The wind of depopulation blows with greater intensity in Terra Alta

The enthusiasm for taking care of olive trees, almond trees and vineyards expressed by Messa Shields, a 29-year-old Californian, provides some relief to the residents of Bot, the town in Terra Alta that has lost the most inhabitants percentage-wise since the beginning of the century XXI, specifically 271, almost 33%.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
10 March 2024 Sunday 11:32
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The wind of depopulation blows with greater intensity in Terra Alta

The enthusiasm for taking care of olive trees, almond trees and vineyards expressed by Messa Shields, a 29-year-old Californian, provides some relief to the residents of Bot, the town in Terra Alta that has lost the most inhabitants percentage-wise since the beginning of the century XXI, specifically 271, almost 33%. Messa, an inveterate traveller, loves the land and working outdoors, a lifestyle he can bring to Bot. Attracting new residents is a reason for satisfaction in the region of Catalonia with a greater population drop, specifically of 5.9%, followed by Les Garrigues (-2%) and Ripollès (-1.6%), among the years 2000 and 2023. During this period Catalonia increased by almost 28%.

The depopulation responds to a cluster of factors in a land far from the centers of power and which has struggled to heal the wounds of the Battle of the Ebro. The arrival of Messa and other young people who are doing their bit in the attempt to revitalize the rural world is great news in the oldest region of Catalonia. 29.20% of the inhabitants are over the age of 65, compared to the Catalan average of 19.27%. The Idescat statistics also highlight that it is in the first position in the aging index (253.7 per 133 on average) and that it is the second with the most pensioners (27.4%), after Berguedà. In addition, this is where this group receives on average a lower amount, 1,024 euros. Regarding the gross disposable family income (RFDB), it is among the last five counties, according to Idescat figures.

Depopulation and poverty have propelled the concentration of wind turbines, a total of 161, and have turned this area into the one with the most installed wind power, so far 379.29 MW, 27.5% of Catalonia's total , as indicated by the data published by the Generalitat. "Developers look for poor and aging territories, where the price of land is cheaper and it is easier to convince the neighbors. Twenty years after the start of the mills, the supposed benefits they promised have not been seen, they have not helped to stabilize the population and perhaps they have slowed down other initiatives related to tourism, and specifically wine tourism. The wind farm workers registered in these municipalities only represent 0.7% of their active population", highlights the geographer of the URV Sergi Saladie, who regrets that the Generalitat has "inhibited" itself by not promoting a plan for the distribution of wind turbines throughout the territory to fulfill the objective of producing energy close to the centers of consumption. Saladie, former deputy of the CUP in Parliament, is the author of Conflict between the landscape and wind energy. The case of the southern regions of Catalonia. It should be remembered that the counties of Tarragona and Lleida concentrate the vast majority of parks.

Some municipalities with few resources embraced these energy generation infrastructures, but the wine sector has expressed objections for years. The mayor of Fatarella, Jordi Rius, remembers that the regulatory council of DO Terra Alta, of which he is secretary, said "enough with wind massification" because he understands that it has become "one of the main problems, not only landscape, but also economic, for the wine sector". Rius adds that Terra Alta produces 90% of Catalonia's white Grenache.

"We have already more than fulfilled our solidarity quota, I ask the Government of the Generalitat to set limits, so that the rest of Catalonia also fulfills it. Obviously, we are not against renewables, but we are against how they have been deployed. Is it necessary for us to fall into an outdated system in which the promoters are large companies or can we be the ones who organize ourselves in small communities to generate our energy? Our winery works 95% with the solar energy we produce ourselves. My business, the production of wine, also depends on the landscape, on preserving the ancestral heritage of the dry stone banks... It took us a lot to enter the market and now we have to stay there", explains Núria Altès, co-owner of the winery Herencia Altès, in Gandesa.

