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Why are the Basques so Angry with Spain?

Separatist movements and cultural opportunities for the tourist


dried chilies in basque country picture

Basque Country Symbols: Dried Peppers, cured ham, and chile-red shutters.

James Martin

Basque separatists have been thrust to the forefront of the news recently, linked politically--and wrongly it seems--to horrific bombings in Madrid. Although radical separatist groups threaten tourism, it's sometimes difficult for the hardcore traveler to avoid stepping on ground fertile for separatist movements--the widespread Sardinian and Corsican independence movements in the Mediterranean come to mind, or the intrepid traveler might become acquainted with the Sami, a once nomadic culture of reindeer herders looking for autonomy in Lapland. To be sure, there are many others--the Advocates for Kosova Independence (AKI) web site lists 20 separatist organizations for Great Britain alone.

It's sometimes difficult for us in the US to fathom why people in Europe would desire independence from their governments--despite the fact that US soil was once home to a powerful independence movement that rejected the governance of Great Britain--at the time the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world. This act of defiance spawned the Declaration of Independence, a prototypical document that still inspires independence movements throughout the world today.

Where do these separatist movements come from? What is common among them that causes their anger and unrest? And finally, what's in it for the traveler?

In our four examples, Basque, Sardinia, Corsica and Sami Laplanders--some common traits are obvious:

  • They live in relative isolation
  • Their economic roots are in nomadic herding of animals, sheep and reindeer
  • They live in marginal agricultural resource areas
  • Their isolation has allowed them to retain their own language and develop their own culture over a long period of time

These characteristics make these cultures less attractive to both outside invaders and to the governments who've made attempts to assimilate them. Isolation creates grounds for the development of long standing and unique moral and legal codes specifically fitting a particular culture.

Herding may be more key to these issues than you think. The ideal of the good shepherd provides a commonly invoked religious (and occasional governmental) metaphor. Furthermore, anthropologists will point out that herding cultures have much closer ties to religion and spirituality than farming cultures. The Bible seems to affirm this view as the first farmer out of Eden (Cain) becomes jealous enough of the offerings of the first herdsman (his brother Abel) to kill him. It's easy to see how Cain might have gotten frustrated. The herdsman's moral values and effort are far more closely tied to results--the good shepherd who nurtures his flock, provides care to the sick and weakened, and protects his charge from predators can expect healthy rewards for his effort, while the farmer may do everything right and--wham!--a flock of locusts comes and eats the lot.

Herding cultures find their traditions and cultural values reflected in the very work they do, and their isolation requires them to add a localized system of justice that protects the kind of property a nomadic people would find valuable. These traditions are different from their neighbors, and closely tied to the unique landscape they inhabit. Think frontier justice if you wish, with a background of mistrust of the outsider.

So What happened to Herding? Where did the conflicts begin?

The short answer is land ownership. Herding is a nomadic occupation closely tied to seasonal changes in vegetation. Once there is enough technological development to move farming from the gardening stage practiced by Cain to full scale agriculture, farms grow and begin encroaching on traditional migration routes. As governments get larger and more complex, they favor land ownership and farming for administrative (read tax) reasons--and eventually the nomadic herder and his culture gets marginalized.

I've painted these scenarios with a very broad brush, but the fact is that people desiring independence seek the same things as most of the rest of us: representation in government (or, better yet, a government of their own), a reasonable way to make a living, and the freedom to express themselves in art, speech (in their native language), and traditional celebrations.

Governments are just now beginning to make concessions toward this end. Basques in Spain currently have a great degree of autonomy (in contrast, especially, with Basques living in France). The movement in Sardinia is largely peaceful, and independence parties commonly get elected to local offices. Sweden formally apologized in 1998 for wrongs committed against the Sami and now recognize Sami as a minority language.

What does all this mean for the traveler? Click next to find out.

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