THE DRAGON FESTIVAL
The lush cultivated foothills on the south side of Spain's Sierra Nevada has been a cultural melting pot for centuries, if not millennia. The Romans, Berbers and Moors have all clearly left their mark.
The town of Orgiva (a garrison town that marked the front line throughout the Spanish Civil War) is now renowned for its alternative 'hippy' scene. At least since General Franco’s death in the mid seventies, people just wanting to get away from it all have been charmed by the area's laid back vibe.
Some horse loving Israelis arrived in the eighties, squatting the now long standing community of El Morreon to the West and South of Orgiva. Soon after, sun seekers from Tally Valley in Wales spawned the tipi village community of Beneficio to the North of Orgiva. On the South side of the Orgiva valley a tiny hamlet called Los Cigarrones (which had long since lost it’s original occupants) had been an alternative community since the late seventies, when some English university graduates bought land and property, and started to renovate the original buildings. Others followed. This place was already a permaculture dream with lots of sunshine and an efficient irrigation system, put in place by the Moors centuries before. Things were fairly quiet until about 1987 when 'new age' travellers, tired of Britain and its Criminal Justice Bill began parking up in the still green fields below Cigarrones village. From the early nineties onwards it became a favourite stop off for travelling party crews, Total Resistance being regular visitors.
In 1996, flooding washed away a huge swath of land in Cigarrones, clearing the way for a much bigger gathering. On March 14th 1997 a huge sail depicting a jolly dragon was raised in Cigarrones and the now famous Dragon Festival was born. The hundred or so people present could never of imagined that by 2001 nearly 10,000 people would attend with estimates of as many as 20,000 a few years later.
Although the majority of people who had bought land at Cigarrones were party to the festival, the idea of so many people turning up for a 'wild weekend' which on occasions sometimes continued for weeks, inevitably caused some rifts in the community.
Police presence had been virtually nonexistent but by 2002 the festival's increasing size was causing attracting the attention of the local Partido Popular (PP - centre-right) majority council. The Mayor placed a prohibition order on the festival and called in police reinforcements in order to create a noticeable police presence. The authorities' aggressive stance effectively changed the mood of the event. The whole site was in fear of impending police violence since guns had been raised and shots had been fired into the air. Gone was the festival's calmness but some hardcore sound system crews chose to knuckle down and turn up the techno music.
The Dragon Festival was causing a national media stir, firstly because banning a fiesta in Andalucia was simply unheard of but mostly because, sadly, two people had died at a previous festival, which only added fuel to the anti-festival rhetoric.
In 2003 an attempt was made by the authorities to prevent the festival taking place. Two mounted divisions of Policia National and hundreds of Guardia Civil were deployed. However, the impending Iraq war gave voice to the festival's call for peace. For several weeks, residents from the festival site, daily dressed in pink and sang their way to the police line to offer the police tea and cakes. The effect was spectacular, clearly making a mockery of the heavy handedness of the authorities' stance. On the eve of the festival (ironically, also the eve of the Iraq invasion) the police stepped aside, allowing the festival to take place.
It was a monumental moment as senior residents from the village opposed to the police presence threw their hats in the air screaming "Never since the death of Franco."
The hippies had beaten the Spanish state and the festival was buzzing with a sense of empowerment.
In January 2004 a Spanish family opposed to the festival who own land on the festival site, drove up the river bed, intent on opening a new open cast quarry. They had been refused permission twice previously. They intended to supply materials for the area's e.e.c. development projects and had been making threats to anyone they thought might oppose their plans.
The local community was outraged and began a peaceful blockade of their operation. Immediately the authorities appeared to seize on the opportunity to identify who they thought were Dragon Festival organisers amongst the protesters when riot police arrived and made four arrests of people they knew to be involved in staging the festival. The charges were based on causing obstruction of a legal works, criminal damage and assault. Two of the accused absconded with the other two deciding to fight the charges believing they wouldn't stand since the quarry works were illegal, the alleged criminal damage was no more than an earth moving vehicle's tyre being let down which somebody else openly admitted to and the only people who had been assaulted were the accused.
However, the cases weren't dropped and ran for several years with both the accused found guilty on all counts and were given a two year suspended jail sentence and fined 2000 Euros.
After years of dominance by large sound systems and dance culture, by 2005 the festival was becoming more confidently creative with more live events including theatre and a 'green' space. It was a turning point and for the next few years the festival gained momentum. The dominating hedonistic rave gave way to a more focused, conscious and even political dynamic.
Local elections brought a new Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE - centre-left) Mayoress to power who had previously been quite vocal about 'embracing' the Dragon Festival, however it was unanimously felt in the festival community that any interface with the local authorities was not the way to go since it could mean restrictive regulations and control.
2008 saw the largest Dragon Festival. Across Europe, unregulated gatherings on this scale had become a distant memory, so free-festival supporters everywhere
could perceive the festival as a last stand in the real free-festival tradition.
Over the years, a few members of the Cigarrones neighbourhood had made their opposition to the festival very clear by making complaints to the local council and gathering support from other villages close by. This polarity of opinion had not been missed by the authorities and individuals in the Policia Local. Divide and conquer tactics had been used in the past but a real working plan had not yet manifested.
The anti-festival lobby formed an exclusive Cigarrones Neighbours Association and began talking about tree planting projects. It was clear to the rest of the community that this council backed 'green wash' had more to do with eradicating the Cigarrones travellers and festival site and stopping the festival than any ecological issues.
Early in 2009 one Policia Local known for his opposition to the Dragon Festival arrived on site with a huge earth moving vehicle and support from the Guardia Civil. They proceeded to excavate holes two metres deep and two metres wide across the entire festival site, claiming they were for a tree planting project. Meanwhile the anti-festival Cigarrones Neighbours Association was asking known anti-festival land owners for authorisation to plant trees on their land. More than two thousand holes were excavated across public land making it impossible to park anywhere, so if there was to be a 2009 Dragon Festival it would only be possible on the relatively small areas of pro-festival owners' land left without holes.
Two days before the 2009 Spring Equinox a prohibition order was posted at the local petrol station proclaiming a ban on the Dragon Festival on grounds of health and safety and that anyone found organising the event would be charged and if convicted, receive hefty fines.
People were arriving in Cigarrones for the festival, but mainly people who had reacted to the heavy handed attack on their perceived liberty, with rather less of the weekend ravers from previous years. They formed themselves into a column and marched past the Guardia Civil determined to party on whatever space there was left without holes! Within days, seven pro-festival land owners received paperwork telling them they had been found guilty on an 'administrative' charge (ie.. ignoring a local authorities' ban) and had each been fined the sum of thirty thousand and fifty euros and sixty one cents. Failure to pay would of course mean the seizure of any assets, including their land.
Those charged have taken their case to the Crown Court in Granada questioning what appears to be the local council's calculated strategy against the Dragon Festival. However, nothing was done to enforce the ban on the festival in 2009 so in their defence, these land owners could have done little themselves to stop it even if they had wanted to.
The long wet winter of 2009/2010 once again flooded Cigarrones, filling in most of the holes and cutting off access, effectively stopping any large gathering in 2010.
The court cases go on.
To date, benefit events and donations from supporters has paid off 3,000 Euros of the 10,000 Euros legal fees.
The Dragon Festival cut its own path and will always be there as a forum for freedom and self expression. A few spirited people from Cigarrones cannot take sole responsibility for something so phenomenal and involved everybody who attended over the years. These people now desperately need your support.