"This is a complicated issue, in the past everyone went their own way and depopulation has allowed the massification of mills; there are neighbors who benefit from it, since they can charge up to 6,000 euros for each wind turbine they have placed on their land, and others who suffer the impact without having any benefit", considers Núria Mulet, mayoress of Bot. This graduate in Environmental Sciences from the UAB is part of the small group of her generation that, when the university stage ended, decided to return to Terra Alta. "Here the message has prevailed: boys, go study and earn a living abroad. Returning was synonymous with failure," explains Mulet, who did the final project on an ecological restaurant in the old railway station of his town, a place frequented by cyclists who ride the Green Way.

The mayor estimates that Bot, with 559 registered residents, receives between taxes and through the agreement for compensation of the impact of the mills close to 100,000 euros. The municipal budget for this 2024 is close to 1.2 million euros.

His partner, Messa, with whom we began this report, brings fresh air to this town which last year recorded five newborns and fifteen deaths. Of the twelve municipalities in the region, only two have gained population during the analyzed period: the capital, Gandesa, and Prat de Comte, with 576 and 10 more residents in each case. The growth of the former responds in a good way to the arrival of immigrants, who represent 22.5% of the total population, notes journalist and councilor Josep Garriga. It is also influenced by the centrifugation process of the population from smaller towns to larger ones with more services, as happens in all counties.

In the depopulation debate, Garriga regrets that localism has prevailed in Terra Alta, that a common front has not been fostered to be stronger when raising demands. He believes that with better infrastructure and connections, Terra Alta could take advantage of its location at a sort of crossroads.

Also in Gandesa, the local chronicler and former councilor Anton Monner points out that it would be fair to approve discounts on the electricity bill for the residents of Terra Alta with the argument that "more than 25% of Catalonia's wind energy is generated here". He also believes that the compensation received by the municipalities should be invested in creating jobs and not in electoral policies.

"I don't see that measures have been applied to rebalance the territory", laments Jaume Martí, general manager of Agrícola Sant Josep, the Bot cooperative. Poor communications and a lack of housing remain attractive and slow progress, in Terra Alta and in other destinations that are also losing population. "Many times we are looking for qualified technicians and you can prepare yourself, you need a lot of time to fill these jobs. Right now we have a production technician, but it took us four months to find him, anywhere else everything would have gone much faster. He is from Benicàssim and by chance he has found a home in a nearby town, in Batea", confirms Martí. And he also predicts that at a time when the field faces significant "administrative and environmental challenges, the farmer of the future should have a wide spectrum of agronomic knowledge to deal with the drought, in addition to having a business orientation; otherwise, it is difficult for it to be profitable". And he adds that, bearing in mind that wine consumption has declined on a global scale, it is necessary to bet on quality rather than quantity and, above all, advance in the challenge of diversifying economic activity.

The December 2023 data from Idescat indicate that 57.7% of those affiliated with the Terra Alta Social Security are in the service sector; 17.5%, in industry; 17.2%, in agriculture, and 7.8%, in construction.

The mayoress of Bot believes that it would also contribute to the area's dynamism by deepening agricultural transformation initiatives that bring more added value to the area's products. And above all it would be balsamic to put an end to the pessimistic discourses that devalue a region with many attractions and harm its self-esteem. "It is necessary to eliminate this laziness that leads us to have no future", defends Mulet, immersed in the search for resources to rehabilitate the old houses of the teachers and transform them into four homes. They also plan to locate in one of the premises of the old train station a tasting room and promotion of local specialties, mainly wine, olives, oil and sausages. The In-FCTA film festival, promoted by the actor Ivan Massagué, has been a sensation that has put Bot on the cultural map. This March also saw the launch of the Seasons Cycle, which combines the arts with debates linked to rurality, oenology and gastronomy.

"Here they haven't seen any American who wants to be a farmer, we have few successful experiences of people from outside who have taken root", adds the mayor looking at Messa. But the young Californian, in love with the land, has gone from running a single estate in one year to gaining the trust of a total of ten owners, most of them retired. In addition to taking care of 25 hectares of fields, he has enrolled in organic farming courses. Messa puts his grain of sand in the challenge of the generational relay.