How Remote Work Brings Life to Rural Spanish Villages | Society
The province of Soria, in the north-central region of Castilla y León, embodies the depopulation crisis in Spain. More than 50% of people born in the province now live outside it, according to the National Institute of Statistics (INE). A trip through Soria bears witness to this: its villages are in decline and all the faces of life are due only to the temporary influx of visitors during the summer holidays. In certain comarcas – an administrative district in parts of Spain – there are less than two inhabitants per square kilometer, as in Lapland.
It’s a similar story in the village of Sarnago, which is home to only seven people. But it is all the same an achievement considering the the village has been abandoned in 1979. Today, the Amigos de Sarnago (Friends of Sarnago) association tries to revive the community with initiatives focused on digital development and renewable energies – an initiative towards which other rural villages in Spain are joining. turn slowly.
José María Carrascosa was born in Sarnago but left at the age of three. Now, at 57, he is back and wants to promote the village, which has an ethnographic museum and an old school 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 houses abandoned or left in disrepair. In these cases, the owners do not look after the properties and do not get rid of them to allow new residents to settle in.
“The idea is to fight so that we have residents 365 days a year,” says Carrascosa, adding that the village is perfect for anyone preparing for exams to enter the civil service or having to make uninterrupted video calls.
Amigos de Sarnago, founded 30 years ago, also plans to reform a space so that it can be used for affordable social housing. The organization sells a magazine to its more than 200 members across Spain who fund the project. All profits are reinvested in the community in initiatives such as road paving. “I was born here and we have to bring it back to life,” says Milagros Jiménez, a 72-year-old resident of Sarnago.
Sarnago is not the only Spanish village to fight against oblivion. According to a report by the Bank of Spain, which estimates the risk of depopulation in areas according to the density, growth and decline of the population in the census, out of the 8,131 municipalities listed by the INE, 3,403 are in danger.
This is a figure that worries Joaquín Alcalde, president of the National Network of Host Villages, an organization that coordinates municipalities threatened with depopulation and helps them in measures to attract new residents. “Since the pandemic, villages have received more attention. People got to see what it’s like to work there, ”he says, referring to the rise of remote working during the coronavirus crisis.
According to Alcalde, the villages that belong to this organization, which is supported by the national electricity operator Red Eléctrica de España, must have a “decent internet connection”, coworking spaces and good accommodation. So those who have come to visit – like the dozens of British tourists arriving this summer – might be convinced to settle there for good. “We are seeing proactivity on the part of the villages,” he says.
But Alberto del Rey, a sociologist at the University of Salamanca, warns that these initiatives, which historically have also included a baby bonus to parents of a newborn and government jobs, may not be enough. According to him, the growth potential of a village also depends on its ability to attract tourists, its proximity to larger poles and even its economic model. Villages that focus on the “unique features” of a site, such as its cultural heritage, legends, historical heritage and gastronomy, have “the potential to turn the tide,” says Del Rey. The expert fears that villages that are harder to reach or that cannot sell themselves face a less promising future.
For the village of Castilfrío in Soria, resisting depopulation also means using all available resources, including renewable energies. This small town, which has only 27 inhabitants, has charging stations for electric cars and solar panels in public buildings, which has significantly reduced the cost of electricity. These savings were then used to improve internet connection and other services.
Rafael Cuesta followed the example of the village 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 particularly drawn to Castilfrío’s commitment to improving internet connections, which was led by the deputy mayor of the village, Tomás Cabezón of the People’s Conservative Party (PP). “It’s a delight in every way,” says Cuesta, adding that internet access is essential to be 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 can work remotely from the village.
In Kuartango, a village of 441 inhabitants in the province of Álava in the Spanish Basque Country, there was once a famous spa town. This enormous structure, dating back 150 years, was then used by an order of Salesian monks until it was abandoned in 1990. But the community rallied to reclaim the space, according to the mayor of Kurantango, Eduardo Fernández of the Party. Basque nationalist (PNV). Thanks to their efforts, the 5,000 square meter space now houses a cider bar, a canning factory and a coworking space, and it is also dedicated to social housing. According to Fernández, the project has brought “employment and visibility” to the village.
Iván del Caz, who runs a rural coworking office, is among the people who will move into the old spa. Its objective is to “create a laboratory of ideas”. Zuriñe Vigalondo, the head of the canning company, is also “delighted” to be involved in the project. “It’s a very good plan,” she said, adding that other villages with old buildings should consider reforming them as a way to cope with the depopulation crisis.
english version by Melissa Kitson.