Twilight of the pigs

Binéfar is a town of roughly 8,000 in La Litera, an agricultural region on the Aragonese northern fringe of the Ebro Basin. La Litera is less well-irrigated than lower-lying areas, but has always been capable of producing significant quantities of useful flora and fauna. However, economic mismanagement, token land reform, and a boycott of the last Fascist state in western Europe meant that the 40s and 50s were a time of miserable poverty for people in the rural areas. Although there was no great enthusiasm for the Stalinist alternative, the numerous wayside crosses left behind during the post-war re-evangelization campaigns are a testament to the difficulties the theocracy had in convincing the rural population to abandon radical non-Christian millenarianism.

Nation-wide change began in 1957, with the appointment of an Opus Dei-dominated administration. From 1959, this group of technocrats paired Franco’s grim and bloody neoconservative agenda with an early strain of neoliberalism. They aimed to reform what Robert Graham called “paleocapitalism – primitive market skills operating in a jungle of bureaucratic regulations, protectionism, and peddled influence” (Spain: A Nation Comes of Age (London: St. Martin’s Press, 1984)); their principal economic targets were inflation and state control.

It worked:

  • 1.8 million people moved into the towns between 1960 and 1973. The process was aided by a great new network of country roads that also helped produce get to markets and provided the urban middle classes with a way of driving their Seat 600s to visit freedom north of the Pyrenees. (There’s a still a fine stretch of classic unimproved road of this antiquity between Estadilla and Binéfar.)
  • The government was able to undertake consolidation of the scattering of small plots left behind by those without capital to buy machinery or with a better job awaiting in a factory.
  • Farm unemployment decreased rapidly and wages rose.
  • Those who stayed behind imported Massey Harris and Deutz tractors in their thousands (52,000 to 593,000 in the period 1960 to 1983). (Tractors had a tendency to turn up at the farm gate stripped of all removable parts, courtesy of the class solidarity of the employees of Spanish railways. Although the spare parts sometimes look home-made, many of them are still going strong; one of the current preoccupations of the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture is the high average age (>16) of Spanish tractors.)

Local highlights of the period include:

  • An increase by factor three in Binéfar’s population between 1960 and 1980. Binéfar is the only town in the comarca (district) that has grown since 1995.
  • 1955 The first application by the council for a local radio licence. The first station appeared in 1984 and closed in 1985 after being too critical of local politicians and businessmen. A variety of stations have come and gone since. (See Fernando Sabés Turmo & José Luis Paricio Casado, La Radio en Binéfar: Una experiencia Pionera de Comunicación Local en Aragón (1955-2003) (Lleida: Milenio, 2003).
  • 1956 The foundation of clothing manufacturer, Villacampa.
  • 1966 The foundation by a group of local stock dealers of FRIBIN, the first slaughterhouse in the area with refrigeration facilities. It is currently the largest such business in Huesca and generates 40% of its revenues in other southern European markets.
  • 1978 The launching by the same stock dealers, now united in a powerful association, of a Lonja Agropecuaria (Agricultural Commodity Exchange). This development was the culmination of government attempts in the 60s to encourage meat and dairy production by creating bigger, more sophisticated marketing mechanisms. The exchange began quoting pork and bovine prices in 1978, and gradually expanded to include cereal and ovine figures. It currently determines prices for some 30% of the Spanish bovine meat market at weekly sessions that bring together purchasers and vendors from far and wide.
  • YYYY One A Arilla registered as a correduría de seguros (insurance broker) and began selling life polices to those who didn’t spend all their earnings in Bar Fronton or in Binéfar’s limited range of fashion boutiques. Señor Arilla’s life-and-death business is just across the road from Bar Fronton; in other countries, the village church tends to occupy a location as important as this, which may conceivably say something about the Spanish sense of the spiritual.

The exchange is on Binéfar’s Avenida del Pilar and its spiritual home is the front room of the neighbouring Bar Fronton. Prices on the website haven’t been updated since 2002, and the site’s administrator wants to see your money before s/he will let you see last week’s numbers, but can also find them for free, chalked on boards on the bar’s back wall. If you ask the woman behind the bar (who makes excellent bocatas) if you can photograph them, she’ll say no, the boss has to approve, no pictures. (Michael Douglas secretly running a pub in an agro-industrial cluster in rural Spain? Don’t bet against it.) And don’t imagine for a moment that it’ll make a difference if you offer to move the elderly gentleman who for the past 20 minutes has been reading the same paragraph of the local paper with his eyes closed.

(The picture here is from the local Baptist church. Even people who breathe fire don’t scare me as much as those who spend their lives planning and commissioning the slaughter of large mammals.)

The future is less promising. People in this region basically just aren’t interested in non-family businesses, which means that many of the companies dating from the 60s are now contemplating with trepidation the death or retirement of the founder. Many of those that survive will continue to face the curse of the small. The exchange is interesting because it is one of the few successful extra-familial institutions in Binéfar. However, although it has just celebrated its 25th anniversary, it’s difficult to see it making 50. It’s too small and information-poor. And, although although even the Chicago Board of Trade started small, there is absolutely no prospect of it increasing its product range to include futures or options. Meanwhile, the presence in town of quite substantial numbers of illegal Africans scraping a living in processing and construction shows that the locals haven’t learned the lesson of 40 years ago: that poorly-paid, poorly-educated labour is not the way forward.

Map: ViaMichelin.com. Most of the numbers are from 1upinfo.com or Stanley Payne’s history; please tell me if there’s a good agricultural history out there that I’ve missed. Photo of exchange in session: Lonja de Binéfar. Links of interest: Guia de Empresas de Binéfar, fine puppet group, los Titiriteros de Binéfar. Deutz tractor in el Serrat de l’Ocata, Catalunya, here.

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