Alt Maestrat (Valencia region): Living in the “losing side” of a prosperous region

Alt Maestrat County is located in the Valencia Region in Eastern Spain. What makes the area representative of southern shrinking areas is the strong importance of agriculture and the mountainous conditions. The area has two markedly different geographical zones: the less accessible inner-mountainous area and the pre-coastal mountain ranges. It has a population of 6,745 inhabitants living in 9 municipalities (33% of the population live in the largest and most remote village).

The economy is based on traditional rainfed agriculture and livestock, small-scale industry and handicraft products, and a large textile company. ESPON ESCAPE project studied the area that is an enclave of lower economic potential comparing neighbouring regions, due to its lower accessibility and its disconnection from the more prosperous coastal areas and also from other rural tourism nodes.

 What is driving the shrinkage process?

During the last 30 years, Alt Maestrat has lost 25% of the population. Simultaneously, coastal and urban areas registered a diametrically opposite trend. Furthermore, since the 1920s the area has been experiencing several cycles of rural exodus, intensified between the 1950s and 1970s and associated with urban industrialisation, and low profitability of traditional agriculture. The effects of previous migrations have resulted in very high ageing (population over-65s is more than 3 times higher than children under 15).

During the 2000s the appearance of immigration slowed down and slightly reversed this trend, but since the 2008 economic crisis, out-migration rebounded. In addition, past policies focused on the development of coastal and urban areas have contributed to increasing the disparity with inner rural areas.

In Spain, there is generally a negative image associated with remaining in rural areas. Thus, in addition to disadvantages regarding accessibility and economic dynamism, the cultural aspect is also important, as the society does not make it seem attractive to remain, which also feeds out-migration. In this context, and due to the low profitability of traditional sectors, the area offers bleak future perspectives, especially to youth and the more qualified population that do not find sufficient opportunities to develop their careers.

What are the responses and what needs to be done from the local actor’s perspective?  

Although at the national level the Guidelines of the National Strategy against the Demographic Challenge have been approved and the Regional Government has taken the first steps to develop the Valencian Agenda against Depopulation, they have not effectively addressed the problem yet. It is worth noting that local actors mentioned the absence of effective support and highlighted the difficulties associated with regulations not adapted to the singularities of rural areas.

Despite their limited competencies and financial capacities, local governments have come together and created an Association of Municipalities for social service provision. This has been a successful mechanism of up-scaling services to a supra-municipal level while keeping them close to the citizens, improving service provision and financial sustainability.

“A positive discrimination to depopulated areas is needed to attract population, especially regarding taxation and bureaucracy, as they make difficult productive activities. Different taxation has the objective of attracting companies from the secondary sector, while higher bureaucratic agility could help the primary sector” [interviewed member of the LEADER LAG]

However, local stakeholders consider facing shrinkage requires a national and regional response, departing from the existing fragmented and insufficient policies. In addition, they strongly perceive some compensation policies are needed to make it economically attractive to live and implement businesses in rural areas, as well as to counteract the higher associated costs.

Reversing the shrinking trend is not considered fully feasible, however, local actors argue improving services is a key aspect to retain the remaining rural population and to lay the foundations for long-lasting development. In addition, they also consider it essential to discuss and come up with innovative formulas for managing the low density of the population.

More Information

  • Author: Mar Ortega-Reig University of Valencia (ES)
  • Photo: Adobe Stock