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  • Writer's pictureRob Gibson

Reclaiming our lands - Scots Basque cooperation March 2023

Updated: Feb 9




How goes rural revival in the Basque Lands?

Rob Gibson joins EH Bildu friends to share Scottish Highland repopulation strategies in March 2023 ahead of local elections


First. By way of introduction, in 2010 Scottish Highland athletes and traditional musicians hosted Basque sports and music in Inverness making a festival of Basque culture in the city’s Falcon Square. In return we were invited to visit Ordizia and Iruñea /Pamplona for a huge youth music festival and fundraising sports day for a cooperative Basque language school in October that year. These were badged Nazioen Munda – a world of nations. This would become a key part of the social movement of young Basques who helped show their determination to help end the ETA armed struggle. By 2012 political progress ushered in a more peaceful future for the four provinces communities that form Euskadi and Nafarroa/Navarra.


For two terms of the Scottish Parliament I was an MSP for the Highlands and Islands region followed by five years to 2016 MSP for Caithness Sutherland and Ross. I hosted delegations of Basque business people who visited Scotland to seek potential partners in renewables and other engineering work. My Basque contact Ander Larunbe also visited SNP conference as EH Bildu (EHB) the new party of Basque left nationalists gained traction in elections across the Basque lands.




Debating shared priorities


At the SNP annual conference in Aberdeen in October 2022 Ander suggested that our rural economies offer a compare and contrast opportunity ahead of the Basque local elections due in May 2023. I was asked by EHB international office in Bilbao to make a study tour in March this year of communities experiencing depopulation. From the foothills of the Pyrenees to the north bank of the River Ebro EHB is proposing a development model to fit local conditions.


Problems of depopulation and the solutions for rural areas with widely different climates were the themes of these joint talks. I brought the Scottish perspective to share platforms with local candidates in Nafarroa and Araba/Alava. Elections will take place on 28th May at municipal and provincial levels, throughout the Spanish state, including the four provinces of the southern Basque Country. In the case of Nafarroa, these equate to devolved parliamentary elections, as it is a single-province autonomous community.



Plans for the Pyrenees


More than 60% of Navarre’s municipalities are at risk of depopulation. In the Pyrenees only one 1% of Navarrese live for 15% of the territory. In contrast Iruñea and suburbs host 56%. Firstly we were briefed in Bilbao by the international team then drove to Iruñea to meet Miren Zabaleta, EH Bildu leader in Navarre to discuss political moves in our two nations to tackle these common problems.


Then we drove to Otsagabia, an attractive village high in the Pyrenees that draws tourists to walk, cycle and climb year round in the deeply wooded Zaraitzu/Salazar Valley. Amidst jagged limestone peaks and deep canyons Griffon vultures circle high overhead. A walk round the village was guided by a local EHB councillor. Among substantial old stone houses and around narrow winding streets we saw the age-old internal courtyards of livestock keeping families. The primary sector in such marginal terrain still accesses EU agri-environment support, unlike Scottish crofters thanks to Brexit. But can the area live off tourism as a main income and can younger people be attracted to stay or return?


The following morning at the valley townhall in nearby Ezkarotze I was joined by Adolfo Araiz, EHB member of the Nafarroa parliament. Around thirty local activists came along and asked us about the development strategy and how Highlands and Islands Enterprise works. Not a bad turnout on a bright sunny Saturday. Lola Eslava, a lead local candidate, who works as a staffer in Iruñea, is a native of Irunberri/Lumbier. It’s a small town which hosts a wind turbine blade factory, as Basque industry is often dispersed out of the old industrial port towns. As lead candidate for her town, potentially the new mayor, she has the key pledge from Nafarroa Parliament to build a secondary school at Irunberri which would mean senior pupils would not have to go 40 km or more to Iruñea to study for their baccalaureate. The opening of six year secondary schools on the Scottish north west coast had the same role in the 1980s to try to end the exodus of pupils at twelve years old to the large secondary schools in east coast communities like Dingwall, Inverness, Dornoch and Fort William.






Spending time around Iruñea


Later on Saturday 18th we took in the three final 6 Nations rugby in Baztan a packed, genuine Irish themed bar in Pamplona’s Kale Berria street in the old town. Eleanor and I had visited Pamplona for the San Fermin festival in July 2010, to see the famous bull run. This time in 2023 over the weekend we were able to visit around the oldest city in Nafarroa, originally founded by Pompey. We took coffees in the Café Iruna frequented by Heminway and tried to recall where we had seen the bulls running more than twelve years before.


Thanks to Ander Larunbe and his half Scots, half Basque family we had a guided tour of the hillside museum to leading Basque architect and sculptor Jorge Oteiza with Ander’s art history buff brother Harri who had worked previously at the museum. The concepts of the space within shapes was Oteiza’s major thesis.


