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ENVIRONMENT

Spain’s countryside rises up against ‘pig factories’

Over the past decade megafarms that produce livestock with the efficiency of auto assembly lines inside warehouse-like barns have multiplied across Spain, sparking opposition from locals.

A protestor wearing a pig mask holds a sign reading
A protestor wearing a pig mask holds a sign reading "Stop macrofarms" during a demonstration to denounce the permits for new intensive livestock farms and to demand sustainable livestock farming in Cuenca. (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

“That’s not a farm, it’s a factory… a pig factory,” says Antonio Escribano as he stares at a huge metal frame in the middle of a field in Spain.

The 58-year-old local winemaker has for months been battling the planned opening of a large pig farm that will breed almost 40,000 piglets a year from 2,200 sows less than three kilometres (1.9 miles) from his town of Quintanar del Rey, in the central province of Cuenca.

Locals fear the pollution from pig manure, bad smells and flies, which they say the project will bring, and have staged regular protests against it.

The farm is just 350 metres (1,200 feet) from the wells that provide the town of around 7,000 residents with fresh water.

“If the water gets polluted, the village will be ruined,” says Escribano, who speaks with a gravelly voice and has salt and pepper hair.

“People will leave as has happened in other villages and Quintanar will become a ghost village.”

In response to the protests, local authorities have suspended work on the farm while they re-evaluate the project’s environmental impact.

Some locals are pushing for the project by Spanish firm Jisap, which already owns 480 pig farms in Spain, to be shuttered for good.

“We must put an end to mega-farms,” says Paciencia Talaya of the “Stop Mega-farms” group, which has led opposition to the project.

"We want to smell the pines, not pig shit" and "No to artificial fattening, we want health and wellbeing" reads two of the signs at the recent protest in Cuenca province. (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)
“We want to smell the pines, not pig shit” and “No to artificial fattening, we want health and wellbeing” reads two of the signs at the recent protest in Cuenca province. (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

‘Dump of Europe’

Over the past decade, mega-farms that produce livestock with the efficiency of auto assembly lines inside warehouse-like barns have multiplied across Spain, sparking opposition from local residents.

Residents are demanding an end to intensive pig farming, fearing the impact on groundwater and their quality of life from untreated manure

Fuelled by demand from China, Spain has become the European Union’s top pork producer.

The number of pigs raised in Spain jumped 21.5 percent between 2015 and 2020, according to Greenpeace.

The country had a population of 56 million pigs in 2020 — about nine million more than its humans, according to government figures.

“The sector generates a lot of money,” says Remedios Bobillo, the head of “Alive Villages”, a group set up in 2017 to fight the spread of mega-farms in Cuenca.

pigs drink water in factory in spain
Around 250,000 people work in the pork sector in Spain. Photo: RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP

“Unfortunately, the villages don’t benefit from it,” she said.

The group staged a protest on Sunday in Cuenca against the “sale of villages” to agri-food companies which drew around 1,000 people.

“Spain has become the dump of Europe and China. That can’t be,” says Bobillo.

Putting thousands of animals in one enclosure produces huge amounts of manure.

Unlike human sewage, which is treated before it is released into waterways, animal waste is stored, then spread on croplands as fertilizer.

Environmental groups say fields often can’t handle the volumes of manure produced, leading to runoff that pollutes groundwater with nitrates and ammonia.

Pig farming also consumes vast quantities of water in a country frequently affected by drought.

‘Can’t breathe’

Critics also say the barnyard whiffs from the farms of the past were nothing like the overpowering stench from today’s supersized operations.

“At some times of the year, the air is unbreathable,” says Toni Jorge of Ecologists in Action as he stands outside a pig factory farm in Cardenete, a village of about 500 people east of Cuenca.

Opened five years ago, the farm is home to 6,400 pigs that produce enough manure each year to fill four Olympic-sized swimming pools, he says.

Unlike in smaller farms, the pigs here are packed together with no access to the outdoors and daylight except for the day they are taken to slaughter, says Jorge.

Industry groups argue there are plenty of strict rules regarding the treatment of manure and livestock farmers are adopting improved methods and technology.

The sector follows “European directives on animal wellbeing”, which are a “world reference”, says the head of Spanish pork producers association Anprogapor, Miguel Angel Higuera.

“Spain is the only country in the world which limits farm capacity and imposes a minimum distance between farms and residential areas,” he adds.

The farms are one of the “rare activities” that provide jobs in rural Spain, which is suffering from depopulation, and help keep villages “alive”, he adds.

He estimates about 250,000 people work in the pork sector in Spain.

But Talaya of “Stop Mega-farms” said most work on industrial farms is mechanised.

Standing beside her, Escribano agrees.

“They say they are helping to keep people in villages. But who is going to live in a village where you can’t breathe, where you can’t drink the water?” asks local winemaker Antonio Escribano.

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MONEY

Rampant branch closures and job cuts help Spain’s banks post huge earnings

Spain’s biggest banks this week reported huge profits in 2021 and cheered their return to recovery post-Covid, but ruthless cost-cutting in the form of thousands of layoffs, hundreds of branch closures and the removal of many ATMs have left customers in Spain suffering, in this latest example of ‘Capitalismo 2.0’. 

A man withdraws cash from a Santander branch in Madrid.
More than 3,500 Santander workers lost their jobs in Spain in 2021 and a further 2,000 more employees working for Santander across Europe were also laid off. Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Spanish banking giant Santander on Wednesday said it has bounced back from the pandemic as it returned to profit last year, beating analyst expectations and exceeding its pre-COVID earnings.

