Priorat loses almost 900 inhabitants in the last decade after a small rebound
Rural depopulation continues to advance in Priorat. Although during the first decade of the 21st century there was a rebound, in the last ten, the region has lost 848 inhabitants. This represents 9% of the current population, which stood at 9,239 in 2021, according to the Statistical Institute of Catalonia (Idescat). All the actors consulted indicate the lack of diversification of the economy as the main cause. On the other hand, the proliferation of tourism and, therefore, of accommodation, makes it increasingly difficult to find housing. In the smaller municipalities, access to basic services is difficult. A sum of factors that do not help to repopulate a territory that experienced its maximum exodus in the 1950s and that, despite the fact that there have been some upturns, it seems that the downward trend continues.
In a region where the main crop is the vineyard, «it is difficult to live from it due to the low profitability. The quality is very good, but the production is low," says the mayor of Margalef, Joaquim Vila. Currently, it is the smallest municipality in Priorat, with 104 inhabitants last year. Although the figure has become lower: in 2018 there were 94. “If we remain above one hundred inhabitants, in the next municipal elections there may be five councilors in the consistory. Now we are three because in 2019 we did not reach a hundred neighbors, ”says Vila.
The Priorat landscape is the region's most precious asset. In contrast, no industry has been created, "not a single polygon", recalls Jordi Blay, head of the Degree in Geography, Territorial Analysis and Sustainability at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili (URV). This took its toll during the 20th century, when the economy experienced great growth, and not precisely in the rural world, but in coastal and well-connected areas.
The evolution of the Baix Camp, totally opposed to that of the Priorat, demonstrates this. "People go where there are alternatives and that is what happened in Reus, where there was industrial growth, services, tourism... And agriculture has not been able to compete", a sector that, as Blay recalls, first had to face the phylloxera and, later, has caused several crises. The result is that Baix Camp has gained more than 130,000 inhabitants in one hundred years (at the beginning of the 20th century it did not reach 60,000) and Priorat has lost more than 13,000 residents (a century ago it was around 22,000).
From the end of the 1990s until 2010, Priorat experienced a rise to reach 10,145 inhabitants. "It coincides with the arrival of immigrants and agriculture was in demand," recalls Blay. Since then, the population has not stopped falling, with a small rebound in 2021. "The municipalities that have grown as a result of the pandemic are the closest to large cities," the geographer points out. The unknown is to know what will happen in the coming years. Is this small rally something punctual or is it the start of a trend?
There are several initiatives that are working precisely to reverse the process, although Jordi Blay also recalls that it is difficult to prevent young people from leaving “when what they want is to see the world. Another thing is to work to refish them ». He especially highlights the specialization and territorial competitiveness project (PECT) 'Pobles vius i actius. Balanced and innovative territory, which seeks to create job opportunities and services and to make living in rural areas attractive. Coordinated by the Provincial Council of Tarragona, it has the involvement of several agents in the territory and works on various lines, from school, to quality of life or economic development.
From Margalef, what the mayor, Joaquim Vila, regrets is the lack of housing. “Many have bought for vacation rentals,” he says, leaving those interested in settling permanently out of the question. However, he details that the town has some new families, some with children. Something that he values because "we practically do not have young people." And, after all, the evolution of the population depends on this age range.
"Either you dedicate yourself to the local economy or you have to leave"
Francesc Delpueyo Aceña, 31, is from Porrera, but hasn't lived in the town for years. He had to leave when he began university studies in History at the URV. "During the first year I did go to the university by car every day, but the following year I already chose to take a flat in Tarragona, above all for financial reasons," he says. Behind the decision there were also other reasons, such as the desire to leave home and discover new environments.
If his studies 'forced' him to leave the region, the same thing happened with the world of work. And the thing is that "either you dedicate yourself to the local economy, that is, to the vineyard or to the hotel industry, or you have to leave," he recalls. This is not his case, so he has had to look for job opportunities outside of Priorat. Initially, he had opted for forest management, which could have allowed him to stay, "but in the end I chose the most vocational part, which was History," he recalls.
However, he stresses that he likes to be close to the region. Last year, he was in Barcelona for work, but "in January, the company I work for suggested I move closer to home" and now he lives in Tarragona again.
For now, he sees the future in the Reus-Tarragona area, valuing the proximity to his town, just 30 minutes away. "There is better quality of life in a less dense area than in a big city," says Francesc, for which he is grateful to be able to do his work from Tarragona instead of Barcelona.
His reasons for leaving Porrera are similar to those of many young people who also live abroad, "but the peculiarity is that we all end up coming back", and that is that the bond with the town does not fade. What is difficult is finding housing because “there is no offer”. As for job opportunities in Priorat, Francesc believes that there is a lack of diversification to avoid depopulation but, at the same time, he values that it be "another rhythm of life".
«I left Barcelona to fulfill my dream: climbing»
Despite the depopulation of the rural world, there are always those who find their refuge in tranquility. This is the case of Toni Arbonès, who left the noise of Barcelona to settle in Siurana "when there was no road or water in summer", he recalls. All of this was 35 years ago and he was only 20. He was pursuing his dream, dedicating himself to climbing, and it was then that he had an opportunity: to be the guard of the Siurana refuge.
At that time, Toni was competing in the national climbing team and, being in Barcelona, he was climbing in Montserrat. He, too, started college "but didn't fit in," he says. And it is that he was clear that "I wanted to dedicate myself to my dream." His parents come from Ribera d'Ebre and his roots have always attracted him to Tarragona. So, he began to climb in the Siurana area until the opportunity arose to work in the refuge, after the previous guard retired.
He went from the big city to a small nucleus that "it took you 45 minutes to travel six kilometers, because of how bad the track was," he recalls. A radical change that allowed Toni to live day by day in contact with the rock, opening new climbing routes up to the current 2,000. After 18 years in the refuge, he opened his own business, Càmping Siurana.
Now, he misses the silence of those years. "Priorat is dying of success," he says. Climbing has gone from being a minority sport to enjoying maximum popularity. "Every year 50,000 climbers pass through here because, on the one hand, it is a world reference area, and on the other, because there is no type of control," he denounces.
In fact, he explains that there is no housing offer because "holiday rentals are more profitable." On the other hand, "there are people who work in Cornudella who have to come from outside every day because they can't find a home here" which "destroys the town", he warns.