by Sofiane Ait Chalalet and Chris Jones
Things are getting worse. Of that there can be no doubt. At a national level we hear that over 50% of householders have reported that they will be unable to pay the property tax and be unable to meet their mortgage commitments. Another poll published also published this month reveals that one third of all households are contemplating emigration, although where to and how we are not told. Supermarket chains report that income is down by billions of Euros. Probably most dramatically are the photographs of Athens which show it to be under a pall of thick smog caused by the explosion in burning wood to keep warm. It appears that hundreds of thousands of trees have been cut from the forests on and around Mount Olympus. Friends returning to the island after Christmas away told us that the smell of wood smoke was intense on the express bus which took them from Athens airport to the port in Piraeas. They looked out of the window to see if they could see a fire. It was the Athenians on the bus who told them this smoke was coming not from a single fire but from tens of thousands as people tried to heat their homes. And what made it worse was that most could not even afford logs but were burning any wood they could find, from abandoned homes, from the rubbish tips. Basically shit wood sometimes painted and varnished which makes such intolerable smog.
On Monday we were in Samos Town and had to call at the electricity office to pay a bill. It was full of people shuffling through their bills and making payments. We hadn’t been there long when a man in his sixties began to shout whilst negotiating with the worker sitting behind her glass screen. He shouted out that it he was being robbed by the electricity company and the state and they were all thieves. There is no embarrassment at these displays of rage and many in the lines waiting called back ‘you are right!’
We stopped by the filling station where a close friend works on the way back to Ambelos. These are interesting places that can tell you much about how the crisis is impacting. She told us that they are holding on by their finger nails and live day to day in terms of survival. Their biggest customers, lorry owners, have accounts which are invariably paid late these days which gives the garage profound cash flow problems. The fuel suppliers do not supply on credit but expect the cheque when the fuel is unloaded. The family that own the garage try and supplement their income by selling eggs, olives and oil from their own production.
As we were talking another friend stopped by. She works in a men’s clothes shop in Samos Town. But she told us she will finish at the end of January as the shop owners will drop her salary to 400 Euros in February down from the 560 she currently earns. This is commonplace. Salaries down, prices up. It is a lethal combination. As we have regularly reported businesses on the island continue to close. Somehow it seems more tragic than ever as these businesses have survived over 5 years of recession and decline but have simply reached the end of the line. This is what happened to an acquaintance of ours who closed her restaurant for good in early December. She told us that on the day she closed her business another 11 did likewise. It was also a sign of the times that we met her on the way to the airport where she was leaving to join her husband who is now working in the Congo. Its all well and good people talking about emigrating in search of work, but where will they go? And how they can pay for their tickets and re-location. You need money to leave.
Relentlessness of Crisis
There is a relentlessness about this crisis. It is hard to escape from its horrors. Monday night saw us eating with friends we had not seen for some weeks. A couple in their early 30s. Good people but now utterly desperate. Connie had hurt her hand from smashing her fist into a kitchen cupboard in total frustration. Her partner told us he had now disconnected the fridge. It was completely empty. It had not helped that they had also argued with his father who was telling them that they should make more an effort to survive. But how? What is so disturbing here is that the Greek state and its various agencies seem intent upon making life worse in every respect. It is not only that they continue to raise taxes, cut incomes, jobs and benefits but they are now insisting on implementing EU regulations that have been systematically ignored here in the past. Connie and her husband gave us these most recent examples. A friend of theirs last week went to a farmer he had used on many occasions in the past to buy a calf. But the farmer had none to sell and even if he had he couldn’t have done so for the state is now insisting that farmers comply with EU regulations which state the minimum requirements for keeping a calf which stipulate the nature of the stall/barn, the floor, the management of waste etc. which in the case of this potential buyer would have involved an expenditure of 35,000 Euros. They also told us that restrictions on keeping any sort of livestock in the village were now being imposed and that if a neighbour complained of a smell from chickens or a goat they would be forced to move them. This is happening in villages which just forty years ago housed as many donkeys in the houses as they did people!