Ander, his wife and their daughter have recently moved to a small village in the Basaburua municipality 35 km north west of Iruñea. We had a quiet weekend en famille away from a hectic political programme. Because so many of the vast woodlands of beech, oak and pine are owned by communities, there are many cooperative enterprises on the go. All residents can access firewood and building materials in carefully managed forests which are also home to deer and wild boar. Ancient oaks thereabouts are some of the oldest in Iberia. We also used this time to adapt my PowerPoint and script for the Araba audiences expected the following week.




Forward to Araba


On March 22nd EHB called a press conference in Vitoria-Gasteiz. At 11am seated in a meeting room above the smart modern market in Abastos Square, I joined Joseba Otondo, mayor of Baztan, Kike Fernández de Pinedo, outgoing EHB member of the Araba Province Parliament, and his likely successor Eva López de Arroyabe who outlined the EHB development agency plan.


Before lunch we strolled past the Basque Parliament set up in Gasteiz. It’s an attractive old town. Voted the most desirable place to live in Spain, Vitoria-Gasteiz is a bustling city of the size of Aberdeen. By chance we met several Basque Parliamentarians at a pavement cafe. One of them, Jasone Agirre Garitaonandia, is the EHB culture spokesperson whom I had met at a pre Covid SNP conference in said Aberdeen. She joined our informal folk session then in the Blue Lamp and enjoyed rousing Scottish rebel songs. Another, Julen Arzuaga, has worked with former MSP John Finnie on policing and justice matters.


Lunch in Euskadi and Navarre tends to be around 2pm or later. Pintxos/tapas and beer are taken about noon to whet the appetite. In Gasteiz our walk through the old streets to the restaurant Etxe Zaharra/Casa Vieja was no exception.




Much acclaimed salt


Later that afternoon we visited the Añana salt valley 30 km west of Gasteiz in one of the Highland valleys that display all the major symptoms of depopulation. Many small villages have aging and mainly male inhabitants. They are too small for social cohesion and action. The nearness of a large city and the rural poverty of limited livestock farming need urgent action.


EHB’s plan for the Oreka (Balance) Development Agency, a public-private partnership, aims to promote a culture of entrepreneurship. To work it is proposed to assess the potential, village by village, and seek to recover a sense of ‘rural pride’. There’s a need to cut across the unhelpful tangle of regulations. There are many similar focuses as addressed by HIE in Scotland. These include affordable infrastructure, affordable housing, education, health and social welfare as well as adequate connectivity such as broadband, a regulatory framework consistent with rural realities, capacity building to support new jobs that skilled workers would be attracted to.


A couple of dozen workers in Salinas de Añana nurture a remarkable example of local success. They revived and gradually repaired the ancient inland saltpans which have a 7,000 year history. Salt water springs from deep underground are channelled by wooden gullies to a huge series of salt pans raised on wooden tables along the valley sides and bottom. The salt preserves all the wood which we were told can last up to 500 years and the landscape looks pure white under the summer sun. Since 2012 the redevelopment of these unique saltpans has gained UN Heritage status as a living landscape which is championed by many gourmet chefs for the purity of the salt produced.


The landscape of raised wooden platforms, supporting the salt pans was the most remarkable sight. Our guide Edorta Loma, a municipal councillor for Gesaltza, gave us a half hour tour that visitors usually pay to enjoy for two hours. He was born in a hut on the valley slopes and has worked the salt for much of his life.


The evening meeting in the salt works gathering hall attracted around thirty local people including a senator of the PNV – the Christian-democrat, Basque Nationalist Party. Joseba, Kike, myself and Eva, made our case. On the subject of housing the senator described his attempts to get older people to sublet parts of their far too large old family houses but without success. Therefore the urgent need to attract more young people to the communities requires building new affordable homes and for the municipalities to make land available despite so many partly occupied and empty houses in the surrounding villages.



Rural tourist train


Thursday 23rd March saw our final day on means to counter rural depopulation in Araba. We drove south from Gasteiz to the driest parts of Euskadi via an innovative rural tourism project housed in former railway carriages at the village of Antoñana. A now defunct rail line begun in the1930s ran north to towards Arrasate / Mondragon and Bergara, linking the primary producing rural area with industrial Guipuzkoa where the rise of a complex of industrial cooperatives became world famous; alas too late for the local railway that closed in 1968 which exported farm produce and people in the main.


Celebrating a culinary homecoming


A real beacon of hope for rural enterprise was our next stop. Kanpezu/Santa Cruz de Campezo is the home village of Michelin Star chef Edorta Lamo. His father owned a pub there. Edorta explained how he learned his skills in the USA, then create a fusion restaurant in Donostia/San Sebastián the coastal resort on the Bay of Biscay of the Spanish elite.

He hankered to transform his own village taking the old pub into Arrea, a three tier restaurant complex. The locals can have a beer and eat basic local meals while gourmet food seekers can book to eat in this newly recognised Michelin star winner.


Edorta explained to us how he uses only local produce from within 20km of the village. So the highly praised salt from Salinas de Añana is too far away. He has a local source near Kanpezu. We arrived just as the Michelin Star plaques were attached to the restaurant door frame. For a small rural village the employment of locally-trained cooks and staff is a small miracle with a big sustainable impact. The six course tasting menu was culinary art and a pleasure to celebrate Edorta’s vision.



