Excellent article from El Pais this Sunday on rural depopulation in Spain. Below is in part my rambling summary and in part my own thoughts on the subject.
The overall Spanish population is rising rapidly, and has recently topped 45 million people, confounding all predictions made just a few years ago. But, the only areas which are growing are those where immigration has reached. Parts of Spain, particularly in the West in the areas bordering Portugal, are still depopulating at an alarming rate. The provinces of Salamanca Leon, Zamora and Caceres have all lost people between 2006 and 2007. Orense, Lugo and Asturias are also in decline. The population of Salamanca fell by more 0.5 percent, though Guijuelo countered this trend with its role as a pole of regional development, attracting employment to the Iberian ham industry. In contrast, Zamora has been in freefall since 2000.
Professor Valantín Cabrero believes the problem is that Spain and Portugal “have always lived with their backs to each other, and if it were not for EU aid, the area would be a desert”, in contrast to the border between France and Spain. “Here (along the Portuguese border) are now areas with a Siberian demography with four to five inhabitants”. Projects have to struggle against decades of decline, heightened, historically, by dictatorship on both sides of the border. The young left these village en masse in the 1960s. Ever since they have been slowly dying. With thousands of villages all across Spain now populated by just a handful of old people, within ten years many will become ghost settlements, only visited by returning emigrants in the summer months. This will also have a huge effect on the landscapes and ecologies of the areas surrounding them, as many of these elderly people still work as small-holder farmers, cutting back scrub, keeping fields open. In many cases, they are the last of tradition dating back 2000 years.
In addition to promoting immigration, Cabrero believes the old La Plata railway should be reopened. “It would help save energy and reactivate the economy”. In contrast, waxing geographically as these people do, “autovias are tunnels of passage between faraway spaces”. Building roads in an area without people will not, in itself, attract them to move back, although it might increase day trippers.
One of the greatest problems of the rural world is the absence of county-wide policies, which are capable of organising and planning macro areas. Each village functions as its own microcosm, its own mini-republic, if you were. This is killing the rural world.
Another way forward is that provided by the new project, RUNA, organised by the Fundación Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente, which seeks to combine rural life with the natural world, and hand back the custody of the latter to the people who live in isolated rural areas, and who, by accident or design, over the centuries managed to foster such a rich biodiversity. This is to be a partnership between those who live and work in the rural world (farmers, hunters, foresters, etc) and those who work in natural history (biologists, wardens and environmentalists), turning biodiversity into an economic asset which can foster sustainable development and bring young people back. Benigno Varillas, founder of Quercus, and the person in charge of the project notes, ”The rural as we know it is coming to an end. It needs reconversion… Nature conservation stands at a crossroads… As the rural population grows older and EU money dries up, the rural world must change…”(Fapas/LNE).
The forum as ever has lots of interesting things to say about this topic. Here’s Simon for example:
“I saw the issue on the TV news the other day and that article is really interesting. I think one key point is the frontier issue which. The same applied to our ‘comarca’, which lies on the border bewteen Catalonia and Aragon, we certainly feel very forgotten – there’s even a local refrain “Catalunya se termine a Camarasa” (you’ll have to look this up on the map to see what I mean, look out the huge natural barrier of the Sierra de Montsec and Tremp nestling in its basin beyond) we certainly used to feel very left out until new roads came in. Now there are lots of ‘Novas’ from Barcelona but still a general downward trend in population.”