Thirty years of big mistakes empty out Greece’s countryside

Thanasis Kokkinoulis, a trade unionist from Larissa, likes to tell people that he urges youngsters to remain in the countryside and become farmers. Among the benefits he cites are the clean air of independence and the joy of being productive. A statistician himself, he ought to know better. During the farmers’ rallies of 1996, when he became a force to be reckoned with, more than 701,000 Greeks lived off the land. That number has fallen to 500,000 and is expected to drop further. Meanwhile, provincial towns such as Larissa, Volos, Iraklion and Patras are gradually morphing into regional metropolises, drawing in people from the countryside. They are developing an urban fabric that includes shopping centers, cinemas and tourism infrastructure. The evacuation of the Greek countryside had already begun before World War Two, when people began to leave for more urban centers. But the mass flight to the cities took place in the 1950s and 60s, when more than 1.5 million Greeks left their villages and set out for Europe or Athens in search of work. Time has not altered that trend. The economically active population in the agricultural sector fell from almost 2 million in 1961 to less than 1 million in 1981 and slightly more than 600,000 in 2001. Greece’s accession to the European Union and subsidies from the Common Agricultural Policy raised hopes that the farming sector might be saved. Antonis Moisidis, a professor of agricultural sociology at Panteion University in the 1980s, worked in the study and planning department of Agricultural Bank. He recalls starting to foresee «the crisis hitting the fields: Thessaly, Thessaloniki, Serres, Thrace and Ileia.» At that time, the weaknesses of the farmers’ cooperatives were becoming apparent. «One of the reasons was the corruption of the 1980s,» Moisidis said. He believes some of the weaknesses were inherent. «The most serious reason was the rationale according to which the cooperatives were originally founded. They were set up to act as intermediaries for getting loans from Agricultural Bank. There was no emphasis on productive activity. And while the rural sector was undergoing change, the cooperatives did not adapt. The state also played a part in the incompetence of the cooperatives because it took the opportunity to formulate ‘rural policy’ by using the money of third parties.» The transfer of thousands of agriculturalists from the provinces to the main offices of the Agriculture Ministry in Athens is another example of the irresponsible approach of the PASOK government of the time to the needs of the rural areas. When the government used subsidies to encourage farmers to grow cotton, so many of them stopped growing traditional crops that Greece was no longer self-sufficient in wheat. Cotton became the national product, but the euphoria didn’t last. «By 1989,» explained Moisidis, «everyone in politics knew that cotton subsidies would to be cut but they said nothing, because subsidies were a prime source of foreign exchange.» The desertion of the countryside led to the failure of communities to function as social entities: «So Macedonians clustered in Thessaloniki, Thessalians in Larissa and Volos, Peloponnesians in Patras and Cretans principally in Iraklion. The latter four cities became provincial capitals, in effect, with a real urban fabric of around 300,000 inhabitants.» He cites Larissa as an example of the change in the professional composition of the populations in provincial towns. Now the most highly sought professionals in what was formerly the capital of farming are accountants, tax specialists, graduates of marketing and computer studies, executives, managers and nannies, according to the Hellenic Agency for Local Development and Local Government SA (EETAA). In the 1990s, explained Ersi Zakopoulou of the National Center for Social Research, there was a temporary trend of returning to the provinces, mainly because a small number of immigrants chose to settle there permanently. Most of these live in towns and work on the farms of their Greek employers. Some of them have even managed to buy the land of their former employers. The continual expansion of provincial cities has had its effect on villages. In 1961, 85 percent of those who lived in rural communities were farmers, according to Moisidis. The 2001 census showed that in villages with fewer than 2,000 inhabitants, less than 35 percent were farmers. Since Greek farms are small and fragmented, subsidies alone without any official policy were insufficient and many farmers found that they needed second jobs. The National Statistics Service defines as a farmer as someone who derives at least 51 percent of their income from farming or stock raising, as Moisidis noted. «Naturally,» he added, «we can’t exclude those with a smaller percentage, who live on an island and work in hotels and restaurants for three to four months in the summer.» Zakopoulou noted that in spite of the crisis, there are some positive signs, such as the return to the countryside of those who left shortly after the war. They, she said, «kept up their connection with the place where they were born, and that is the basis of their return, decades later, as retirees, vacationers, seasonal farmers or workers in tourism. This definitive or periodical return has invigorated many deserted places.» When that wave subsides, the experts say, hopes for a minimum of agricultural production lie with the new farmers, those few so far who are familiar with new technology and are prepared to promote their products in Europe.