MADRID – In the year 1525, when the northeastern Spanish village of Sarnago was the largest exporter of wool to Europe, its inhabitants would have found it hard to believe that one day only cold mountain air would drift through its streets that were once so full of life.
At that time, when more than three million sheep would graze around Sarnago, depopulation was a remote concept and nothing would have predicted the end of a village that lost its last resident in 1976.
He was called Aurelio, and with his death, life in the village took its last breath.
But the village in Soria province has now recovered its pulse thanks to the children of the inhabitants who once had to leave their roots seeking a brighter future in other parts of the country or beyond.
Sarnago is a mirror of a depopulated Soria – currently the province with the lowest demographic index in Spain with a population density of 8 inhabitants per square kilometer – that refuses to disappear.
But it is also a mirror of other rural areas in Spain, which over the past 10 years have lost a quarter of a million inhabitants.
While the country as a whole saw its population double over the course of the 20th century, Castille and Leon, the region to which Sarnago belongs, grew slowly and has maintained the trend of losing inhabitants since 1960, even after political and economical changes.
“We are talking about an almost deserted area. We are the last stage of the population in this country,” president of the Provincial Council of Soria, Luis Rey told EFE.
“We are talking about an ageing population and we are an example of what could happen in other places in this country,” he added.
In fact, Castille and Leon holds the top spot in Europe for the majority of its population being aged over 80, according to Eurostat data given by the Fundacion Renacimiento Demografico (Demographic Renaissance Foundation).
The population crisis in Spain is a consequence of the re-industrialization of the country, which focused on major seaports and the main provincial cities and led to the migration of a large part of the population of rural areas.
The crisis put an end to populations in places like Sarnago, which now has an association of friends and descendants of the first and second generation who are work to recover the village, “because it is something that we owe to our ancestors.”
Jose Maria Carrascosa, president of the Sarnago Association of Friends told EFE that it was “very brave” for the first generation to return to the village, considering that if they had not returned in the first few years they never would.
The association was set up 30 years ago and has restored 24 houses with a budget that essentially came from their own personal finances.
“Our budget is tight, but it keeps our hopes alive,” said Carrascosa, 53, who believes firmly that to repopulate the area “one has to have another approach,” and stop thinking about how people lived in the past.
Internet and new technologies have become a second opportunity for the rural world.
“With the second generation we have a new opportunity to repopulate these areas, although at first it could be as second homes,” Carrascosa said, adding that if residents get used to the place they could decide to go and live there for good.
THE FIGHT OF THE NEXT GENERATIONS
Brought together by the platform “Soria Ya!” (Soria Now!), more than 30 young people have picked up the generational baton and dedicate their spare time to fighting for a better distribution of European social funds in order to save their settlement and province from disappearing.
Social media has become a strong ally in the fight that they would on Sunday bring to the Spanish capital Madrid along with members of Teruel Existe (Teruel Exists) and another 73 associations that represent 22 regions at the demonstration under the slogan “Revuelta por la España vaciada” (“Revolt for emptied Spain”).
“We felt the need to take on this fight so Soria province does not disappear. We are in a very critical situation,” spokesperson of Soria Ya, Fernando Arevalo Jimenez, told EFE.
A lack of opportunities for young people and little or no investment in industry, infrastructure, services and social rights such as healthcare have contributed to the dwindling of the province’s population from 164,000 in the 1950s to 89,000 at present.
The spokesperson said Soria wants and has future and funds needed to get to where they were needed.
“We denounce that until now European funds generated through the autonomous communities have not been distributed well, have not reached us here,” he said.
DEPOPULATION OF THE CITIES
Depopulation is now not uniquely associated with rural areas but has also become a generalized phenomenon that affects small and medium cities around Spain.
Nearly 63 percent of Spanish cities with a population of between 20,000-50,000 – with 39,171 people living in Soria – have seen their populations decrease since 2011, according to a recent report about depopulation in Spain.
“To change this we need political measures and a clear map of needs,” said Carlos Martinez, mayor of Soria.
He said it was a “very complex” challenge because depopulation was a consequence of “some absolutely wrong public policies, which have prioritized investment in certain regions, leaving others to luck.”
“We are now aware that depopulation is a problem that affects the whole of Spain and the whole of the European Union,” he added.
VILLAGERS TAKE TO THE CAPITAL
Sunday’s protest in Madrid action brought together some 90 groups from 23 provinces of Spain that are facing depopulation.
The action, originally called by Soria Ya! (Soria Now!) and Teruel Existe (Teruel Exists), kicked off with a minute of silence for areas affected by population decline.
A spokesperson for Soria Ya!, Carlos Vallejo, told EFE he hoped the “sea of people eclipsed” the government ministers and political leaders who took part because “today is not their day.”
Two banners fronted the protest reading “The Revolt of Emptied Spain” and “Being few does not subtract rights,” in what was intended to show that depopulation on a national scale was a pressing issue that needed investment instead of promises that were never met.
“Words don’t count now, we need investment,” Vallejo said.
According to Spain’s national statistics institute (INE), up to 14 provinces were in a critical state, with around 80 percent of villages of less than 1,000 inhabitants at risk of dying out altogether.