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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 September, 2003, 18:12 GMT 19:12 UK
EU subsidies kill Albanian farms
By Tim Franks
BBC Europe correspondent, Albania

Orange groves laid waste
Barren orange groves in Stjar once bore fruit
Delvina, a bumpy, scorching seven-hour drive south of Tirana, was once filled with the colours of citrus groves.

They still talk proudly of the time, more than 40 years ago, when the Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev came to this very spot to plant an orange tree.

But now, other than the odd patch, this land has gone to waste.

The farmers have given up, their children have left, the fields and livelihoods have been squeezed dry.

Andon Vasili is one of the few left. He is 67 years old and lives on his own, his children gone abroad.

I make very little money, because the market is filled with Greek products
Andon Vasili, farmer
He showed me round the scrap of land that he cultivates.

"This is a citrus grove: oranges and citrus fruit. I sell them but I make very little money, because the market is filled with Greek products," he said.

"And that's where my children are, they are working in Greece.

"They have no proper papers and that means I cannot see them and they cannot see me. They've left to build a better life; they have nothing to do here. It's difficult, really difficult.''

Unequal fight

And the reasons that there is such an unequal fight between Greek and Albanian farming?

map of Albania
Well, you can blame endemic poverty, decades of barmy communism, a hopeless infrastructure.

Those are all true. But there's also the 40-billion-euro Common Agricultural Policy: the vast system of subsidies that bankrolls European Union Agriculture.

Even where Albanian farmers are doing their best to mimic Greek farming methods, they are finding it almost unbearably tough.

On a farm in Xare, the fruit growers have joined forces to buy heavy equipment and to cultivate on a bigger scale.

Albania was self-sufficient in oranges in 1990
Orange production dropped by 80% between 1990 and 2001
Albania now imports 91% of its oranges from Greece and Italy
EU orange exports are generously subsidised
Many Albanians now work on Greek orange farms
Cheap Albanian labour keeps Greek farmers' costs low
Lefter Rubie told me that Greek watermelons sell at a wholesale price of three cents a kilo.

He has to make nine cents a kilo just to cover his costs.

Only the heavy rainfall in northern Greece helped to sell his crop this year.

''This year I planted three hectares instead of 10. I was scared that we would go bankrupt and get ruined by the Greek competition," he said.

"However, next year we will risk it again. We will plant, because we have to surivive.''

Border controls

The European Union does give Albania some financial help - around 60 million euros a year.

People will go somewhere for a better living if they don't have resources or support
Manuela Meci, Oxfam
But a lot of that money goes toward financing the EU's big concern of the moment - the fight against illegal migration.

In Albania, where hundreds of thousands have left over the past few years, that means toughening border controls.

Manuela Meci from Oxfam's office in Tirana says that is a touch ironic, given how subsidised produce in the EU is stifling so many Albanian livelihoods.

Lefter Rubie attending his citrus grove
Lefter Rubie risks bankruptcy every year
''Of course what do you expect of people - to stay here and starve? They will go somewhere for a better living if they don't have resources or support.''

There may in the future be one solution to the poverty in the Albanian countryside.

When you look out over the country's gorgeous coastline, you see the possibility of tourism bringing some money into this painfully poor country.

That will take years yet, as will the distant prospect of European Union membership.

Most Albanians are keen on joining, but at the same time many blame the EU now for adding to their ills.

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