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by Euro Reporter
2012-10-31 04:03:49
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2,000 sheep led through streets of Spain's capital

Spanish shepherds led a flock of more than 2,000 sheep through central Madrid on Sunday in defence of ancient grazing, migration and droving rights threatened by urban sprawl and modern agricultural practices. Many tourists and residents were surprised to see traffic cut to allow the ovine parade to bleat its way across some of Madrid's most upscale urban streets. The right to use droving routes that wind across land that was open fields and woodland before Madrid grew from a rural hamlet to the great metropolis it is today has existed since at least 1273.

Every year, a handful of shepherds defend the right and, following an age-old tradition, on Sunday paid 25 maravedis — coins first minted in the 11th century — to city hall to use the crossing. Shepherds have a right to use 78,000 miles (125,000 kilometres) of paths for seasonal livestock migrations from cool highland pastures in summer to warmer and more protected lowland grazing in winter. The movement is called transhumance and in Spain up until recently involved close to a million animals a year, mostly sheep and cattle.

Modern farming practices are however increasingly confining animals to barns, because shepherding is costly, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, which has been promoting the colourful annual Transhumance Fiesta in Madrid since 1994. Madrid became an important urban centre when King Philip II chose it as the capital of his vast empire in 1561. Some paths have been used for more than 800 years and modern-day Madrid has sprawled to engulf two north-south routes. One that crosses Puerta del Sol — Madrid's equivalent of New York's Times Square — dates back to 1372.

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Spain anti-austerity protests draw thousands

Several thousand people marched to Spain's parliament in an anti-austerity protest Saturday, but were held back from surrounding the building by metal rail barricades and a large police presence. The "Surround parliament" protest group had called on people to gather at Plaza de Espana and march on the legislature to express their opposition to spending cuts and tax hikes introduced by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government. Police on horseback and with dogs had earlier arrived at Neptuno fountain next to parliament in preparation for crowd control duties as the protesters marched 2.3 kilometres (1.4 miles) from the muster point. Protesters were accompanied along the route of the march by a strong police escort, including vans with reinforced windows. Demonstration organizers said protesters will be asked to hold a minute of silence with their backs turned on parliament to express their disapproval of government public sector cuts while offering financial support to ailing banks.

"And now they are going to give banks a bailout, rescue them as if they were princesses," said Alan Pipo, 70. "They should be put out on the streets, just like all those families who are being evicted from their homes because they are unable to keep up with mortgage payments." Thousands also marched in the Barcelona to protest education cuts in the north-eastern region of Catalonia. Earlier, about 3,000 off-duty police officers had also demonstrated to protest the government's austerity measures, including the cancellation of their Christmas bonuses. The police protest blocked one of the capital's central boulevards opposite the Interior Ministry. On-duty police officers watched as their off-duty colleagues demonstrated by throwing fireworks and chanting slogans. A demonstrator was injured when a firework he was set to throw exploded in his hand. Many protesters draped themselves in Spanish flags and added to the ear-splitting noise by blowing their police-issued whistles. Preparing for his return from a business promotion trip to India, King Juan Carlos told journalists that, "From outside, Spain looks better, you come away with a better image." He added, "Inside, you want to weep, it's all woes, but we have to overcome them."

Since being voted to office in general elections in November, Rajoy has hiked taxes, cut spending, including a wage-cut for civil servants, and introduced stinging labour reforms in a bid to persuade investors and international authorities that he can manage Spain's finances without the need for a full-blown bailout. However, Spain's public finances have been overwhelmed by the cost of rescuing some of its banks and regional governments, many of which have experienced heavy losses following a property sector crash in 2008. One Spaniard in four is unemployed as the economic crisis tightens its grip. The government is under pressure to seek aid to ease debts while the country sinks into its second recession in three years.

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Spain's empty highways lead to bankruptcy

At the Leganes toll booth outside Madrid, the workers scan the horizon for cars. In Spain's recession, the stream of paying drivers has slowed to a trickle and the toll road is all but bankrupt. Like the housing bubble, pumped up until it burst in 2008, and its speculation-funded phantom airports, the folly of Spain's road-building boom too is now being laid bare in vast stretches of tarmac. "Right now we can't meet our debt repayments. We are in the hands of the judge," said Jose Antonio Lopez Casas, director of Accesos de Madrid, the company that manages two major highways around the capital. The two highways, Radial 3 and Radial 5, opened in 2004 at the height of Spain's construction boom. Now the company owes 660 million Euros ($850 million) to the bank, 340 million to the builders and 400 million to residents evicted to build it. Since the Madrid-Toledo highway entered bankruptcy proceedings in May, the trend has spread, with five other major routes following. "It's no surprise," says Paco Segura, a transport specialist at the environmental campaign group Ecologists in Action.

"In Spain, just as there was a real estate bubble, there was also a bubble in infrastructure, and one of the areas that got most developed was the motorways," he added. "We built thousands and thousands of kilometres of motorways on routes that did not have the traffic concentration to justify it." The craze drove Spain to break records: it became the country in Europe with the most kilometres of motorways and the most commercial international airports, and was second only to China in the world for the length of its high-speed train lines. But while the state was approving all these projects by private companies, it was also developing a network of toll-free highways, naturally preferred by drivers. In the first quarter of this year, with Spain in recession, motorway traffic fell 8.2 percent compared to a year earlier, hitting its lowest level since 1998, the transport ministry said. "Traffic around Madrid has fallen by between 15 and 20 percent in the past five years," Lopez said. "In our case it has fallen by much more," he said of his toll roads.

"The economic situation makes the cost of a toll road much more of a factor in deciding whether to take a route or not, when there is a free alternative of sufficient quality," said Jacobo Diaz, director of the Spanish Road Association. "The demand has clearly been overestimated. The actual volume of traffic is about a quarter of what was forecast." Ecologists in Action estimates the motorway between Madrid and the city of Toledo receives 11 percent of the traffic its developers expected. Around Madrid, meanwhile, "nearly all the motorways which are going bust are not getting 40 percent of the traffic they planned for when they were built," said Segura. On the Accesos de Madrid roads, "where there were supposed to be 35,000 vehicles a day, there are 10,000," said Lopez, who holds out little hope of state aid amid the wave of public spending cuts in the recession. "Too much infrastructure was built, no doubt about it. Much of it turned out to be no use," he said. "It has happened with the motorways, it has happened with the airports," said Lopez. "Sooner or later we will found it is happening with the high-speed trains."


       
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