Lapland is in inland Spain: anatomy of a demographic desert

An important part of Spanish society considers that depopulation is a state issue, which is why it has been gaining presence on the political-institutional agenda in recent years. This is a clear reflection of the serious demographic situation in which Spain currently finds itself and of which little by little it is becoming aware.

We can consider that a territory has depopulation problems when it has lost a large part of its inhabitants to the point of reaching a critical situation. This has come about in two major phases: a first of migration –the population leaves the territory due to the few job opportunities– and a second, due to deaths and lack of generational change.

The low density of inhabitants is a problem that concerns the EU when it comes to reinforcing economic, social and territorial cohesion. This is established in article 174 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (2007): "In order to promote the harmonious development of the Union as a whole, this [...] In particular, it will aim to reduce the differences between the levels of development of the various regions and the backwardness of the less favored regions. Among the affected regions, particular attention will be paid to rural areas, areas affected by industrial transition and regions suffering from severe and permanent natural or demographic handicaps, such as the northernmost regions with low population density and the island, cross-border and mountain regions".

In this text, less favored regions are listed as those with serious demographic disadvantages. Indeed, in the accession treaty of Finland and Sweden, in 1994, it was indicated that the regions with less than 8 inhabitants/km2 (NUTS 2 according to European terminology) would be considered less favored areas. This is how Lapland was identified –through the NUTS 2 grouping of both countries–, an arctic territory with a density of less than 8 inhabitants/km2 due to its extreme weather. In human geography, an area with less than 10 inhabitants/km2 is considered a demographic desert.

In 2006, the name "sparsely populated areas" was introduced for provinces with less than 12.5 inhabitants/km2 (NUTS 3), leaving those with less than eight as "very sparsely populated". Teruel, Soria and Cuenca entered this new category, and for the first time it was seen that some areas within Spanish territory had demographic problems.

But the studies continued to evolve and it was observed that the analysis by regions or by provinces did not serve to reflect the reality of the territory; densely populated cities "hidden" areas with few inhabitants. The GEOPECS report, prepared by professors Alexandre Dubois and Johanna Roto in 2012, delimited our sparsely populated areas, grouping local entities (LAU) –municipalities in the case of Spain– according to their density, less than 12.5 inhabitants/km2 , and its access, of more than 45 minutes or 50 km, to centers of 50,000 inhabitants or more.

In 2021, the concept of "population loss" was introduced for the first time as a criterion for receiving aid. According to the State Aid Guidelines for Regional Purposes, NUTS 3 companies that have lost more than 10% of their population from 2009 to 2018 will be able to benefit from a 15% tax exemption, the same as sparsely populated areas.

Parallel to the GEOPECS report, from the Institute for the Development of the Serranía Celtiberica we carried out the research that led to the delimitation of this area. Using the GIS (Geographic Information System), we grouped the local entities, which gave rise to the delimitation of the Serranía Celtiberica: a territory of 65,823 km2, twice the size of Belgium, with 460,613 inhabitants and a density of 6.99 inhab/km2 according to 2019 data. It is known as 'the Spanish Lapland', since it was the second territory discovered in Europe with less than 8 inhab/km2, but its case is much more serious, since it is not a structural situation , but a problem of depopulation. When studying the rest of Spain at the municipal level, it was discovered that, although the population had increased by almost 20 million inhabitants since the middle of the 20th century (from 27,976,755 in 1950 to 47,332,614 in 2019), there had been a very low depopulation. marked in rural areas, which went unnoticed when analyzed at the provincial level. The only place that has evolved in the opposite direction, going from being a territory with demographic problems to being populated, is the island of Fuerteventura, in the Canary Islands.

The Commission's Execution Regulation (EU) 2019/1130 of July 2, 2019 indicates that local entities (LAU) are the territorial units used for the analysis of sparsely populated areas. Also of special interest is Regulation (CE) 1059/2003, which defines the types of NUTS, where in addition to the corresponding administrative units, such as regions (NUTS 2) or provinces (NUTS 3), there are the so-called "non-administrative units", which must reflect "economic, social, historical, cultural, geographical or environmental circumstances". These regulations apply to the definition of Functional Urban Areas (AUF), recognized by the EU, which encompass urban areas and adjoining peri-urban fringes, grouping local entities without taking traditional administrative boundaries into account. In this way, the functional urban area of ​​Madrid encompasses the Henares corridor in Guadalajara and reaches Toledo.

The same criteria have been followed to delimit territories that have demographic problems within Spain. Grouping the municipalities, 10 sparsely populated areas have been defined. Two of them have less than 8 inhabitants/km2: the Serranía Celtiberica, from Burgos to Castellón, and the Franja with Portugal. According to the results, 54.89% of the Spanish territory has serious demographic problems. It is a very different case from Lapland: there they have always had a low population density due to its extreme climate; On the other hand, the Spanish areas suffer from significant depopulation, which is becoming more and more accentuated, since the neighboring municipalities are also losing inhabitants. It is about 277,761,387 km2 in which, in 1950, 5,759,154 people lived. The population density was 20.73 inhabitants/km2. In 2019, the number of inhabitants had been halved: 2,390,918, which means that the population density is now 8.61 inhabitants/km2.

And the worst is yet to come. Until 2001, the decrease in the number of inhabitants was mainly due to migration; now we are in the second phase of depopulation: the few people who remained in those territories are dying without having generational relief. In fact, the high number of elderly people is one of the great problems in these areas, especially in the Strip with Portugal, which in 2019 suffered an aging rate of 481.14%, when the average in Spain is 125%.

This delimitation of 54.89% of the Spanish territory as sparsely populated, following European criteria, has made it possible to speak of depopulation, since we now have a measure that can be compared with the rest of the countries of the European Union. And it has made us stop considering what happens in Spain as normal and in line with the new population distribution (concentrating in the cities and abandoning the rural world). Among the countries of southern Europe, we lead the territories with demographic problems, followed by Portugal, with 35% of sparsely populated geography, and France, which has this problem in 20% of its territory.

What Spain has suffered has been a continuous act of 'demothanasia': both by direct or indirect actions and by omission thereof, people have been forced to leave their place of origin, seeking a better future and giving rise to the loss of custody of the territory. We must not forget that the areas of the rural world are rich: they are the ones that have environmental or agricultural resources, fresh water or minerals. That they are depopulated means that they can be repopulated. And to do so, you have to make them attractive, both to generate employment and to live in them.

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European Union strategies applied to sparsely populated areas

The State Aid Guidelines for Regional Purposes presented on April 19, 2021 indicate that the Member States must designate a “regional aid map” and submit it to the Commission for approval before January 1, 2022. They give the possibility that the map of sparsely populated areas is made by grouping municipalities, to reflect the reality of the territory. They are eligible for a 15% business tax break.

With regard to the European Structural and Investment Funds for the period 2021-2027, disadvantaged areas must be taken into account in the distribution of the Cohesion Funds, with an announced sum of 41,349 billion euros; from the European Social Fund, with 88.646 billion euros; and from the funds of the less developed regions, which represent a sum of 198,621 billion euros.

The same differentiated taxation enjoyed by the outermost island areas should be applied to the sparsely populated areas of Spain. In the Canary archipelago, with an area of ​​7,493 km2, 2,237,390 people benefit from a VAT reduced to 7%, from a corporate tax of 4%, from a 50% reduction in personal income tax for residents, from a 80% in the salary of administrators, doctors and teachers or a special PAC. And it has been shown that these measures work, since the Canary Islands have grown spectacularly: 578,328 people so far this century, 117,716 more people than those registered in the Serranía Celtiberica.

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