RURAL REACTIVATION: PLANTING, GROWING & HARVESTING

When you know your personal purpose and it is in coherence with your professional purpose, the chances increase that you can create a warm and friendly life. Ana Amrein, Rooral´s co-founder talks to Juanjo Manzano, a resident of Arroyomolinos de León, a village of 947 inhabitants in the province of Huelva. Juanjo was determined to stay in his village and fight the systemic injustices faced by thousands of people living in the rural world.

That is why he founded AlmaNatura, which exists to reactivate rural areas, preventing depopulation through public-private partnership projects to empower people. Today Juanjo has not only secured his place in Arroyomolinos de León, but is also making it possible for many other people like him to live the life they want.


Ana Amrein: Juanjo, welcome to Raíces (roots in English), it is a great pleasure to have you on this podcast series. I remember that the first time we met was about three years ago and I was already very interested in Alma Natura and you as a reference, because the truth is that I was new to Spain and I had no idea what the situation in rural areas was and it was thanks to you and Alma Natura that I began to realise everything that was happening, all the challenges that were being faced and that there is the possibility of making changes, so thank you very much for being here.


Juanjo Manzano: Thank you very much for having us again. I love being in your house and sharing with the listeners a little bit of the rural and feeling fantastic.


Ana Amrein: What do your roots mean to you?


Juanjo Manzano: I think that roots are what we shouldn't lose, even if we've been planted in different places, above all because in the end roots have to do with values and with what we are and what makes us feel like ourselves. That due to the vicissitudes of life, we transform ourselves into something that perhaps we don't even want to be. It's not that we don't have to transform ourselves, because obviously human beings are in continuous transformation, but I do believe that there are values that should be there.

I always say that when someone is having a bad time, when they get divorced, when you lose your job, when a pandemic comes, the people are there to receive you. So, when we reconnect with our roots, our values, I think we end up achieving that balance, which often the rush and everything we believe in as a society, is really making us not find our centre, and rural life has a lot to do with centre and with roots, without a doubt.


Ana Amrein: And how do the people receive you?

Juanjo Manzano: The people live their own lives. Many local people, people who have never left, who have their businesses, who have their lives here, don't think it's going so badly. While there are many people who are very worried about the statistics, because there are fewer and fewer villages with fewer and fewer inhabitants. The autochthonous, the local, does not think that there are problems because there is no cinema or because there is no large supermarket, everyone lives their own life, therefore they live in balance, they live in peace and this means that on many occasions the village welcomes you in a friendly way. Because if you come, it's great, because there are more of us at the fiestas.


The people of the village live their lives and therefore receive you well. The only thing that happens is that it is true that the sense of community is more extensive. So, what happens is that when they see that you don't leave your house for 5 days, well, the most normal thing is that they worry about you and there are people who only see or experience it as invasive, that is, as if they are worrying too much about me. But no, it's not a question of being invasive, but rather of not seeing you for 5 days, that something happens to you, here I am, but if you don't want anything, you go on with your life.

Obviously there will be towns like cities of all kinds and neighbourhoods like towns of different types, but the people are friendly, I don't know of any unfriendly towns or areas where you don't want to take your children, maybe I'm too optimistic, but I think the people are friendly, they certainly welcome you well.


Ana Amrein: Have you ever felt overwhelmed?


Juanjo Manzano: What I do feel overwhelmed by is the fact that I enjoy little or very limited culture, which is what the town council of the day comes up with or what they talk about politically, because it's a special date and now it's environment day, so it's just environment. I'm not saying no, but sometimes it's true that I find it difficult to find that culture that is a little different from the usual and that's when I get overwhelmed.


I don't really want to use the word alternative, but a more culturally contemporary product, a different kind of exhibition, that kind of thing is missing and obviously you can only find it in the city. What happens is that I think it's also a psychological factor, that is to say, when you move from an inhabited place, that is to say, where there are buildings, population, houses, to another place, where there is countryside or mountains, an extension of natural land, psychologically it's like, you're going to Seville to simply see an exhibition. But if you're inside a city in a metro for 50 minutes, but it's curious in that reflection, I'm not saying that this happens to people, but it weighs more heavily on me when I change from one place, from one place to another, than being inside a city taking the same amount of time.


