'Yes to the hoe, no to concrete'; 'Without the land there is no future'; Justice for Larios settlers'. These were three of the phrases that appeared on the numerous banners seen in the streets of Nerja and Maro on the cold and rainy days between 13 and 23 December 1996, when the two places were the scene of a real 'peasant revolt'. It was led by the so-called ‘settlers of Maro’; families who had cultivated the land owned by the Marquis of Larios for five centuries, and who feared losing their rights and wanted to be able to buy the land they and their ancestors had worked for generations.
A quarter of a century later, SUR looks back and talks to three of the protagonists of those protests: Nuchi Moreno, who was the councillor for Maro then and has since returned to the position; the manager of a local agricultural cooperative, Pepe Moreno, and the local journalist and photographer Eduardo Bombarelli. Time has passed and things have changed, but the debate rolls on over land ownership and the project to build a golf course, luxury hotels and 680 homes on the Vega de Maro.
Add to the protests the recent fire in the area the caused 34 out of the 250 hectares of land to burn. "This was coming, the land can’t continue as it is. It cannot be allowed that the plots continue to be sublet, that many are occupied by people who do not cultivate them," argues Nuchi Moreno. She does not commit herself on the debate as to whether to authorise the reclassification of the land from agricultural to urban to allow the project to go ahead. “It depends," she tells SUR.
"If the project will improve the situation in the area, who am I to say no to the expansion of economic activity and stop Maro from growing," she argues and goes on to say that she believes "there is room for everything". Nerja mayor, José Alberto Armijo, claims that her opinion is shared by "many neighbours, or at least that's what they tell me."
When the protesters locked themselves in the Nerja cave back in December 1996, which forced its temporary closure, Nuchi Moreno was 32 years old. "I remember the desperation of the people, farmers are a peaceful lot, nobody liked having to lock themselves in a cave, but it was the only way to be heard," she explains. And were they heard? "It was not easy to prove that the land had been under cultivation since before August 1942, it had to be done with reliable documents," she recalls.
The result of the lock-in was that Larios compensated the vast majority of the settlers for the improvements they had made to the land, renegotiating new contracts, with a maximum duration of one year. Pepe Moreno, who was 35 years old at the time, was one of those who spent the ten days locked in the cave. "At the beginning there were only going to be 10 or 15 of us, but in the end more than 50 people joined in," recalls the manager of the Maro cooperative, which groups together some 70 members and has a turnover of around one million euros a year.
"Is the slogan 'Yes to the hoe, no to concrete' is still valid? Of course it is," Moreno states with conviction. "It seems to me a real nonsense what they want to do, to change the use of a land that has been agricultural for five centuries," he says, adding that he believes the intentions of Larios "are to increase tourism." He farms 2,000 square metres on the Vega de Maro and is concerned about the legacy he will leave his two children.
In his opinion, the situation of the Vega de Maro "is a disaster, because of the state of abandonment through the fault of Larios, the town hall and the tenants,” he argues. "It makes me very sad, and now with the fire even more," he adds. The manager of Coamar considers that "the solution is sustainable agriculture."
Eduardo Bombarelli remembers being at the protests and being "very cold and nervous." He was 26 years old and had just graduated from university with a degree in Journalism. "I was aware that what was happening was historical, it was a war, a conflict over land ownership, which 25 years later is still unresolved," he says. "We need to move away from outdated tourism models such as golf courses, diversify and not put all our eggs in one basket," he argues. "Nerja already had its golf course and they ended up building houses and a Mercadona, we have Baviera golf course in Vélez-Málaga just 20 minutes away", the journalist adds.