Population drain threatens Malaga’s smallest villages

  • Residents of these villages with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants have to live with insufficient services and very few opportunities for work

  • Nearly 30 per cent of municipalities in Malaga are losing inhabitants despite measures to prevent it

In early 2015 Montecorto (640 inhabitants) and Serrato (503) became the 102nd and 103rd municipalities in Malaga province. Paradoxically, however, this has not prevented them from joining the list of villages with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants that are trying to survive in the face of a declining and ageing population. The problem is also affecting another 26 places, mainly in the Genal valley and La Axarquía, as well as Carratraca, in the Guadalhorce region.

The people of these 28 villages have to live with a shortage of basic services such as health centres, schools, chemists and banks. The loss of population is starting to become a serious problem in the inland regions of Spain, especially in provinces such as Soria, Salamanca and León, where more than 90 per cent of villages have fewer than 1,000 inhabitants.

The Spanish Federation of Municipalities and Provinces (FEMP) has asked the government to take urgent measures and as a result a new “commissioner” has been appointed to tackle this “demographic challenge”.

Although the problem in Malaga has not reached the alarming levels witnessed in other provinces of Spain, there are still some areas that run the risk of becoming deserted, despite the province’s attraction as a tourist destination.

Those who have chosen to continue living in these 28 villages praise the quality of life and the tranquility, but they do need more help from the authorities and job opportunities, as there is little work to be had.

“We want to start a ‘baby cheque’ scheme, in addition to the assistance from the provincial government, and we want to restore housing so families can live here for a cheap rent,” said the mayor of Salares, Pablo Crespillo. With only 181 people on the population register, this is the second smallest municipality in the province after Atajate, in the Genal valley, which has a population of 171.

Árchez, with 428 residents, also wants to turn its situation around and the mayor, Mari Carmen Moreno, is hoping to create affordable housing by restoring run-down properties.

In the Serranía de Ronda, depopulation has been worrying councils for years. They have introduced measures such as the ‘baby cheques’ to try to increase the birth rate in Cuevas del Becerro and Cartajima, among others. It was Cartajima that hit the headlines last year when the local authority put out a call for families with school-age children to move there because otherwise its own school would have had to close. They offered work and low-rent accommodation, and received more than 3,000 applications from all over Spain. The school now has eight pupils and, for the moment, it can stay open.

“This is the start of what we’re hoping to do. We hope two more families will be coming to live here soon,” said the mayor of Cartajima, Francisco Benítez. In the Serranía, the scarce population has left some villages, like Atajate, with no chemist (a pharmacist visits the village several days a week instead) and no bank, and in Alpandeire a bus service has been laid on so elderly people can travel to Ronda to carry out their banking transactions. Despite all this, only Atajate, Faraján and Pujerra have managed to avoid their population figures dropping during the last year.


“Our children would not be able to grow up like this in a town or city”

Judith Mena, 33, lives in Alpandeire and admits that she had her second child, among other reasons, so that her first son would have company

Judith Mena and her husband, Ildefonso Cózar, like village life and that is why they decided to live in Alpandeire, in the Genal valley. Judith, who is 33, was born in this village that is most famous for being the birthplace of Friar Leopoldo, and as such a place of pilgrimage. The couple have two sons, one aged three and the other 20 months old. She admits that they decided to have a second child so that the first one would have company, given the decreasing population of the village. Fortunately, there are now several other children of a similar age there.

Population drain threatens Malaga’s smallest villages

“We decided to live in a village because of the quality of life. Our children wouldn’t be able to grow up like this in a town or city. We eat vegetables which are grown by my parents, or friends,” she said. She pointed out that it would have been easier to move to Seville, where her husband has a permanent job.

“We both like the village, though, and we organise sports events here,” she said. They run the Club PurAventura Genal which, among others, is behind the famous ‘Gran Vuelta’ of the Genal valley in October.

“There are a lot of disadvantages. We don’t know what the future of Alpandeire and villages like it is going to be. I think it’s possible that people will start coming back to these villages in some way,” she said, pointing out that there is huge potential, still unexplored, from the natural environment of the Serranía.


“There is no life whatsoever in Atajate... there are only 80 of us”

Lina Sánchez runs the only shop and bakery in Atajate, the village which has the lowest population in Malaga

Lina Sánchez lives in Atajate, the village with the lowest population in Malaga province. She runs the only bakery, which is also a grocery shop, in this tiny village beside the Ronda to Algeciras road.

Population drain threatens Malaga’s smallest villages

Like the other residents, she is worried by the drop in population, because “a lot of people have left” in recent years.

