DEPOPULATION

How remote work is bringing life back to Spain’s rural villages

Small communities are trying to attract residents with initiatives focused on improving internet connection and cheap renewable energy

Rafael Cuesta in Castilfrío in Soria province.
Rafael Cuesta in Castilfrío in Soria province.Ignacio Izquierdo

The province of Soria in the north-central region of Castilla y León epitomizes the depopulation crisis in Spain. More than 50% of those born in the province now live outside it, according to the National Statistics Institute (INE). A journey through Soria pays testament to this: its villages are in decline and any vestiges of life are just due to the temporary influx of visitors over the summer vacations. In some comarcas – an administrative district in parts of Spain – there are fewer than two residents per square kilometer, similar to Lapland.

Locals in the village of Sarnago.
Locals in the village of Sarnago.Ignacio Izquierdo

It’s a similar story in the village of Sarnago, which is home to just seven people. But that’s still quite a feat given the village was abandoned in 1979. Now the association Amigos de Sarnago (Friends of Sarnago) is trying to revive the community with initiatives focused on digital development and renewable energy – a move other rural villages in Spain are slowly turning to.

José María Carrascosa was born in Sarnago but left when he was three years old. Now, at age 57, he is back and wants to promote the village, which boasts an ethnographic museum and an old school that has been converted into a workplace with a good internet connection where people can work remotely for free. According to María Carrascosa, a common problem for villages in Spain is the number of homes that are abandoned or left in disrepair. In these cases, the owners do not look after the properties nor do they get rid of them to allow new residents to take up home.

“The idea is to fight so that we have residents 365 days of the year,” says Carrascosa, adding that the village is perfect for anyone studying for exams to enter government service or needing to take video calls without interruptions.

The village of Sarnago, which is home to seven residents.
The village of Sarnago, which is home to seven residents.Ignacio Izquierdo

Amigos de Sarnago, which was founded 30 years ago, is also planning on reforming a space so that it can be used for affordable public housing. The organization sells a magazine to its more than 200 members across Spain who fund the project. All earnings are reinvested back into the community in initiatives such as paving roads. “I was born here and we have to give it back life,” says Milagros Jiménez, a 72-year-old resident of Sarnago.

Sarnago is not the only Spanish village fighting against oblivion. According to a report from the Bank of Spain, which estimates the risk of depopulation in areas based on population density, growth and decline in the census, of the 8,131 municipalities recorded by the INE, 3,403 are in danger.

It’s a figure that worries Joaquín Alcalde, the president of the National Network of Welcoming Villages, an organization that coordinates municipalities at risk of depopulation and helps them with measures to attract new residents. “Since the pandemic, villages have been getting more attention. People have had the opportunity to see what it is like to work there,” he says, in reference to the rise of remote working during the coronavirus crisis.

According to Alcalde, the villages that belong to this organization, which is supported by national power grid operator Red Eléctrica de España, must have a “decent internet connection,” coworking spaces and good accommodation on offer. In this way, those who have come to visit – such as the dozens of British tourists who arrived this summer – could be persuaded into setting up there for good. “We are seeing proactivity from the villages,” he says.

Deputy mayor Tomás Cabezón charging an electric car at Castilfrío's station.
Deputy mayor Tomás Cabezón charging an electric car at Castilfrío's station.Ignacio Izquierdo

But Alberto del Rey, a sociologist from the University of Salamanca, warns that these initiatives, which historically have also included a baby bonus to the parents of a newborn child and government jobs, may not be enough. According to him, a village’s potential to grow also depends on its ability to attract tourists, proximity to larger hubs and even its economic model. Villages that focus on a site’s “unique characteristics,” such as its cultural heritage, legends, historic legacy and gastronomy have “the potential to turn the situation around,” says Del Rey. The expert worries that those villages that are more difficult to reach or cannot sell themselves face a less promising future.

For the village of Castilfrío in Soria, resisting depopulation is also about using all available resources, including renewable energy. This small community, which is home to just 27 residents, has charging stations for electric cars and solar panels in public buildings, which have helped to significantly bring down the cost of electricity. These savings have then been used to improve the internet connection and other services.

Rafael Cuesta has followed the village’s example and installed solar panels on the roof of his stone house. The 74-year-old decided to leave Madrid before the pandemic hit Spain and the health crisis confirmed his decision to move. He was especially lured by Castilfrío’s commitment to improving internet connections, which has been spearheaded by the village’s deputy mayor, Tomás Cabezón of the conservative Popular Party (PP). “It is a delight in all respects,” says Cuesta, adding that internet access is key to being able to work remotely without having to travel too frequently to the Spanish capital. A pilot project has also been launched in Castilfrío by Red Eléctrica de España, in which company employees may work remotely from the village.

The former health spa in Kuartango, Álava.
The former health spa in Kuartango, Álava.L. Rico / L. Rico

In Kuartango, a village of 441 people in Álava province in Spain’s Basque Country, there used to be a famous health spa. This enormous structure, dating back 150 years, was later used by an order of Salesian monks until it was abandoned in 1990. But the community rallied together to recover the space, according to Kurantango’s mayor, Eduardo Fernández of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV). Thanks to their efforts, the 5,000-square meter space is now home to a cider bar, a preserves factory and a coworking space, and it is also earmarked for social housing. According to Fernández, the project has brought “employment and visibility” to the village.

Iván del Caz, who manages a rural coworking office, is one of the people who will be moving into the old spa. His goal is to “create a laboratory of ideas.” Zuriñe Vigalondo, the head of the preserves business, is likewise “delighted” to be involved with the project. “It’s a very nice plan,” she says, adding that other villages with old buildings should consider reforming them as a way of addressing the depopulation crisis.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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