Last year, the Centre for Demographic Studies of Barcelona’s Autonomous University (UAB) published a study that laid bare the severity of Spain’s rural depopulation by actually putting a figure on the number of municipalities at risk of disappearing.
Of the 5,000 villages and settlements studied, 4,200 of them were at risk of dying out and 1,840 of those were classified as undergoing irreversible depopulation.
The area demographic experts are calling the Lapland of the South – given the similarities in population density with Finland’s most northernmost region – encompasses large parts of Aragón, La Rioja, Castilla y León, Castilla La Mancha and Comunidad Valenciana.
Map showing the areas of Spain most affected by rural depopulation coloured in. Source: UAB
These are overall poorly connected areas with very few services and their few residents tend to be over 60.
“Emigration has lost steam and a very low birth rate and higher mortality due to ageing have become more important factors,” Joaquín Recaño, professor at the Department of Geography at UAB, said referring to his department’s findings.
“We have to choose between radical transformation and the risk of extinction.”
Residents of some of these villages have taken such warnings to heart and embarked on projects that look to breathe life into dwindling municipalities.
Adopt an Olive Tree
In the Aragon village of Oliete, which according to the 2016 census has just over 350 residents, depopulation led to more than 100,000 olive trees between the ages of 100 and 500 to being abandoned.
This inspired the campaign “Adopt an Olive Tree” which sees participants become a struggling olivo’s godparent for a small monthly contribution.
The project’s success has resulted in eight people being recruited to care for the trees, and there are now 11 new children growing up in Oliete, which in turn has prevented the village school from closing down.
“We would love to extend this model to other rural areas with depopulation, Alberto Alfonso, one of the co-founders of the initiative, told Spanish daily 20 minutos.
“We need firm proposals from the political parties, towns like Oliete in the so-called Lapland of the South are in intensive care so to say.
“If we do not take measures we won’t be able to save them.”
So far Adopt an Olive Tree has 2,500 sponsors which have helped to save 7,000 olive trees.
Supplies on wheels
Small villages in the area surrounding the north central city of Soria have had their supply problems resolved by Victoria Tortosa and Hugo Núñez.
They travel long distances with their vans to distribute food and manage dry cleaning, plumbing, shoe repair or maintenance, among many others amenities, to small settlements with poor transport links and services.
Dubbed La Exclusiva (The Exclusive), it’s a social logistics company that doesn’t have profit at the centre of its business model.
Photo: La Exclusiva
“We decided that the service will be paid by the supplier and not by the customer, so at the end of the month we charge all suppliers a percentage of the total sales volume,” explains Tortosa.
“Villagers place their orders with us, the suppliers prepare them and then we collect them and deliver them to our customers at home.
Due to its success, La Exclusiva now provides its services to villages around the city of Burgos, helping many many older people get by in their home, but also many young people, shops and rural hotels.
“We are four people working for the company but we reach some 570 villages and 10,000 families,”
Photo: La Exclusiva
New homes for immigrants
Alarmed by rural Spain’s shrinking rural population and by the shortage of job opportunities and integration for immigrants in the country’s large cities, social justice group Cepaim Foundation created a campaign called Nuevos Senderos (New Paths).
Its main goal is to locate job opportunities in Spain’s rural areas and offer them to struggling families from Spain or abroad.
Once they’ve selected the right family, Cepaim organizes a prior visit to the village in question, so that all parties involved know each other and agree to make the move.
They also follow up on families to make sure that they’re settling into their new rural environment.
'New Paths' has succeeded in integrating 88 family units (180 people) into sparsely populated municipalities across Spain.