Ana Amrein: Yes, but because you are used to the fact that in everyday life the distances are longer and these discussions that you have to invest in 40 or 50 minutes to get to work every day. However, in the village, how long does it take you to get to your office?


Juanjo Manzano: It took me one minute and 50 seconds to get to the office here and I have gone through another area that has made me go through an area of orchards. I also said hey, that's nice, because if I had come earlier I would have taken a longer walk around here, through these orchards. In the village it's too quiet. Now that I am starting to come back after the pandemic, the other day I was just in Seville and I suffered because I hadn't taken a car in the city, because I have moved very little in the city during the whole pandemic and when I am coming back it is like anxiety. I mean, I really feel like I'm wasting my time. I mean, there are things that he says but if we can do this, we can do it online, which doesn't mean that I'm not looking forward to seeing a lot of people from the city that I haven't seen for almost two years and that's what I'm most excited about, but then life in the city is hard, life in the village is too comfortable at times.


Ana Amrein: Why is it too comfortable?


Juanjo Manzano: Because you simply live a life that is not totally real and real for those people who live in a big city or live in another territory, not that the rural world is not real. Obviously this is a reality, I live it but sometimes I say well, if by chance I had to change my life all of a sudden, this would be a shock because I'm not used to it. I travel to the city, I move around a lot, but I know that I will always come back. In other words, when I'm there for a week or for 3 or 4 days, it's like I give it my all.


Ana Amrein: You are from Arroyomolinos, from León. What is your story, why do you still live there, why did you want to stay in Arroyomolinos?


Juanjo Manzano: The main reason was because I didn't see the city as friendly, personally. Then each of the people who came to AlmaNatura, new people who have been hired, each one finds their own reason because obviously we can inspire our own reason, but obviously each one comes with their own history and their own backpack.


So personally, it's because I honestly didn't see any quality of life in the urban environment and we don't have a single flat and my family doesn't have a house. I have to rent from the first moment, like many people who do, I don't doubt it, but it's not the same when you have a home belonging to your grandparents, family, parents, in the end if it goes badly you end up taking refuge there. But of course, you start with a minimum rent, you have to have a minimum income to be able to support yourself in the city and what I saw was that I did the maths and I said I can't do the maths, it's impossible.


Then I remember I was at university, I was living in the city with a rented flat and with a scholarship I was receiving and I was taking advantage of it to get a CV and I didn't find a single job, even with friends who were going to help me, I never found a job in the city and I've seen people who say, well there are lots of opportunities in the city, well, tell me how you do it, because this is like the 5 euro trips on the airlines, I can't find them.


While you are studying, the salaries are very low, 400, 500 euros, a basic salary of 600 euros, I don't know, and with 600 euros you pay the flat, you eat and you don't live well. So, my reflection was, what have people eaten that I haven't eaten? I mean, because for example a flat, imagine you already have a job and you can take out a mortgage, but you are going to be mortgaged for the rest of your life, because having the house I have in the village in the city meant mortgaging it for at least 30 years.

When you take out a mortgage, it's not that it's bad or good, but simply that you ask for certain freedoms. Why, because you have to pay the mortgage and what happens when you have a need? Well, you end up going through the motions of many things and, for example, you don't like your job and you have to continue in that job because you have to pay the mortgage. Of course, it is obviously not the same to have a mortgage like I had of 90,000 euros as it is to have a mortgage of 300,000 euros, because freedom is different. And what happens when you pay a mortgage before? Well, you are freer, not only in the economic sense, but also in the sense of being able to express yourself, to tell, to share with other people your way of seeing life, to say what you really want to say because you are free to say it.

I know a lot of people who are absolutely muzzled because they can't be free to speak. This is very sad. At the time in which we live that there are people who can't say what they think because they might lose their job or their status. So, this made me think from a very young age that I had to live more freely and that I couldn't do it in any other way than by contracting huge debts like some of my friends in the city, they started to pay their mortgages before me and they had years left, this made me think and of course, everything that has to do with a calmer, more relaxed life.


