Rural depopulation reached Portugal and Spain later than other Western European countries due to the lack of industrial centres prior to 1950. The situation was dramatically altered after the 1950’s. Portuguese and Spanish agriculture began to adopt labour-saving technologies which reduced considerably the number of workers required to maintain production. At the same time the expansion of many non-farm activities in rural areas was unable to cope with the increasing number of underemployed agrarian workers. One of the outcomes of all these transformations was a substantial rural exodus. Regardless of these economic changes and the subsequent improvements in living conditions for rural inhabitants, the disparity between the quality of urban and rural life persisted. Rural inhabitants had a lower income, less infrastructures and services than their urban counterparts. Consequently, many rural locations were unable to attract more people and became practically abandoned.

Between 1950 and 1991 rural Portugal and Spain depopulated. The central cause was the acceleration of internal, rural-urban migration. In the sixties emigration to more developed European countries like France, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Germany also contributed to this reality. Rural out-migration slowed down by the 1980’s but by then, natural growth had turned negative and it was contributing to depopulation.

After the 1990’s the populations of the Portuguese Central Region and of Alentejo decreased. This decrease was even stronger in areas along the border with Spain, contributing to the demographic desertification of the interior of the country. A significant percentage of the population had migrated to main cities on the coast – Litoral. The main reasons attracting people to the Litoral were better infrastructure and public services, as well as better job opportunities.

On the Spanish side, a decelerated tempo in the population growth was very evident, especially after 1995. In the Spanish Estremadura, depopulation had a stronger impact than anywhere else in the country, with Cárceres and Badajoz amongst the most affected provinces (Coimbra, 2001).

One of the most important characteristics of demography in border areas, especially in the Central Region, Alentejo and Extremadura, is that the ageing population prevents the future growth of these regions.

Idanha-a-Nova case study

The borough of Idanha-a-Nova is in a geographical area called Raia. The Portuguese word Raia is used to refer to areas located along the border with Spain. This area is unique in its traditions, culture and history. Traditional agriculture had a very important role in the economy of these territories throughout the 20th Century. Olive tree plantations, cereal crops, livestock, and other agro-industrial practices were for many years the basis of this rural economy.

This borough is 240 km away from the Portuguese coastline, where the biggest urban settlements are located. The population of this area, commonly called Raiana, has always had a difficult life having to fight for their livelihoods on a daily basis. A significant percentage of the food they consumed was locally sourced. In the past every family used to have a small portion of land where they would plant horticultural products such as tomatoes, cabbage, pumpkin, lettuce, cucumber, onions and garlic, as well as fruit trees (Catana, Artistas da Nossa Terra, 2003).

The second half of the 20th century brought a significant transformation to the organisation of these territories, intensified by the joining of Portugal and Spain, in 1986, to the European Union – then European Economic Community. Idanha and the surrounding boroughs located in the Raia – name used for territories located in the border with Spain – with economies sustained by agriculture and livestock, were the most affected. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) introduced a new system of organization for agricultural fields/production and the way agricultural products could be traded within the EU. In the 1980’s, Portugal’s agriculture was still very rudimentary when compared to other European countries. The absence of an internal strategy to restructure this economic sector, which represented the biggest share of the country’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product), lead to the languishing of the fields in the interior and subsequently its people.

Today, only the elderly remain here and ensure the continuity of traditions, which have disappeared in several other areas of the country.

My research emerges from deep reflection on this particular reality, and on these people’s lives. The agricultural fields feed the cities’ hunger! Without food what will the future hold?

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