriots came armed (they threw potatoes at the police); they insisted on seeing the Minister of Agriculture (who was in Brussels at the time), and they tried to drive their tractors in the roads of Athens (diesel-powered vehicles are forbidden in the congested areas of the capital). I don't know what the outcome of this will be, but I can't imagine anything positive will come out of it. If anything is promised, promises are meant to be broken. And in the current economic climate, especially given that Greece is heavily in debt, surely only a fool would believe what is being promised.

In any case, the Cretans have managed so far to halt ship traffic to Crete - no ferry boat is leaving the harbours destined for Megalonisos (the Big Island, as we are nicknamed) - and the farmers are camping out at the port tonight, so there's bound to be a party going on in the evening at Pireaus. Just keep an ear out for the mantinades and you'll find them.

UPDATE: So it's back home on theTuesday evening ferry boat for the Cretan farmers, who made their presence known in Athens, which they claim was their main prerogative in going to Athens. The were met by many opposition politicians (Greece is heading for early elections, so now is a good time to campaign), while the only government officials to meet with them were representatives from the police, who used tear gas, even while one of the opposition politicians was present 'in support of the Cretan farmers' (don't forget that he is also demanding the resignation of the government and early elections).

Well, we all had our fun, didn't we?

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