*This blog post is written by Emma Thomasson, Journalist, Coach, Consultant and participant in Rooral Benarrabá & The Break Fellowship in Spring 2023.
The beautiful Spanish village of Benarraba has a problem: there are more cats than children. It is as if the Pied Piper has paid a visit and the young people have all been hypnotised by his song promising a brighter future in the cities. They have left behind a dwindling band of frail old folks, many of whom are looked after by Latin American migrants who provide 24-7 care. In the three weeks I spent in the village, there were three funerals. If that pace continues, the village population of 500 could halve in the next five years. It is already half what it was a generation ago after the main source of local work – the processing of timber and cork bark - shifted to the nearby town of Ronda, and as tourism provided new employment opportunities in the Costa del Sol.
I spent three weeks in the village on an EU funded fellowship for women entrepreneurs. The issue of rural depopulation has become so critical that the Spanish government has made it a major priority. Spain’s interior has a population density that is the lowest in Europe apart from Lapland. In many places, goats outnumber people, although goat herding is also a dying profession as young people don’t want to do the job. Fewer goats mean a higher risk of wildfires as goats keep the undergrowth trimmed.
Many of the 350 women on the Break fellowship programme were invited to small towns and villages to develop ideas for how to reverse the exodus, including thinking up ways to attract entrepreneurs like us. Benarraba has already converted a local building into a high-tech coworking space with stunning views and a lemon tree on the patio. It has joined a race with towns in countries like Italy, Portugal and Greece which are also seeking to attract digital nomads who can work remotely, at least part of the time.
In Benarraba, the mayor hopes that remote workers will create employment opportunities for locals too. Our group of 18 women certainly helped the local economy, working by day in the coworking space and then eating tapas in the bar and shopping in the tiny village store (owned by the mayor). We sampled delicacies like jamon serrano at two village parties held in our honour. We were hosted by Rooral, a social enterprise that offers remote workers a change of scenery. As part of our fellowship, Rooral set us the challenge of thinking about how to promote sustainable tourism and how to create more optimistic career opportunities for the next generation, especially girls.
The main work open to women is cleaning homes and keeping the walls of the village a sparkling white – Benarraba is one of the famous white villages with Moorish roots that dot the Andalucian hillsides. The walls of the village are whitewashed every spring, with the added benefit that the lime paint has antimicrobial properties. But young girls want something more.
We decided the best way we could help was to offer a skills exchange. Visitors like us create jobs by learning skills like basket weaving and cheese making. In return, we offered workshops on coding and emotional intelligence to the local kids, and help with homework.
We wanted to inspire youngsters to imagine different kinds of career paths that might enable them to do something more interesting, and better paid, while continuing to enjoy the tranquillity of rural life. We invited school children to visit us at the coworking space and ask us about our varied businesses. They learnt that it might be possible to do a whole range of different jobs online.
This exchange was a win-win for all of us, and hopefully for future visitors too.
Staying for such a long time in the village gave us a completely different perspective than if we had just been passing through as tourists. I got so used to greeting locals as I walked through the mostly car-free streets that it was a major adjustment not to make eye-contact with strangers when I came back to anonymous Berlin.
I believe our appreciation of rural life made the local young people take more pride in their village and perhaps gave them hope that it might be possible to stay and find interesting work online or provide services to visitors like us. And we certainly learnt something from them about slowing down and appreciating close-knit community and proximity to beautiful nature.
My kids are too settled in secondary school to consider a move to Spain any time soon, but I can imagine returning to the village to live and work remotely at least for part of the year, and perhaps organise retreats for others there in future. In total, about 1,000 women are taking part in the fellowship in three cohorts over the course of a year. Assuming many of them had as fulfilling an experience as I did and some plan to return to live and work in Spain, the programme could make at least a dent in the depopulation crisis.