Thousands march in Spain to seek more help for rural areas

Published April 1, 2019
Madrid: Demonstrators protest deficient infrastructure in depopulated areas of Spain’s villages.—AFP
Madrid: Demonstrators protest deficient infrastructure in depopulated areas of Spain’s villages.—AFP

MADRID: Thousands of Spaniards gathered in Madrid on Sunday to demand that the government take steps to curb the depopulation of rural areas.

Sunday’s march under the slogan “The Revolt of the Emptied Spain” was organised by grassroots groups from rural areas in the southern European Union nation.

In Spain, 90 percent of the population is now concentrated in 30 percent of the country’s territory, namely in Madrid and the coastal areas. That leaves 10 percent of its people spread over large swaths of the interior.

On Friday, the government announced measures to improve internet networks in the countryside.

The march comes before Spain’s April 28 general election, when rural areas could play a key role in deciding if the Socialists stay in power. Spanish election law gives more weight to underpopulated areas.Of the 350 parliamentary seats at stake, 101 represent sparsely populated provinces.

The main parties in the April 28 vote, aware of rural voters’ anger, were all represented at the march dubbed the “Revolt of an Emptied Spain”.

Ministers from the ruling Socialist party included economy chief Nadia Calvino, Environment Minister Teresa Ribera and Agriculture Minister Luis Planas.

The Socialist party has pledged to support professional training and internet access in rural areas.

The centre-right Ciudadanos party has proposed sharp tax cuts for the residents of towns with fewer than 5,000 residents. Its leader Albert Rivera also took part in Sunday’s march.

Police counted around 50,000 along the main march route, while organisers estimated turnout at nearly twice that.

“This Spain, the emptied Spain, wants its voice heard,” the organisers’ manifesto said.

The Economic and Social Council of Spain, a body that advises the government on economic and labour issues, said in a report in early 2018 that the country counts around 3,900 villages with fewer than 500 residents.

Of those, nearly one-third have fewer than 100 inhabitants and face “maximum risk of extinction”, it said.

Two of the provinces most hit by urban drift are Teruel in the east and Soria, north of Madrid.

In Teruel, “bank branches have disappeared,” said Josefina Soriano of the advocacy group “Teruel Exists”.

“There are elderly people who have to ask a neighbour to go to the (nearest town) to withdraw money for them,” Soriano said.

Angel Fernandez, a Soria farmer, said: “The province is dying. Despite its great potential, they’re leaving us without trains, without highways.”

Published in Dawn, April 1st, 2019

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