MADRID - In Torrecilla de la Abadesa, it was a poignant day when Ángela López left the village school and its doors were locked for the last time.
The 12-year-old must move to a larger school and her teacher Laura Velicia no longer has any other pupils to teach.
"It was an emotional moment. You have a close relationship when you teach someone one on one," Velicia told VOA.
The scene playing out in this Spanish village, which has only 289 inhabitants, is becoming a common one, as rural depopulation eats into the fabric of Spanish society. Five rural regions that make up 53% of Spain now have only 15% of its population, according to the National Statistics Office.
Over the past 50 years, Spain's countryside has lost 28% of its population and are now known as la España vacia — or empty Spain.
In a bid to redress decades of rural decline, Spain's leftist government unveiled an $11.9 billion plan this week, using funds the European Union has earmarked for population regeneration. The plan consists of 130 measures to try to redress this demographic challenge and guarantee equality of opportunity throughout the country.
“Working to recover equal opportunities for the rights of people throughout the territory is key,” Teresa Ribera, the Minister for Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge, told a press conference.
Ribera said in Spain there are 6,800 villages with less than 5,000 inhabitants, many of these without the limit of 12.5 inhabitants per square kilometer.
These villages had a combined population of 5.7 million — making up about 8 % of the total population of 47 million.
The government aid package involves extending the 5G telephone network across Spain, the development of technologically smart cities in rural areas and regional innovation centers.
Extra help will also be given to the elderly in rural areas as well as help for women and young people to find jobs.
Spain's emptying rural interior has become a major political issue, highlighting disillusion with the country's political system among rural voters who for years have felt neglected by those in power.
Teruel — one of the provinces that has suffered a lack of hospitals, schools, internet connectivity, training and jobs — campaigners formed a political party named Teruel Existe (Teruel Exists) that won a seat in national parliament in the 2019 general election.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez depended on the MP for Teruel Existe along with other parties to form a coalition government with the far-left Unidas Podemos party.
Emboldened by the political success of Teruel, residents of the central region of Soria are now pushing for concessions from Madrid.
A mountainous region which largely depends on agriculture, tourism and work within the civil service, Soria has the lowest population density in the country at 8.6 people per square kilometer.
Many villages have died out already. Others have only a few elderly residents. Children are scarce and all travel to school on a bus to sit in classes where ages are mixed.
“The politicians have neglected us for years,” Carlos Vallejo, spokesman of Soria Ya, a campaign group, told VOA.
“We want three things — better infrastructure like highways, better services like more hospitals as we only have one at the moment which has been a real strain during the COVID-19 pandemic and better connectivity as Wi-Fi reception is not good in some parts of Soria.”
No real solutions
Until now schemes to try to attract immigrants to come and live in dying rural villages have been started in Soria as in other regions with varying success.
In other areas, builders have started schemes to reform disused buildings and then sell them off.
Alejandro Macarrón Larumbe, an expert in rural demographics, knows from personal experience how the Spanish countryside is in decline.
His great-grandfather Juan Macarrón Despierto left his village of Valdanzo in Soria between 1880 and 1890 to seek work in Madrid. Then the village's population was about 500, but in the 2010 census this had fallen to only 55.
Macarrón, who heads the Demographic Renaissance Foundation, said the government must address practical problems of connectivity with poor wi-fi, infrastructure and amenities.
“However, the main problem is the falling fertility levels both in the rural as well as the urban areas. More people are dying than being born. But when families are leaving rural areas, this affects these areas more,” Macarrón said in an interview with VOA.
“This is what politicians should be addressing. It is not an easy problem to address but it is like cancer — if you do not do anything about it then it just gets worse.”
Spain's fertility rate for 2020 was 1.366 children per woman compared with 2.68 in 1950, according to the Spanish National Statistics Office.