Spain Is Fighting History in Push to Have Rural Migrants Stay

The decline of Spain’s rural population has vexed lawmakers and citizens for more than half a century. Now Covid-19 is suddenly changing the landscape.

For the first time in decades, some towns outside the country’s main urban centers are counting more people arriving than leaving, as stay-at-home restrictions and worries about the spread of the virus spur demand for more spacious living conditions and locations closer to nature.

It’s a demographic shift unfolding in many developed economies — the U.S. and U.K. are seeing a similar trend — though in Spain it comes with an added challenge. In a country where some regions are as sparsely populated as Lapland in the Arctic Circle, the government is trying to encourage people to stay on even after the worst of the pandemic passes.

“There are profound changes happening and they are beginning to be irreversible” in some regions, said Tomas Garcia Azcarate, deputy director of Spain’s Institute of Economy, Geography and Demography in Madrid.

Spain Is Fighting History in Push to Have Rural Migrants Stay

Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s administration is pledging to sustain the trend, a goal that would simultaneously address long-standing complaints of neglect in rural areas. Tapping funds from the 140 billion euros ($169 billion) Spain is set to receive in the next six years from the European Union’s pandemic-recovery package, the government aims to spend big on improving infrastructure and opportunities in the countryside.

“European funds change everything,” said Francesc Boya, a secretary general at the Ecological Transition Ministry in Madrid who’s in charge of population policy. They allow “us to improve indicators such as the portion of the rural population who aren’t connected to new technologies.”

Spain Is Fighting History in Push to Have Rural Migrants Stay

The government says it plans to allocate 2.3 billion euros to ensuring the entire country has fiber-optic broadband by 2025 and 2 billion euros to expand 5G coverage. It plans to allocate several billions more on restoring municipal buildings in rural areas and to help to protect natural heritage while boosting sustainable farming, forest management and fishing.

Those changes, though, will take time. As Spain’s vaccination campaign picks up, some countryside arrivals are already weighing whether to go back, putting pressure on the government to accelerate its action plan.

“I don’t know yet if I’m going to be a rural woman for the rest of my life, but maybe for two or three more years,” said Loli Garcia, a 39-year-old educator who moved from Madrid to the north-eastern settlement of Used, population 200, with her two young children last September. “The thing that I like very much of Used is the nature and freedom. And the time. It seems like you have time again to live.”

Spain Is Fighting History in Push to Have Rural Migrants Stay

Should Spain succeed in encouraging at least some of the rural transplants to stay, it would counter decades of history.

Spaniards began moving en masse to cities in the early 1950s, about a decade after the country’s civil war. Spain’s first and biggest rural exodus lasted through 1991, increasing the portion of city dwellers to 80% from 60%, according to the central bank.

Similar urbanization trends were transforming countries around the world throughout the second half of the 20th century. But the shifts in Spain were more palpable because people moved to fewer cities, the Bank of Spain said in its annual report Thursday.

That concentration left an unusual legacy in Spain. Based on the number of square kilometers containing at least one inhabitant, as little as 13% of the territory is populated, compared with almost 70% in France and 60% in Germany, the bank’s data show. Some 3,403 municipalities, or more than 40% of towns in the country, are still at risk of disappearing. Those towns are home to about one million people, it said.

“In most parts of the world, people naturally get drawn to these big cities,” said James Pomeroy, a global economist at HSBC Plc in London. “If the pandemic acts as a trigger to change that, and some of these jobs end up being spread around the country, you could start to see a broader base of high-income individuals spending their money on local goods and services.”

“There are a lot of positives that could come from this,” he said.

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