In rural Spain, people want to bring abandoned villages back to life

Laundry dries in the sun, close to the solar panels in the backyard of the off-grid community of Barchel on Aug. 8, 2021. Seven years ago, a group of young people started an eco-community in the ruins of a farm that was abandoned for more than 40 years.
Laundry dries in the sun, close to the solar panels in the backyard of the off-grid community of Barchel on Aug. 8, 2021. Seven years ago, a group of young people started an eco-community in the ruins of a farm that was abandoned for more than 40 years. (Sanne Derks)

Villages in Spain’s sparsely inhabited interior are attempting a repopulation. People are striving to construct self-governed ecological communities as a “rural utopia” toward a sustainable future, such as in the communities of Barchel or Fraguas.

Gorka and Polina Viana, a couple in Aguinalíu, want to reduce their ecological footprint to a minimum, for their daughter Naya to grow up in a better world.

In recent decades, there has been an enormous exodus of the Spanish countryside. According to the Spanish Ministry of Planning, only 10 percent of the nation’s 42 million inhabitants live in 70 percent of the country. In the past years, the boundaries of urbanization have become increasingly visible.

Increased climate awareness has resulted in a revaluation of rural areas, which has been given an extra boost by the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition to depopulation, a reverse movement is also underway, in which people want to bring abandoned rural villages back to life. For instance, Didac Costa bought the ruins of a hamlet in national park La Garrotxa with the dream to create an eco-village. So far, he’s rebuilt one of the houses, where he lives alone.

This project documents the process of repopulating seven abandoned villages in Northern Spain. It aims to show not only life in these emerging communities, but also the efforts required to live there, often off-grid, and the challenges of the residents to create a utopian mini-society.

These challenges do not only have to do with isolation, lack of infrastructure or cold, but also with coexisting and communication. The neo-rural inhabitants believe in the power of the collective as an alternative to urban lifestyles emphasizing individuality.

At the same time, tensions between individuals, and “being able to sacrifice your own ego and self to the common good,” as Almu Casino Navarra explains, are among the challenges.

The communities of Fraguas and Barchel are involved in a juridical conflict and accused of violating property rights. Several of the founders of Fraguas may even face imprisonment for having renovated the farm, which had fallen to ruins in the decades before.

The inhabitants in both communities recount the ambivalent tension between believing in a dream and experiencing the constant stress of losing everything that has been build up, “stone for stone, with your own hands,” as Lalo Aracil explains. The activists see repopulation of abandoned places as their right.

Constructing these eco-villages challenges notions of the city as the arena for endless opportunities and revalues communitarian rural living in light of challenging and changing times.

Project funded by the National Geographic Society and Matchingsfonds de Coöperatie.

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