Angry at austerity cuts, Greek farmers bring black-flag rally to Athens

ATHENS, Greece – Farmers from across Greece travelled to central Athens on Tuesday, waving black flags to protest austerity cuts that the country’s rescue lenders say must be completed quickly.

About 3,000 farmers gathered outside the Agriculture Ministry, travelling from as far as the island of Crete to attend the demonstration against new tax reforms introduced by the conservative-led government, which is struggling to broaden the tax base to make up for weak revenues.

“The problem is that we no longer make enough money to support our families,” Panagiotis Giogas, a peach and asparagus farmer from the northern town of Pella, said as he stood near a group of farmers who made their black flags out of garbage bags.

“We are taxing everything now. It takes a month’s income just to fill up the tractor with gasoline,” said Giogas, who joined the peaceful rally.

“My father and grandfather worked the same land that I do. But farmers will have to sell their land. It’ll turn the country into one with many (people) making great produce into one of a few making mediocre produce.”

Greece has one of the largest farming workforces in Europe, relative to its population, at 12.4 per cent of the workforce, compared to the eurozone average of 3.5 per cent and EU average of 5 per cent, according to 2011 data from Eurostat, the EU statistics agency.

A series of tax exemptions have been scrapped for farmers under the latest reforms that took effect this year and were demanded by the eurozone and International Monetary Fund in exchange for rescue loans that have kept the country afloat for nearly three years.

Chanting “Farmers fight back. They’re drinking our blood,” the protesters marched to parliament before the rally ended peacefully.

The Athens rally follows a three-week campaign of sporadic highway blockades that failed to win the protesters any major concession from the government.

The bailout funds are worth a total of €240 billion ($312 billion) — greater than the size of the country’s annual gross domestic product, which is about €200 billion. National debt continues to rise and is expected to exceed €330 billion in 2013 despite a major restructuring of privately-held debt last year.

Late Monday, finance ministers from the 17-nation Eurozone expressed satisfaction that fiscal targets set for early this year had been met but called “on the Greek authorities to keep the reform momentum.”