“There is no life whatsoever in Atajate. There are only 80 of us,” she said, and in her street, which is the main one in the village, only 11 properties are occupied. “Four people live in the square, and generally everyone is elderly. The young people have gone because there’s no future for them here,” she said, sadly, in her shop where she makes almond cheese, a traditional local speciality.

“The bakery isn’t going to close. My son works here with me, but when I retire I don’t know whether I’ll stay,” she explained. She also owns another house in Arriate. “A lot of people are wondering what’s going to happen when our older residents pass away,” she said.

One of the advantages of living in Atajate is that it is very quiet. “There’s no traffic, and there are no robberies here,” she said. A doctor visits the village three times a week, and so does a pharmacist.


“The foreigners have brought a bit of life to the village”

Manuel Zorrilla, 80, was a labourer in France and Switzerland and worked in a factory in Malaga, but believes “life is better here than anywhere else in the world”

He was a labourer in France and Switzerland and worked in a furniture factory in Malaga, but 80-year-old Manuel Zorrilla has always come back to Árchez, “because here life is better than anywhere else in the world.” He is proud of the village in which he was born, at number 20 Calle Trinidad. “I remember when I used to walk to Jayena (Granada), carrying 12 kilos of raisins on my back to sell them and make a living,” he said. He is married to Francisca Moreno, who is 79. They have two children, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, but none of them live in Árchez.

Population drain threatens Malaga’s smallest villages

“It’s a shame that none of my children stayed here, but I can understand it because the work is elsewhere. They come every weekend, though, and they love the village,” said Manuel, who takes long walks every day and looks after his two plots of land where he grows subtropical fruits and vines.

“This blue sky we have in Árchez, you’ll never see it anywhere else,” he stressed. He believes foreigners (who represent 20 per cent of the 428 residents) have brought “a bit of life” to the village in recent years. “A lot have bought houses in the centre of Árchez, and some in the countryside. We get on very well; they’re nice people. Life here is very peaceful,” he said.


“We have an apartment in Malaga, but we wouldn’t want to leave our children”

Obdulia Puertas lives with her family in this small village, which has fewer than 200 inhabitants

Obdulia Puertas, 59, admits that in terms of population Salares is about the same as any medium-sized apartment block of which there are thousands on the coast. With just 181 inhabitants, this municipality in the Alta Axarquía region, between Árchez and Sedella, is fighting to retain its population, which has dropped by 26 in the past decade.

Population drain threatens Malaga’s smallest villages

“I hope my son and my daughter have children soon, so I have grandchildren and the population goes up,” said this housewife, who returned to Salares in 1977 after spending 11 years in Switzerland, where she had moved in search of a better life. “Icame back because my mother was ill, and I stayed. I got married and I have been here ever since,” said Obdulia, who is worried that there is very little work for young people. “My children have occasional work with the council, but not much more than that,” she said.

Her husband, Plácido Ramos, who is 64, is a farmer and about to retire. “Sometimes I have thought about moving to Malaga to live, because we have an apartment there, but we wouldn’t want to leave the children. Also, my daughter-in-law, who is from Barcelona, loves Salares. She says it is the ideal place to live because it is so lovely and so quiet,” she added. In this village, everybody knows each other. There are only nine children at the school, and four of them are the children of one of her nieces. “Let’s hope my children get on with it and increase the population soon,” she said enthusiastically.


“We want more children to come, but in the end the school will probably close”

Antonia Suárez is the village librarian and head of the parents’ association of the school, which has only ten members

Antonia Suárez, 47, runs the public library in Carratraca. She loves her village, and has taken part in several projects about its history. She is also the president of the parents’ association at the local school.

Population drain threatens Malaga’s smallest villages

“In my daughter’s class, there are only three pupils,” she said. That has its advantages and disadvantages. “They are almost like private classes, and when a decision has to be made, it’s very easy.”

However, education is her main concern because she is sure the children will have to continue their schooling in another village in the future.

“We have seen a reduction in the number of pupils,” she said, worriedly. Secondary school pupils already have to go to other municipalities, but Antonia believes the time will come when the junior school has to close. “This year, for example, there has only been one new pupil,” she added.

For Antonia, life in Carratraca is “peaceful, with no rushing around”. And she does have something to compare it with. “I’ve worked in Malaga and Torremolinos,” she said. She admits that she does miss the city sometimes, “but only for a day; the rest of the time we’re fine.”

People in Carratraca need a car to go to the beach, the cinema or the theatre, but there are simpler tasks, “like buying a button”, that also require a trip to Álora or Ardales.