Likewise, Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA said on Thursday that it saw a strong rebound in 2021 following the Covid crisis, tripling its net profits thanks to a recovery in business activity.

It’s a similar story for Unicaja (€137 million profit in 2021), Caixabank (€5.2 billion profit thanks to merge with Bankia), Sabadell (€530 million profit last year), Abanca (€323 million profit) and all of Spain’s other main banks.

This may be promising news for Spain’s banking sector, but their profits have come at a cost for many of their employees and customers. 

In 2021, 19,000 bank employees lost their jobs, almost all through state-approved ERE layoffs, meant for companies struggling financially.

BBVA employees protest against layoffs in May 2021 in Madrid. Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA is looking to shed 3,800 jobs, affecting 16 percent of its staff, in a move denounced by unions as “scandalous”. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Around 11 percent of bank branches in Spain have also been closed down in 2021 as part of Spanish banks’ attempts to cut costs, even though they’ve agreed to pay just under €5 billion in compensation.

Rampant branch closures have in turn resulted in 2,200 ATMs being removed since the Covid-19 pandemic began, even though the use of cajeros automáticos went up by 20 percent in 2021.

There are now 48,300 ATMs in Spain, levels not seen since 2001.

READ MORE:

Apart from losses caused by the coronavirus crisis, Spain’s financial institutions have justified the lay-offs, branch closures and ATM removals under the premise that there was already a shift to online banking taking place among customers. 

But the problem has been around for longer in a country with stark population differences between the cities and so-called ‘Empty Spain’, with rural communities and elderly people bearing the brunt of it. 

 

Caixabank laid off almost 6,500 workers in the first sixth months of 2021. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Just this month, a 78-year-old Valencian man has than collected 400,000+ signatures in an online petition calling for Spanish banks to offer face-to-face customer service that’s “humane” to elderly people, spurring the Bank of Spain and even Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to publicly say they would address the problem.

READ MORE: ‘I’m old, not stupid’ – How one Spanish senior is demanding face-to-face bank service

It’s worth noting that between 2008 and 2019, Spain had the highest number of branch closures and bank job cuts in Europe, with 48 percent of its branches shuttered compared with a bloc-wide average of 31 percent.

Below is more detailed information on how Santander and BBVA, Spain’s two biggest banks, have reported their huge profits in 2021.

Santander

Driven by a strong performance in the United States and Britain, the bank booked a net profit of €8.1 billion in 2021, close to a 12-year high. 

It was a huge improvement from 2020 when the pandemic hit and the bank suffered a net loss of €8.7 billion after it was forced to write down the value of several of its branches, particularly in the UK. It was also higher than 2019, when the bank posted a net profit of €6.5 billion.

Analysts from FactSet were expecting profits of €7.9 billion. 

“Our 2021 results demonstrate once again the value of our scale and presence across both developed and developing markets, with attributable profit 25 per cent higher than pre-COVID levels in 2019,” said chief executive Ana Botin in a statement.

Net banking income, the equivalent to turnover, also increased, reaching €33.4 billion, compared to €31.9 billion in 2020. This dynamic was made possible by a strong increase in customer numbers, with the group now counting almost 153 million customers worldwide. 

“We have added five million new customers in the last 12 months alone,” said Botin.

Santander performed particularly well in Europe and North America, with profits doubling in constant euros compared to 2020. In the UK, where Santander has a strong presence, current profit even “quadrupled” over the same period to €1.6 billion.

Last year’s net loss was the first in Banco Santander’s history, after having to revise downwards the value of several of its subsidiaries, notably in the UK, because of COVID.

The banking giant, which cut nearly 3,500 jobs at the end of 2020, in September announced an interim shareholder payout of €1.7 billion for its 2021 results. “In the coming weeks, we will announce additional compensation linked to the 2021 results,” it said.

BBVA

The group, which mainly operates in Spain but also in Latin America, Mexico and Turkey, posted profits of €4.65 billion ($5.25 billion), up from €1.3 billion a year earlier.

The result, which followed a solid fourth quarter with profits of €1.34 billion, was higher than expected, with FactSet analysts expecting a figure of €4.32 billion .

Excluding non-recurring items, such as the outcome of a restructuring plan launched last year, it generated profits of 5.07 billion euros in what was the highest figure “in 10 years”, the bank said in a statement.

In 2020, the Spanish bank saw its net profit tumble 63 percent as a result of asset depreciation and provisions taken against an increase in bad loans due to the economic fallout of the virus crisis.

“The economic recovery over the past year has brought with it a marked upturn in banking activity, mainly in the loan portfolio,” the bank explained, pointing to a reduction of the provisions put in place because of Covid.

In 2021, BBVA added a “record” 8.7 million new customers, largely due to the growth of its online activities. It now has 81.7 million customers worldwide.

The group’s net interest margins also rose 6.1 percent year-on-year to €14.7 billion, said the bank, which is undergoing a cost-cutting drive.

So far, it has axed 2,935 jobs and closed down 480 branches as the banking sector undergoes increasing digitalisation and fewer and fewer transactions are carried out over the counter.

At the end of 2020, BBVA sold its US unit to PNC Financial Services for nearly 10 billion euros and decided to reinvest some of the funds in the Turkish market.

In November, it launched a bid to take full control of its Turkish lending subsidiary Garanti, offering €2.25 billion ($2.6 billion) to buy the 50.15 percent stake it does not yet own.

The deal should be finalised in the first quarter of 2022.

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