How come they asked were EU regulations which had been routinely ignored for years were now being applied and policed? Moreover, they added the underlying assumptions of so many of these regulations is utterly unacceptable. Compared with the big agri businesses which dominate global food production, small farmers, who predominate in places such as Samos are far better custodians of the land and its life stock.
Caring for the Land
This is exemplified in so many ways. Take our neighbour Dimitri. In his 80s he has been out every day weather permitting for the past 5 weeks pruning back his vines. He has a small chair and moves, slowly from vine to vine. He has about 3 acres so it is a long job. If you measured his time according to a capitalist bottom line logic, his effort makes no sense as the income from his grapes is small. It will barely cover the cost of picking the harvest in August. It will not cover the cost of all the care needed over the rest of the year. In brutal capitalistic terms his vinyard is not economic. But ask him why he is doing it, there is no hesitation in his reply. He is caring for his vinyard. It is simple as that. Caring??? A word that is rarely part of the capitalist vocabulary.
And the same applies to the olives. The mountain around Ambelos is covered in olive trees and the collection of olives has been in full swing since before Christmas. This is an ‘on’ year and although part of the crop was lost to the November gales and the autumn drought it has still been a good year. But it is hard work as all the olives have to be picked by hand and carried down from the trees to the roads and tracks. The terrain allows for no mechanisation. The best price you expect for extra virgin oil from hand picked olives on an island free from pollution is 3 Euros a kilo. Basically, the entire olive oil ‘business’ on Samos is in crude capitalist terms is uneconomic. We produce a small amount and only have 40 trees. But we estimated that if we had included the cost of our time in caring for and picking our olives each kilo of oil would work out at around 50 Euros!
But in common with the other farmers on Samos this is not what counts. What matters I that you know what you are consuming – brilliant, beautiful oil. And you are looking after the trees and the land, just like all the farmers who came before you.
This just does not seem to register either in Brussels or in Athens and the regulations now being imposed with new vigour insult the majority of small farmers and confirm in the view of most people here that those with power not only have no concern at all for the people but don’t seem to live in the same world.
Frozen by Shock
With all this in our mind we went off to interview Costas one of the key participants in initiating a co-operative work exchange scheme for the island and who, with others is looking to create a network of small producers to market their produce on the island and to get it to the consumers at the lowest possible cost. These are really important initiatives which in our opinion are what is needed on the island.
Like us, he told us that he believed that Samos could be a paradise given its beauty and nature. He told us how many years ago Samos was a thriving agricultural centre for the region as being a green island with plenty of water it was a key supplier of fruit and vegetables to the more arid islands of the Dodecanese to the south. He did not think that these days would return but it was a valuable history in that it reminded us of the island’s rich potential as a producer of wonderful fruits and vegetables.
As for the various initiatives he was involved in he told us that progress was slow. He was by no means downhearted and he is determined to persevere. In his opinion, the slow progress was illustrative of the fact that many on the island are simply not ready to embrace new collective and communal ways of working and thinking. He recounted that when he participated in a local radio broadcast on Samos where he discussed these plans, the most prevailing response from the callers was ‘what’s in it for me’ – an individualistic mind set he said that had been deliberately encouraged for the past 30 years or more. But he continued it was also more than this. He thought most people on the island are still in a state of shock. They simply can’t believe or accept what has happened and what is continuing to happen. This economic, social and human catastrophe is not one expects of a country that is part of a civilised Western Europe in the 21st century. Thus, as far as Costas is concerned the first step in any possible constructive response is to accept what has and is happening as part of the process of moving from being frozen in shock to becoming active in making a better future. And the second step is to realise that those with power in the world have accumulated enough power to be able to say that we ‘don’t give a shit for your welfare or your future.
Let’s hope that 2013 will see more of us taking these first 2 steps at least.
Sofiane Ait Chalalet and Chris Jones work together meeting and interviewing people on the island of Samos where they live. They are concerned not only with recording the impact of the crisis on the people of Samos but of using their interviews to develop links between people, of stimulating new ideas and ways of surviving that meet human needs and don’t destroy our world. We really welcome feedback. And we are more than happy to respond to requests for information about any aspect of life on Samos. Please feel free to contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org