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Hoping to Save a Way of Life by Rooting Out Greeks Who Farm on Paper

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Guest eyoismos

new york times http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/24/world/europe/hoping-to-save-a-way-of-life-by-rooting-out-greeks-who-farm-on-paper.html

FOTOLIVOS, Greece — IN a stone cottage beside his pomegranate fields here in northern Greece, Christos Gontias, 46, is chain smoking and trying to give an interview. But his cellphone is ringing so incessantly, often with requests from news outlets and farmers joining his most recent call for a nationwide protest, that he rarely has time to finish his thought.

He readily admits that he likes all the attention. But there is far more to it than that, he says. He believes his way of life is on the line.

“I’m in love with the land,” said Mr. Gontias, a farmer and a union leader, glancing out the window. “By that I mean I love putting seeds in the ground and watching them grow, and knowing that I am providing a healthy product. And I am willing to fight for the ability to keep doing that.”

These days, he is fighting the terms of Greece’s latest bailout by its international lenders, which call for sharp rises in the taxes farmers must pay and in their pension contributions, and he has been bringing hundreds of farmers with him into the streets. Using tactics reminiscent of French farmers’, they have repeatedly parked their tractors in central intersections and even outside polling stations during the elections last month.


But he is making a name for himself not just because of the protests. Unlike other farm union leaders, Mr. Gontias wants to see an overhaul of the way things are done here. He is taking on what has long been an open secret: Hundreds of thousands of Greeks, who have other professions and may cultivate very little of their land, claim to be farmers in order to cash in on a variety of tax breaks and farming subsidies.


Lawyers and doctors, for instance, plant olive groves in northern Greece, though the climate is inappropriate, and then collect government compensation for damaged crops.


Mr. Gontias wants to “clean” them out of the system.


“That just can’t go on any longer,” he says.


The privileges of farmers have long been a hot-button issue in Greece. The country’s creditors have pressed past governments to rein in farmers’ benefits. But no administration has had the courage to do it, in part because farmers are revered in this country, and in part because of the willingness they have shown to block roads with their tractors.


Even in the aftermath of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s cliff-edge negotiations for a new bailout this summer, when Greece’s creditors demanded a show of good faith and forced Parliament to adopt a range of measures, including raising taxes and cutting pensions for many workers, the farmers’ tax increases quietly disappeared, put off until “later.”


But few experts believe that Mr. Tsipras can put off taking action for long. The country’s creditors — the eurozone member states, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — are counting on the state to collect an additional $2.25 billion by raising the taxes and eliminating the privileges of farmers.

WIRY and intense, Mr. Gontias, who wears braided lanyards on his wrists and shaves his head, wants creditors to target some farmers, but not all of them. Farmers who make most of their income from crops should keep getting special privileges, he said.


“Why?” he said, pounding his finger on the table in front of him. “Because we are at the mercy of God. Even as I was driving here, I was clenching my teeth to see how much of my crop had been ruined by yesterday’s rain.”

But weeding out the part-timers would get most of the money the creditors want, he said. Right now, those who make 35 percent of their income from farming are counted as farmers. In private, government officials have talked of making the cutoff point 50 percent. Mr. Gontias would make it 70 percent. (He makes 100 percent of his income from farming.)


The shift Mr. Gontias is talking about would be huge. It would drop the number of people eligible for farming benefits to 150,000 from about 900,000, he said, and allow the state to collect more than $1.65 billion. His proposal has put him at odds with other farmers’ unions, but he shrugs this off.


“I am part of a new batch of farmers who do not see themselves in the old organizations,” Mr. Gontias said. “The old guard is why we are here in this crisis.”


Mr. Gontias made a name for himself in 2012 as a leader of what became known here as the potato movement. Frustrated with the low prices farmers were getting for their crops — particularly when consumers were paying very high prices in the supermarkets — Mr. Gontias encouraged local farmers to eliminate the middle man.


Driving their crops to the streets and selling them off the back of their trucks, the farmers were hailed as heroes by many consumers and no small number of politicians.


But Mr. Gontias says he never likes to stand too close to politicians. He is adamant that he has no party affiliation and no political ambitions, even declining to become the official president of his farming association because he sees the organization as a “collective effort.”


Early in the crisis, he railed against the cheap produce coming over the border from Bulgaria, and in 2009 and 2012, he gathered dozens of farmers to stop and inspect trucks at the border.


Those efforts got him arrested and convicted of obstructing transportation. He is on probation now and faces a six-month jail term if he gets in any kind of trouble with the law over the next two years.


BORN here, Mr. Gontias said he knew even as a teenager he wanted to farm. He could have gone on to study at the university level, but he said academics did not interest him.


“My father first took me to the field when I was 7 or 8,” he said. “By 10 or 11, I knew how to drive the tractor and work all the machinery. And I studied in the field, sitting under our truck with my books.”


“My mom says that her water broke while she was at the field picking up cotton,” he added. “They took her to our old house, where she gave birth to me. They said then that I’d become a cotton farmer — and indeed, cotton has been my favorite crop.”


He has planted his 500 acres with cotton, corn, wheat and more recently pomegranates, a new crop in Greece. His grandfather, he said, started off with only 37 acres, the amount of land that he got when Greece and Turkey entered into a huge swap of citizens in the 1920s and his family, which had been living in Izmir, Turkey, was resettled here.

“Back then, there were not even any roads around here,” Mr. Gontias said. Inside the cottage hangs one of the few possessions the family brought from Turkey, a small shelf.


He hopes his son, Theodosis, 21, who recently came home after a stint working in shipping, and his daughter, Despina, 19, who is studying logistics, will be able to take over the farm one day.


But first, he said, he has to win concessions for farmers. He happily showed off a picture of himself reading Greece’s second bailout agreement and joked that, “Since our politicians didn’t read it, someone had to.”

“Half the things in there,” he said, “we should have done a long time ago.”


But the other half, he said, is a “beheading.”


Mr. Gontias regularly commutes to Athens these days, meeting with any official who will listen and spending so much time on his campaign that his wife, Stavroula, complains that she never sees him anymore. He has no choice, he said.


“If they do this thing,” he said of measures that would double the taxes farmers pay, “we will not survive. It makes no sense.”

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