“My grandmother used to say to me: ‘You’re living just at the right time’,” says Rosa Arranz. She is standing by a barn on her pig farm on the plains of Segovia, in central Spain.
“She meant that things were easy for us. You could have a car, study, travel around,” she adds. “Her generation had to work incredibly hard, in terrible conditions.”
But Rosa, who is 57 and grew up in this wind-swept, agricultural area, says that now, after years of decline, it’s hard to be optimistic about the future.
“I see that my children are probably going to have more difficulty in having a life in the countryside that is more or less fair and decent compared to that of their father and me,” she says.
This area is part of what is known as la España vaciada, or “empty Spain”, the vast swathes of land far from the country’s built-up coastline and larger towns and cities. The inland regions of Extremadura, Castilla la Mancha, Aragón and Castilla y León, where Segovia is, are those most commonly associated with the concept of empty Spain.
After years of simmering discontent at depopulation and lack of investment, the people who inhabit these areas have become an influential social and political force.
Spain’s territorial disparity began during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, as workers migrated from rural areas to Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao and other cities. The phenomenon continued following Spain’s return to democracy in the late 1970s. EU membership saw European funds pumped into infrastructure such as the high-speed rail network, now the world’s second largest after China. But many of those who live in the countryside felt left behind. Olombrada, the village where Rosa Arranz lives, is nearly an hour from the nearest railway station.
“There’s only one bus going out of the village each day and it doesn’t come back again until nighttime so you have to spend the whole day out,” says Sandra Rodríguez, who sells fruit and vegetables in a stall in Olombrada’s main square. “The services need to improve.”
“The problem is that the young people don’t stay here,” says Ricardo San Antolín, another local. “There’s no work for young people, so we have more and more old people and the villages become emptier and emptier.”
Poorly maintained roads and lack of internet are other common problems in these areas.
A protest movement, España Vaciada, sprang up in response to such complaints, organising demonstrations and campaigning for attention from policymakers.
A shared anger among inhabitants across Spain’s rural areas who otherwise would not have a great deal in common has erased “the cultural, historical, economic and political differences between all these places”, said Sergio del Molino, an essayist who has written extensively about empty Spain. “Right now, what unites them is a sense of grievance and being ignored.”
There’s no work for young people, so we have more and more old people and the villages become emptier and emptier
“Spaniards in general have realised this is a problem,” says Tomás Guitarte, Teruel Existe’s member of parliament, speaking outside the Congress building in Madrid. “Now there is a broad social and political consensus in Spain about this problem that we have been denouncing for years, about the territorial inequality and the idea that the model of development that Spain has been pursuing is wrong.”
That consensus has been bolstered by statistics which show Spain to be a demographic outlier in Western Europe. Official data shows that 90 per cent of Spaniards now live in just 30 percent of their country’s territory. Just over 40 percent of all towns in Spain are at risk of depopulation.
A family portrait of former villagers is displayed on a facade in the abandoned Galician village of Bexan as part of a photography exhibition on rural depopulation. Photograph: Miguel Riopa/AFP via Getty Images
Teruel Existe’s success, along with the pandemic, meanwhile, seems to have encouraged a surge in interest in rural Spain. Since the country’s tight lockdown in 2020, it is more common to see city dwellers head to the countryside at the weekend. The news media takes a much keener interest in life outside the big cities, which is also now more likely to trend on social media – Tractorista de Castilla, the Twitter handle of a tractor driver from northern Spain, has thousands of followers who admire his photos of ploughed fields and rural cloudscapes.
Guitarte says that having a political voice means that the people of empty Spain are now finally being heard.
“As a social movement we realised that we had reached a ceiling, so to speak, and we couldn’t go any further,” he says. “The fact we are now inside the institutions means that we are there negotiating when the government takes action.”
As proof of this new-found influence, he points to the central government’s pledge earlier this year to invest €10 billion in fighting depopulation and territorial inequality.
Nonetheless, the protests continue with farmers, in particular, upset at spiralling costs which are making it increasingly difficult to maintain profit margins. Some observers have speculated that the empty Spain movement could develop into something akin to France’s yellow vests, whose sometimes violent protests shook that country’s government before the pandemic.
Guitarte plays down such comparisons and the obvious goal now for him and his allies is the next general election, which is slated for 2023 but could come earlier. Despite all the obstacles rural Spain has faced over the decades, the electoral system is not one of them. It gives more weight to votes cast in sparsely populated areas than those in larger towns and cities, raising the likelihood that rural Spain could soon enjoy a more powerful parliamentary presence.
On her pig farm, Rosa Arranz hopes that a reckoning is approaching.
“It’s been a very short-sighted vision on the part of Spain’s politicians,” she says. “They should have realised 30 years ago that if this situation was not tackled it would just get worse.”
“We need cities, but we also need the countryside,” she adds. “We can’t have one without the other.”