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The villages clinging to their youth

Eloísa and Melchor live in Atajate, the smallest village in the province.
Eloísa and Melchor live in Atajate, the smallest village in the province. / ÑITO SALAS
  • In ten years, one third of the 103 municipalities have lost over 20% of their under-30s

In Canillas de Aceituno there are half as many young people as there were ten years ago. In 2007 there were 809, and now there are fewer than 400. It may not sound much of a loss, but in a village with a population of under 2000, it makes a difference. For example in the school, there are now fewer than 10 pupils to a class.“It is a very big problem. Our survival is at risk. The authorities should help us because we can’t tackle this alone,” says the mayor, Vicente Campos.

One-third of the 103 municipalities in Malaga province have lost more than 20 per cent of their under-30s in just ten years. Eleven have lost more than 30 per cent of their young people, and five have lost over 40 per cent: Igualeja, Alpandeire, Alfarnatejo, Comares and Canillas de Aceituno. Only 13 places in the province have escaped this problem, led by Benahavís, where the number of under-30s has doubled (but so has its population overall). The situation in inland areas is extreme, however: it can be described as a true exodus

It is directly related to two other major problems in rural areas: depopulation and ageing. Older people stay put; new generations move on. María Luisa Gómez, the head of the Geography department at Malaga university, says the worst-affected areas in Malaga province are the Genal valley and inland Axarquía. Her colleague Enrique Navarro, the head of Regional Geographical Analysis, says Malaga is especially affected by one particular factor: life on the coast. “Three hundred years ago people didn’t want to live on the coast because there was no agriculture or livestock farming there. Nowadays they do, because there is more going on and they think the quality of life is better. Malaga has a very dynamic coastline,” he says. “The Costa del Sol is full of opportunities and acts as a magnet for young people from inland areas, especially those with qualifications or training.”

Lack of opportunities

It is the lack of work that is forcing young people to move away from the countryside; the problem worsened with the economic crisis, and the villages have never recovered.

The lack of facilities is another factor. Public transport is scarce - in some villages, like Atajate, the bus only passes once a day. In some villages a doctor is only available a few mornings a week, there is no pediatric service and in an emergency residents have to drive to the nearest hospital, which may be nearly an hour away. Bank branches have gradually been closed down, as well. This is not the most comfortable environment for a family with small children, to say the least.

Schools are another problem: the fewer pupils attend, the greater the risk of classes being amalgamated or the school closing down altogether. In Cuevas del Becerro, for example, a couple of years ago residents protested against plans to amalgamate classes. “In the end they didn’t do it, but the sword of Damocles is always hanging over us,” says the mayor, Cristóbal González. At the school in Atajate, which has only 11 pupils, it has already happened and there are fears that the school could close. “Several families are already saying they would prefer to take their children to school in Ronda,” says Lorena Peña, a council employee. She believes it is important for the school to remain open “to keep the village alive”.

How to stem the flow?

Despite their scarce resources, several councils have introduced measures to encourage young families. Two years ago Cartajima was in the news for offering temporary jobs and low-rent accommodation to families with small children. It was a desperate measure to stop the school closing due to a lack of pupils, and it worked. It also gives a 3,000 euro cheque for every baby born in the municipality. Cuevas del Becerro, Iznate, Almáchar, Arenas and Cómpeta also provide ‘baby-cheques’, but they know that jobs are the key factor.

“There needs to be investment in knowledge which can be brought to rural areas and they need good connections at all levels,” says Enrique Navarro. In Cuevas del Becerro, where the young population has dropped by 24 per cent in ten years, the council is trying to keep its young people by offering free training in organic agriculture and artisan crafts and providing facilities for those who decide to take up the offer. Local youngsters have now set up an ecological farming project, an olive oil cooperative and a snail-breeding programme.

María Luisa Gómez says rural communities deserve more support from the authorities. “A 23-year-old from Casabermeja has just been told he couldn’t set up a farm because he would have to buy at least 180 goats,” she says. “That’s not good enough.”