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Maria Luisa Zamora del Barrio is one of 15 people who live in Cerbón. All of them are pensioners. “When we die, the village will just close,” says the 70-year-old. Cerbón is typical of many villages in Soria, a rugged rural area in northern Spain where there are just five people to every square kilometre. In some of the more remote corners of the region’s hilly landscape, there are just 0.5 people per square kilometre.

These villages have few residents, with no new children being born. When the first baby in three years was born in Tardelcuende the locals celebrated as if it were Christmas. In many of Soria’s 492 empty villages, it looks as though a plague has wiped out the people.

The mass exodus from Soria has been repeated in other inland rural areas in Spain. In the past 100 years, Spain’s population has more than doubled – it is now over 44 million – but the probem is the distribution of people. A recent study by the Instituto Valenciano de Investigaciones and the BBVA Foundation found that 95.9 per cent of Spain’s population is concentrated in half the territory – the bigger cities and coastal regions. Meanwhile the remaining 4.1 per cent inhabit the other half of Spain – the rural areas.

There were 9,267 Spanish towns at the turn of the 20th century but this shrank to 8,108 by 2000. Of these towns, about 5,000 are populated by fewer than 1,000 people, many of whom are over the age of 65.

The problems of Spain are now being repeated across Europe as people move in search of better lives. The issue is particularly acute in the east, where young people are leaving Poland and Romania for the temptations of the West. A government survey in Bulgaria, for example, found that if the trend continues, it will lose a third of its 7.5 million population in 20 years. To reverse the decline, it needs a birth rate of 2.2 children per couple. Presently it is 1.3.

Back in Cerbón, Maria Luisa Zamora del Barrio has spent her whole life looking after ageing parents and the children of her late sister. The local residents worship in the dilapidated San Pedro Apostol church, but more often use the bar to celebrate mass. Travelling greengrocers, butchers and bakers bring in supplies. It might seem a bleak existence to some, but she seems perfectly content. “We have everything we want here,” she says.

A few kilometres down the road in Magaña, Oscar Bouzas cannot say the same. A typical football-mad 10-year-old, he has a simple problem: no one to play with. He is one of just three children in the village and cuts a lonely figure as he kicks the ball against a wall. The others are too young to join in. Oscar goes to school 10 kilometres away as the village’s only school closed 30 years ago.

Pilar Zamora, 55, who owns a bar in Magaña, says, “Forty years ago, there were 34 girls and 35 boys here and two schools. Now we are about 15, and all the children travel 15 kilometres to get to school.”

According to the census in 1900, Magaña had 494 inhabitants, but the population had fallen to just 15 by 2006. Most vanished in search of work and a better life. Rafael Raul Matesta, 90, a retired shepherd who has lived there all his life, explains: “In the 1950s, there were about 300 people here, but they went to Madrid, Barcelona or Bilbao in search of work.”

Other reasons for the exodus that left Soria – and other regions of Spain such as Teruel and Huesca – like wildernesses were economic and political. During the depression that followed the Spanish Civil War in 1939, General Franco started a ruthless push to force Spaniards to move to the cities to provide manpower to boost the country’s flagging industrial output.

Soria, in which over a third of the economy is based on growing cereal crops, livestock farming and forestry, suffered more than other regions. Professor José Luis Acín Fanlo, of the Ceddar Institute in Zaragoza, specialises in the study of depopulation. “Franco made a disastrous series of decisions to develop heavy industry in the cities and did nothing to help traditional agriculture,” he says. “Infrastructures such as roads and other services to help farming were left to decay.” The emigration of a large proportion of the rural population to urban areas robbed the area of its most crucial resource: people.

Joaquin Recano, a researcher at the Spanish Centre for Demography and Population Studies, explains: “By the 20th century, Britain and France had consolidated their industrial revolutions by large-scale movements from rural areas to cities. But Spain had not done this – its population was still largely based in the countryside. So, belatedly, people moved to the cities en masse, hoping for a better life with more opportunities. This left a section of the population isolated in the country.”

Franco’s forced depopulation of rural areas during the 1950s starved Soria and other regions of health, education and social services. In some cases it also divided families. Eugenio Garcia Maqueda, 77, a retired farm labourer and former mayor, is one of just five people in the village of Centenera de Andaluz. “There used to be 80 people here in the 1950s,” he says. “Three of my brothers went to Barcelona and Madrid. They believed the lies about getting a better paying job in the cities. Most of them were earning the same as they could get in the fields here. When they realised this was not true, they tried to come back. But we would not have them.” Today, his village has a spectral feel about it – its people appear like phantoms for a brief spell to cast a wary eye at the rare appearance of strangers. Then they are gone.

Loneliness has had a quieter, but none-theless withering effect on those who stayed behind. Arturo Redonde, 58, is a farmer who has lived in Magaña all his life but never married. One attempt to try to bring some solace to men like Arturo has been caravanas de mujeres (caravans of women) – organised groups who come and meet the lonely bachelors in the hope that romance blossoms. But even if couples find love, life in these tiny communities can often be too much for some.

Laura Lopez works for Abraza la Tierra (Embrace the Earth), an organisation that tries to help people move back to los pueblos abandonados (depopulated villages). “If these women do not really want to live here, it always leads to problems quickly,” she says. Abraza la Tierra is an initiative started two years ago by 15 local authorities across Spain to jump-start a dying rural world by offering settlers help in starting new businesses. It does not offer money, housing or land, but instead offers advice to those who want to start a new life in the countryside and who have a business idea.

“I have 500 people on my list at the moment,” she adds. “We have been overwhelmed. It is very encouraging. Most of them have practical ideas, but there is the odd one, like the man who wanted to start a melon farm in Soria. I had to tell him it is very cold here and it wouldn’t work.”

Venezuelan Rhina Padilla, 55, moved from a small town near Valencia to open a corner shop in Matamala de Almazán, a village of 452 people. “We wanted a quieter life away from the tourist areas on the coast. We thought this could work here and so far, so good,” she says.

Immigrants are trickling into other villages. For now, Soria has chosen to capitalise on its dying rural heartland; workers in the tourist office hand out lists of depopulated villages to callers who want to discover this part of “lost Spain”.

The vanishing points

Italy
The poorer southern areas of Tuscany are becoming deserted. Bad transport links make it financially unviable for farmers. The government plans to regenerate the area.

Romania
Bacau has had to hire Chinese workers to fill the shoes of locals who have headed to the West. Many immigrants come for fixed-term contracts and return home instead of putting down roots here.

Bulgaria
The rural south, near the Greek border, has experienced a steep decline since the end of the Soviet Union. Many young people have headed West in search of a better life.

Poland
Towns such as Siedlce in the depressed east have now been emptied by large-scale emigration to the West. Statistics show that 14 per cent of employers recently reported labour shortages, compared with 8 per cent in the first quarter of 2004.

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