Now I listen to a podcast that talks about how many entrepreneurs suffer, the pressure of entrepreneurship is from a big city or from anywhere in the world, I mean the pressure that a successful entrepreneur suffers to be able to meet all the expectations of family, friends, the company group itself, and so on. And when you hear people tell their stories, I say, I don't want that. I mean, I don't want to be continually running at a fast pace and as a colleague from a big company once said to me. He said to me: look, I'm listening to you because you don't come from any city, but how can you tell me this? he said no, because I don't know if it's because people stay in the same place in the afternoon. Everyone tells the same story and all the people who come here to tell me something tell me the same thing and sometimes we need that resilience, that mute, that concentration to have the capacity to create something new and this is not nonsense, because sometimes we are too infected by trends. That is to say, we are looking for that much more human frequency, closer to people, to the earth, kinder to our spirit, to our way of understanding life, and a movement like Bitcoin did not offer that.


Ana Amrein: You feel that having chosen and decided to stay in Arroyomolinos de León has allowed you to remain consistent with your values on the one hand, to be more creative and productive on the other.


Juanjo Manzano: Indeed, we often think that if our office were in a city, we would have a productivity problem, because people stop by the office to see what these people are doing, let's go and chat for a while, so this is a problem. What's more, we have a programme that caters to new settlers, the project is called Holapueblo.com and then we help them with a mentoring process to set up their project and at the same time find a village, the village that best suits their lifestyle.


This year, for example, there are 70 villages that can receive new settlers. Well, imagine with the pandemic, people have been like the last straw that has broken the camel's back and said I'm leaving, I can't take it anymore. So, we have gone from 400 to 1500 in one year, 1500 projects, 1500 lives, 1500 families from all over the world, not just Spain, and of course, we often think that if we didn't have the online sense that we have, we would often be absolutely overwhelmed. So much so that many people complain because we don't have a telephone, but we don't have one for nothing, but because we can't deal with the amount of requests from people who want to make this change.


So we need to organise ourselves, because obviously we are still a small organisation, but to be able to respond one by one to each of the requests, if not it is impossible, and we receive requests of all kinds, from people who are on the street, to entire families who have an idea and want to leave in less than two weeks, it is complicated, but here we have found the necessary productivity.


There is a book called Cities Quitters, which talks precisely about this. It talks about how many artists in many parts of the world have achieved the creativity necessary to achieve not only their inner peace, but also the creativity necessary for their business model, which is very interesting.


Ana Amrein: Super interesting, that makes me wonder, how many hours a day do you work?


Juanjo Manzano: Well, approximately five, six. Sometimes I feel bad to say it and many people even tell me, I don't believe it. How do I do it? First of all, I count on people who are much more talented, who have a better organisational capacity than me, and I've been left with communication, that's the only thing I know how to do. But it's true, there are very good people at AlmaNatura.

So, we need people who have the ability to lead and work with that depth and also try to see that it is not necessary to work 8 hours a day to be productive. In other words, understand that sometimes in 4 hours you can do much more than in 8, because the statistics are there, after 6-7 hours, productivity drops a lot, so let's concentrate on what is really important and then refocus on purpose, that is, every time you do something that is not really in line with that line of value and need for which you are in that job and you are wasting your time taking paths that lead you nowhere.


I am super critical because there is a lot of time that is being wasted by not refocusing, not that I am Gandhi, but every time I lose focus a little bit, I have a huge phrase in my office that says "What do we really exist for? We exist to fix population, so that people don't have to leave because of lack of resources, lack of opportunities, to a big city.

For example, sometimes we go to too many events that are not the right thing to do, but we like beer and meeting people and talking, that socialising is fantastic, but maybe you have to validate and check the events you go to better, this is not silly, because there are people who waste a lot of time thinking that they are going to do a lot of networking there, the only thing they are going to do is exchange a lot of emails that are probably not going to lead to anything.


Ana Amrein: In the last two weeks I have said no to two big events, but precisely because of that, because otherwise, if you go from event to event you end up stressed out because I don't have the focus and the time to create and focus on what is really important. So, you basically balance AlmaNatura's purpose with your own. What would be your own purpose?


