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Spain’s dying interior

In almost half of the country’s provinces, a third of inhabitants are aged 65 or over

Ángel Álvarez Gago holds out with his family in Aguilar de Anguita (Guadalajara). Ampliar foto
Ángel Álvarez Gago holds out with his family in Aguilar de Anguita (Guadalajara).

A new map is emerging of Spain’s interior, where a huge swathe of the country is slowly dying as a result of aging populations and migration to the cities. In 22 provinces, a third of inhabitants are already aged 65 or over, while the national average is 16.7 percent. When in 2005 demographer Francisco Zamora was asked to calculate how best the country could retain its population structure in 2050, the only answer he could come up with was for women to have 7.5 children each. A decade later, he says, “there is nothing to be done other than selective immigration.”

But Spain has already witnessed rapid immigration – around 6.5 million people have come into the country over the last 20 years – while the birth rate continues to fall, from 1.4 children per woman in 2008 to 1.27 in 2013.

And it is rural areas that are being hit hardest. For example, Aguilar de Anguita, a small community in Guadalajara province, around 140 kilometers northeast of Madrid. The village is just six kilometers from the main Madrid-Barcelona highway, but Ángel Álvarez Gago, his wife, and their two daughters, who run Casa Juan, a roadside restaurant, are among the last remaining inhabitants. The streets are clean and its houses well maintained, but the place is silent and empty. Take the road out of the village at night in the direction of Valencia, and for the next 50 kilometers until Molina de Aragón, the villages are all empty; the only light comes from street lamps.

Francisco Burillo, a professor of prehistory at Zaragoza University, has identified a swathe of land covering the interior of Valencia, along with part of Aragon, Castilla y León, and Castilla-La Mancha – an area twice the size of Belgium – where 614 communities have fewer than 100 inhabitants (there are only 566 similar communities in the rest of Spain). He points out that there are regions within this area, for example between Teruel, Cuenca and Guadalajara where the population density is just 1.63 inhabitants per square kilometer. He makes a comparison with Lapland, one of Europe’s least-populated areas. “There, 15.53 percent of the population is aged under 15, and 19.62 percent are aged over 65. Here, the figures are 7.33 percent and 32.05 percent respectively. In biological terms, this area is dead.”

“The Siberia of Spain”

With 257,000 inhabitants, Guadalajara, on Madrid’s northern border, is Spain’s fastest-growing province: its population has expanded by 64 percent since 1996. But the figure is deceptive: in some parts, the area has experienced significant depopulation.

“We are next door to Madrid, but 85 percent of our province is one of Spain’s most depopulated areas. We’re the Siberia of Spain,” says Jerónimo Lorente, spokesman for The Other Guadalajara, a civic movement trying to raise awareness of depopulation in the province. “We are battling to save our territory, and it’s a struggle to the death,” he says. “There aren’t many of us, and so we don’t have much political weight, so the politicians don’t take much notice of us.”

Luis Antonio Sáez, director of CEDDA, the Centre for the Study of Depopulation and Development in Rural Areas, says the only economically vibrant area of Guadalajara is the so-called Henares corridor, which runs into Madrid: “Remove that from the equation and the rest of the province is a wasteland.” Of Guadalajara’s 288 municipalities, 228 have fewer than 250 inhabitants, and 160 fewer than 100. More than 50 percent of the population is concentrated in three locations: Guadalajara, Azuqueca de Henares, and Alovera. Almost two thirds of its communities are undergoing population decline. Sáez blames politicians for not focusing sufficiently on the problem of population decline in the province.

Burillo has been trying to raise awareness of the dangers faced by areas such as his, but to little effect. One politician who is aware of the problem is Socialist Party senator Antonio Arrufat. He is also mayor of La Cerollera, whose population has grown from 87 to 112 since 2003. But the community now faces the closure of its school after two of seven children recently left.

He hopes to keep the school open by bringing in a family from Calanda, 25 kilometers away. “If a village loses its school and its bar, it’s headed for the mortuary,” he says. Arrufat heads a Senate commission that is looking into depopulation, but Francisco Zamora is skeptical that anything will be done to address the problem. “Spain has failed to put together a long-term plan, because no party wants to take the issue on, unlike in France, where governments of all parties are trying to find solutions.”

Luis Sáez, director of CEDDA, the Centre for the Study of Depopulation and Development in Rural Areas, says that pumping money into rural areas is not the solution. “The EU has shown that there is no correlation between more public investment and development,” he says.

Sáez belongs to a group of experts based at the University of Zaragoza that has studied the effects of immigration in the 22 provinces in Spain that experienced depopulation during the 1990s. The group looked at the impact of immigrants who arrived during two periods: between 1991 and 2000, and then between 2000 and 2008. The conclusion was that the immigration of the boom years did nothing to solve the problem, although it helped in some provinces. The group then looked at the data up to 2011: “It was clear that the provinces that had suffered depopulation between 2000 and 2008 continued to shrink, albeit at a slower pace, while there was continued population decline in those provinces that had recovered, but at half the pace they had during the boom years,” says Vicente Pinilla, who also took part in the survey, which was only published in English, given that no Spanish journal was interested.

Spain has failed to put together a long-term plan, because no party wants to take the issue on, unlike in France”

Francisco Zamora, demographer

The five provinces with the greatest population decline are Lugo and Ourense, in Galicia; Zamora, in Castilla y León; Teruel, in Aragon; and Asturias.

Lugo and Ourense are being hardest hit by depopulation, says Xoaquín Fernández Leiceaga, a lecturer at the University of Santiago and a regional Socialist Party deputy: “It would require net immigration of 20,000 women a year until 2050 to keep the birth rate stable.”

Fernández says Galicia faces a bleak future: “The region’s development will be reduced to the Atlantic coast, the rest will be countryside. Which may sound extreme, but it is clear that the population will be concentrated along the coast within 15 years. It won’t really be noticed, because the rural population is already inactive. There will be a forest industry, which will provide a little employment, and a few areas that will retain some economic activity, but basically, the interior will return to wilderness.”

Other experts share his pessimism. Julio Hernández Borge is an academic and heads the Unesco Chair in Migrations. He has identified 211 communities where more than 20 percent of the population is aged 65 or over, 168 where that figure is 30 percent, and 54 with 40 percent above retirement age; in three communities, half the population was 65 or over.

 Lugo and Ourense would need net immigration of 20,000 women a year until 2050 to keep the birth rate stable”

Xoaquín Fernández Leiceaga, lecturer and regional Socialist Party deputy

Such is the state of population decline in some areas of Galicia that a birth is a major news story: in the tiny community of Teixeira – population 400 – in mountainous northern Ourense, when Tomasina, the daughter of a recently arrived couple was born, the mayor told reporters he could recite the names of all the children in the village and outlying communities. Half of Teixeira’s population has reached retirement age.

The regional government of Galicia has launched a plan to revitalize the area’s rural interior, which includes measures such as television and press campaigns to encourage people to have children. Castilla y León says it has a plan, but is going to wait until the region’s GDP grows above 2.5 percent, which is unlikely to happen any time soon.

The economic crisis is not helping matters. Demographers say the majority of people who work in the countryside live in towns rather than rural communities. The villages will increasingly be a place to visit at the weekend, and will slowly die out as their populations age.