We Met the Angry Young Farmers Protesting Pension Reforms in Greece

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We Met the Angry Young Farmers Protesting Pension Reforms in Greece

Riot police dodged tomatoes and aubergines after Cretan farmers travelled to Athens to protest against tax hikes and pension reform on Friday.
February 15, 2016, 5:00am

This article originally appeared on VICE Greece

It's fair to say that things kicked off this past Friday, when Cretan farmers in Athens outside the Ministry of Rural Development protested against the Greek government's proposed new pension reform plans. By 10 AM riot police had positioned themselves around the ministry at Archarnon Street and two platoons, with a pile of vegetables chucked by the farmers already scattered at their feet, stood firm at the entrance to push back the farmers determined to storm it.

The traditional Cretan boots worn by many of the farmers

The farmers were part of a large group that's been protesting across Greece for more than two weeks now, against new measures by the Greek government that would increase their taxes and abolish many tax breaks. Across Greece, farmers' tractors have staged blockades on major highways. This Friday, the blockade arrived in Athens with a crew of farmers from Crete, where farming is the island's lifeblood.

A mix of ages, the farmers looked mostly to be fathers with their sons. When I approached the younger men and asked why they'd gone through all the effort to hop on boats to Athens for the day, they shouted: "We were too angry to stay at home." From what they went on to tell me, they're not only angry but frustrated, and determined not to let the new insurance laws pass. The new measures affect them more than their elders, they said, mainly because their simple dream of staying in their villages and cultivating the fields feels unattainable and may collapse altogether.

The first skirmishes began when a farm truck loaded with tomatoes tried to approach the entrance of the ministry to "show the minister their produce," the farmers put it. A street fight erupted with the police reacting first, then the farmers responding by throwing vegetables, bricks, bottles, improvised smoke bombs, and wood. With every effort to push them back, the police shield was met with blows from traditional Cretan walking sticks. Soon after, stones began to fly and the first two floors of the ministry now have barely any windows left intact. The riot police responded with tear gas and stun grenades to repel the protesting farmers, making six arrests in the process.

Soon the intensity died down and when I could breathe through the tear gas again I noticed that most of the farmers were just wearing traditional Cretan head covers and boots. Only a few, wary of what might have happened, showed up with gas masks or helmets. Despite their inexperience with big protests, they threw whatever they could get their hands on with gusto.

Some of the farmers explained that their goal was simply to talk to the minister and prime minister to negotiate the new bill from scratch—a plan that they weren't willing to give up. By noon, things had calmed and the farmers gathered a little distance away from the police, shouting that the cops should be ashamed about those who they were protecting, before singing a traditional song with tear gas-countering maalox around their eyes. Trash bins burned nearby. In the moment of relative calm, I spoke to some of the young men in more detail.

Michalis, 22: "If they don't agree to meet us we'll burn the building down"

"We set out last night from Crete to fight for our future and we will stay as long as necessary. We came here and the police forced us to react. If the bills pass we will carry out the blockades again in Crete and in Athens until we get what we are entitled to so that we don't take the law into our own hands. I'm a farmer; I cultivate grapes and olives. Not just me, but all my family and relatives. If they don't agree to meet us we'll burn the building down. There is no way we will accept the new bill."

Giorgos, 23: "All of Crete lives on agriculture"

"We came here to find a solution, but the police started throwing tear gas at us, as if their own forefathers didn't work as farmers too. The new pension and tax measures should be scrapped for all professions, not just for us farmers. I'm 23-years old-and a farmer in Hania, where we cultivate tomatoes, and I never once thought of leaving. But with all that's happening I don't know how much longer I can stay. It's like they're telling us we don't exist anymore, since our main occupation is farming and now we're forced not to produce anything. But all of Crete lives on agriculture."

Giorgos, 21: "We won't let the new measures pass or let Alexis Tsipras sit on a throne he doesn't deserve"

"They're preparing our tombstones for us; we can't accept that. We're 14 days into the blockade of Crete, and this time we took over the tax office in the capital Heraklion, without causing a single penny of damage. The police here didn't let us protest as we wanted.

"We won't let the new measures pass or let Alexis Tsipras sit on a throne he doesn't deserve. I am 21 and a farmer, but I see that there is no future in the profession. Nevertheless, I do not want to leave and throw away all my father and grandfather's hard work. I know I won't be hungry because I can grow my own food, but I'll stop working as a farmer. What will then become of the rest of Greece?"

Spyros, 29: "It would have been better if Crete had held a referendum last year"

"I studied electrical engineering but decided to go into farming and stay in Crete. If these measures pass, we're finished. I think we won't become producers again, because from where I come from in Crete, everyone is in farming.

"I hope that the government will think logically and will withdraw the new measures for all those concerned. It's like having to sell off our land and become laborers in our own fields. We're not yet 30, but we don't want to give up farming. The way things are going we'll be forced to have a referendum, which we should have done last year and become independent from the mainland."

Yiannis, 26: "I studied to return to Crete and go into farming"

"Our basic demand is the withdrawal of the new social security bill, which is a coup de grâce for the Greek farmer. I'm 26-years-old and graduated in oenology (wine-making) and viticulture (the study, science, and production of grapes) because I wanted to work in the fields. I studied it, because like many Cretans, even though it is a hard and difficult profession, this is what we wanted to do. But I'm thinking of leaving for someplace else, maybe Holland or France that has rural areas and is connected to what I studied. Here, the production costs are increasing and the product prices falling. Now with the new bill I'm really thinking of leaving. They're forcing us to go because they're wiping us out."

The tractor blockade then moved from the ministry to Syntagma Square