"You cannot tackle the problem of depopulation without getting out of the official car"
Luis Antonio Saez He has a doctorate in Economics, a professor at the University of Zaragoza and director of the Center for Studies on Depopulation and Development of Rural Areas and is one of the leading experts in depopulation from Spain.
-Let's imagine that this interview is read by a senior government official whose powers include the fight against depopulation. What would be the guidelines that you would have to take into account?
-I would bet on three clear guidelines. Work as a team and work on issues in an integrated way because they are all related. Work among all areas of Government, between different levels of Government and with civil society and non-governmental associations.
The challenges are horizontal (aging, innovation, work-life balance, quality of life in rural areas) and yet they continue to be faced in a sectorial or vertical way, which is a nineteenth-century concept.
-What else would you say to that politician?
-That he studies and goes down to the territory. You have to study and see what happens in other places. It happens as with COVID: you have to study what happens in other countries and even in other autonomous communities, but also go down to the hospital floor. You cannot do medicine or therapy or strategies without walking and, of course, walking outside the official car listening to the people, soaking up the territory because the interior of Lugo or Ourense is not the same as the Atlantic facade of Galicia.
-And the third key?
- It takes much more a sporting sense of criticism and debate. Accept criticism, learn from mistakes. There are many success stories that are described, but not analyzed. And running away, that did scare me when I read the Galician strategy, of encyclopedic approaches, of that kind of vacui horror of wanting to cover everything. It is better to make proposals about projects adapted to the territory than not wanting to make an encyclopedia that is later inapplicable. We have to be realist.
-It does not give you the feeling that for a long time there has been much talk about what needs to be done to avoid depopulation, but in the end nothing is done.
-The policy has a show point: more to look for the effect than to try to face the underlying problem. And depopulation is such a broad subject that it lends itself to being a wild card for everything. I once titled a lecture Why do they call it depopulation when they don't know what to say. Since we have an aging rural environment, we are going to develop the Dependency Law well, which would give a lot of play, adapting it, for example, to the context of small villages in Galicia or the work-life balance in a certain way. Or we are going to execute well the forms of participation that small town councils have.
-Depopulation is a problem that needs long-term measures, and the policy is short-term. Is it going to be impossible to fix the problem of emptied Spain?
-Certain. There is that vice of the short term, of the spectacle, but there is another previous question and that is that the problem of depopulation in the numerical sense is impossible. It's as if Snow White's stepmother wants to get younger every time. More people die in Spain than are born. There is a study from the beginning of the century that says that to maintain the structure in terms of the proportion of young people, each Spanish woman would have to have six children and even if citizens from other places are arriving, it is not enough. Setting yourself a goal that is impossible in arithmetic terms produces frustration and, on the other hand, makes you make wrong decisions.
-What can we do then?
-Learn to live in low density knowing that we are less. Low density has disadvantages, but it also has advantages, as COVID has shown. Countries like Canada, Sweden, and Finland also have problems of low population density and achieve a fairly acceptable degree of cohesion. How do we achieve that in a territory with a low density, perhaps aged, that has its pros and cons, these people are fulfilled and that as a community it is relatively cohesive? If we are obsessed with the number it is an impossible goal. We are going to work more on the idea of people at each stage of their life and according to their expectations.
-So, the solution is more inside than outside?
-If the horizon is to have a Corte Inglés next to the house or to be able to choose between ten bars, it is better to live in a metropolitan area, but if you value, for example, going through the mountains, crossing paths with a fox, seeing three vultures and being in a place that you don't hear from anyone is better a quieter place. But you may like both.