03 October 2011

Andorran National Crop

Andorra is hooked on tobacco, as a country and as a people. It’s the number one cash crop, and has been a staple of the country’s agriculture for the past hundred years. In the high farms, tobacco leaves dry in old wooden barns; along the main road, foreigners come to load up on cheap cartons. Smugglers and tobacco conglomerates, cigarette rollers and tax free shopping, counterfeiting and subsidies – they’re all part of the national fabric and on full display here in this tiny, mountain country.
Andorra has long had a serious aversion to taxation – especially on the goods it produces and on point of sale levies. Even before the countries on either side of its borders – France and Spain – began raising taxes on tobacco products, Andorra was the place to go for cheap electronics, perfume and alcohol. In recent years, as the price of cigarettes has gone up thirty percent in Spain and nearly a hundred percent in France, Andorra’s prices have remained fairly constant. The average price for a pack of Marlboros in the principality – €2.50 – is just two-thirds the Spanish average (€4.20) and only two-fifths the price in France (€5.8). Obviously, a lot of people come to Andorra for no reason other than to buy cigarettes – and the stores are more than willing to accommodate them. The new smoking ban in Spain and the existing one in France have only increased the number of people who cross the border for their fix - they're happy to be able to light up while they're at the bar.
All the tobacco plants have been harvested at this point in the year, and are drying in barns and sheds around the country, but a few straggly leaves remain in the dry earth - either missed or sprouted after the July crop was taken in. Along the valley, where the Gran Valira river crosses the country in a fast, direct line, there is a little flat land where some of the biggest fields lie. Because the local tobacco is now more expensive than the imported varieties from Virginia and Asia, the farming itself is kept alive largely through subsidies. Recently, some of the locally produced leaf has even been burned as waste, it's taste and quality deemed too rough for inclusion in the cigarettes made in the country.
Still, even before the recent price chasm between Andorra and the rest of Europe, farmers were growing tobacco. It’s not an easy place to grow anything – less than two percent of the country is arable – but the farmers needed a crop that they could sell, and there was a demand for untaxed tobacco as far back as the 1920’s and 30’s. Although neighboring countries weren’t appreciative, the Andorran government encouraged its poor farmers to cultivate the crop and quite a few cigar and cigarette makers set up shop in the country. At first, the companies were local; eventually large conglomerates began importing tobacco into the country to be processed and refined.
The Museu del Tabac, in Sant Julià de Lòria, is a private museum, operated by the Reig company in an old cigarette and cigar factory. We learned that it was privately operated only after the tour, when we asked. Not that it wasn’t a great museum – it was – but it glorified the industry a little more than we expected it to.
The Reig family operated one of the first tobacco companies in Andorra, opening the drying and rolling business in 1880. Although they produced some products under their own trademark, in the 1920's and 1930's Reig became prosperous by copying international brands and selling knockoff cigars and rolling tobacco at a lower price. This was common practice in the principality, apparently.
It's a fascinating museum, with a great tour system. A series of lights and voices leads the visitor through the exhibitions, highlighting one corner or another, spotlighting different objects or displays. It was engrossing, even if the voice acting was a little over-dramatic. Certainly one of the better presented collections we've seen on the trip, the Museum's message only began to seem strange at the end. A final room showed a collection of videos and a slick-voiced actor went over a few salient points: that there is some speculation that tobacco "might" be linked to disease, that it is now "open season on smokers," that French and Spanish protectionism is the cause of the enduring smuggling, and that the limits on tobacco exportation should be ignored.
In fact, tobacco smuggling is still widely practiced, and not only by individuals who try to sneak out a few more cartons than they're allowed. As recently as the nineties, billions of cigarettes were imported into the country from foreign producers, with very low import duty, to feed the local bootlegging industry. A few British companies were even investigated for - allegedly - exporting cigarettes to Andorra for the sole purpose of sneaking them back into Britain, thus bypassing the high levies imposed there. Of course, the Andorrans consider the smuggling a point of pride. Imagery of hardened mountain men with illicit backpacks, trekking by moonlight over the high passes, is part of the national folklore.
In one sense, Andorra has a right to feel proud of the customs bypassing. A small country, hemmed in on both sides by larger neighbors, with no airport or rail system, Andorra has almost no ability to set its own prices on goods produced there. Spain initially blocked EU membership for the little nation, and it is still denied Schengen status on account of its low taxes. With the ability to maintain a strong industry but limited options for taking advantage of that strength, Andorra feels that its being bullied. People here are proud of their status as a "smoker's destination," with bars and restaurants full of smoke and stores full of tobacco. It's a strange thing to hold onto, but, in a way, its also one of the most visible and emphatic displays of independence that we've come across.

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