Juanjo Manzano: Of course, for a year and a bit, specifically the hard core of the management team, we had the chance to work on our own purpose. We, especially myself, my brother and my wife who also works in the organisation at AlmaNatura, are a family nucleus that somehow aligned what we were in this world for. We had a year and a bit to think about this and why we are in this, why it has to do with my lifestyle and why we do what we do. First of all, my brother and I have seen how our father suffered the onslaught of a globalised world, he was a small farmer and cattle rancher in a rural area, we saw how his products were worth less and less, because more and more intermediaries invaded or how the tenants, because he didn't own land, he had very little land, they abused that status, that capacity of the owner to tell him what to do, to take away the oranges, to do what he had to do. I have experienced this with suffering in my home, my vulnerable father, with few resources, without technological tools, because he had to suffer and that connects us with the deepest part of our being, of our heart.


When we lost our father, we saw the departure of a father who had fought hard and had not achieved many of the great things he wanted to achieve.

My father died very young, at the age of sixty-three. So, in his situation there are thousands of people in rural areas: vulnerable, with few resources or with few tools to facilitate their work, with little innovation in the rural world, which is one of the great needs. So that's where we connect, we have been able to train, we have been able to be outside, we go back to the village, but we want to help more people in this task, to make their businesses sustainable and to help them in their day-to-day life and that connects you with the deepest part of your being, because you know what happens? you have unlimited energy, because you are not doing it because you need to make ends meet, because you have to pay your living, but you are really doing it for something much more transcendent, which we know we have experienced in our own flesh.


We have seen very dramatic situations of many of our parents, but also of our uncles and aunts who live in rural areas. So, it doesn't seem fair to us that this should have to happen in a European country, where we are supposed to have many possibilities and yet this is not the case. In the end, the rural world has always been second or third class, due to a lack of public services, of job opportunities, due to the attacks that the primary sector has suffered for so long, and that directly connects us to wanting to mobilise and do something and to want to be much more activist in the rural world. So, the only thing that can happen there is something good, because you are connected to your family and your life.


Ana Amrein: I find it inspiring and congratulations. Thank you very much for sharing, because it seems to me that what you have just shared really reflects a coherence that is exemplary.


Juanjo Manzano: It's still a struggle like any other, obviously each one of us is involved in one thing and in our case, well, I don't know, it was this purpose. It was very well thought out, very assimilated too, because in the end it makes you realise that sometimes you really have a hard time because you don't have more resources at hand and it's like you're continually paying tribute.

Next year we will be 25 years in the rural world and there are many people who tell us why are you still there? And I say to them, but fuck, man, what part of all my talk have you not understood, what part of my speech have you not understood? Now we have just finished rehabilitating an old oil mill in Arroyomolinos de León, here in the town, it is a meeting place for the local population, where there are going to be coworking spaces, where there is a cultural programme that moves me. So, there is a cultural space throughout the year with a cultural agenda, that is to say, it is a multi-activity site that is inside an oil mill that also had some plots, so there is also an area of gardens, orchards and also within the same plot is the old cinema of the village. Imagine, it is a very emblematic place for the town, because that is where many of the great joys of the municipality were celebrated for years and it had been forgotten for more than 70 years and it is a 150 year old mill, very old. So, it has been a resurgence and an immense happiness, like opening new doors for the town, it has been a fantastic opportunity that we are giving, but more than giving, we are giving ourselves, because it has been really exciting to discover how suddenly the lights of the mill were switched on again one night, which had been dormant for so many years.


Ana Amrein: Well, of course, yes, it's regenerating culture in the best sense of the word.


Juanjo Manzano: Imagine, we are very happy to be able to continue doing what we like, which is very important.


Ana Amrein: That's great Juanjo, thank you very much for sharing.

Juanjo Manzano: To you and to you, I loved sharing this little moment and reminding myself what I'm here for.


Ana Amrein: This is Raíces (roots in English), a series for you to connect and be inspired by another way of feeling and doing, because putting down roots makes you free.