Rioja Alavesa – promoting excellence



We drove, some 20km south west in the shadow of jagged limestone mountains of Kantauri Mendillerroa which rise to 1400 m, a backdrop to the wine growing fields of Rioja Alavesa around Guardia/Laguardia in the driest area of the Basque lands. We passed by the dolmen near Billar en route.


The ancient walled town of Guardia on a promontory above the north slopes of vineyards stretching to the great River Ebro was a fortress against invasion from Castile. Further west Bastida/Labastida denotes the same defensive role. In the modern constitutional construct of seventeen devolved communities across Spain, La Rioja based around the town of Logroño had no historic existence before 1978. It abuts Araba and poses a major threat to ancient Alavesa vineyards and wineries around Guardia.


The superb wine produced for centuries in Rioja Alavesa from tempranillo and garnacha grapes is a target for the big rioja producers south of the Ebro to sate palates in larger markets. Old wineries are bought up. Small vineyards cannot compete in price with the big companies. It is an existential threat to Alavesa. The Spanish denominación de origen calificada – DOC covers Rioja as a whole. Any attempt to gain a separate Alavesa DOC would not only be resisted by the big producers but vetoed by Madrid as it would discriminate in favour of Basque wine, a no-no for the centralised Spanish state.


Our final local meeting held in the wine museum of Guardia attracted around thirty farmers, small wine makers and EHB activists. Then we drove to Samaniego another small town a few kilometres west above the Ebro on the peaceful boundary of Araba and La Rioja. In the narrow streets we passed a new and very swish bodega modernised with suitable accommodation by the Rothschild empire in recent years. A sure sign of incoming, big money investment.


The meeting in Guardia, where I joined Kike and Eva, heard responses from the floor concerning the plight of small producers. Each gathering hosted by EHB local activists had pinpointed key elements to be addressed by their proposed development board.




Heredad de Aduna


Later that evening we were joined by some of these concerned with grape production and wine making at Bodegas Heredad de Aduna, our final destination on the study tour. Founded in 1650, the ancient art of fine wine making was confirmed in a convivial Basque supper with samples of Aduna wines to lubricate the debate.


The technical director Fernando Martínez and his wife, herself the local mayor, left us in no doubt about the need to market Viñedos de Alava/Arabako Mahastiak as a priority in a competitive market. The well recognised qualities of their wines benefit from being grown at a higher altitude than rioja produced south of the Ebro. Nearby roads negotiate passes going north to Gasteiz at over 900m and production of grapes can be seen at up to 800m.




EH Bildu builds rural confidence


In each area I visited from the Pyrenees to Guardia the hard work of EH Bildu councillors and regional representatives is gaining voter trust. They attract new support for their practical economic, social and environmental plans. They are often the main opposition to right wing parties be they Basque or Spanish which have dominated politics before and since devolution.


Just a word about language and normalisation of political life in Euskadi and Nafarroa. As with many smaller nations with their own tongues the toll of global and social media plus urbanisation places many pressures on sustaining the popular use of Basque. It is a constant battle. Around a quarter of three million inhabitants of the four autonomous communities speak the language. The farther south into Araba the more Spanish is the norm. EH Bildu sees Basque language as a key marker of Basque identity and the nation’s future that's an economic and cultural plus.


Be wary and prosper – a Basque Lands watchword


Politically, the scars of ETA’s decades-long violent independence campaign are still felt. A long process of seeking the return of politically motivated prisoners to jails closer to home is evident. We witnessed a peaceful demonstration in the old town of Bilbao seeking an end to these prison sentences. EH Bildu and the Catalan left independence party Esquerra Republicana have played a key role in Madrid by supporting the slim majority of Pedro Sanchez PSOE government. The alternative to the right, Partido Popular and Vox, is extremely bad news for Basques and Catalans.


Some success in this regard shows the bulk of these prisoners are now in jails in their homeland and that painstaking negotiation with the organs of the Spanish state do work, however slowly. Also the memorialising of assassinated combatants from the Civil War and more recent conflict is giving reconciliation a step forward. For example DNA samples from bodies of assassinated people unearthed from hurriedly-dug graves offers lessons to the young and some comfort to older relatives who can match their DNA.


Treading warily is a Basque watchword. The poster in a small rural townhall in Nafarroa explains. Attached to the townhall wall are two flags. The Nafarroa flag is welcome. The Spanish one was always being torn down so the town council, which had to pay for a replacement each time it was vandalised, made this plea:


“It is said that flags are but pieces of cloth, nevertheless, represent feelings and belonging. In our valley of Basaburua we love our symbols, because we love our country, and we feel those pieces of cloth are our own.

We did not choose the flag flying on this townhall. As in the villages around us, they came from afar and made us put it up. May that piece of cloth express and represent, here in Basaburua denial and imposition.” Rob Gibson April 2023



A restaurant review in the FT Weekend Magazine focused on Restaurante Victor Montes in Bilbao. One of the outstanding visits on our recent study tour in Araba gets a plaudit.

See below.



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