jueves, 5 de junio de 2008

Deserted villages

Dead villages

Last weekend we went hiking with some other families in one of Spain’s remotest areas: Liébana. The Liébana Shire is made up of a series of narrow valleys, formed by steep mountains and crossed by small rivers that now flourish only in the rain periods.

Its secluded nature made Liebana an ideal refuge in the Middle Ages for the Lignum Crucis, a piece of the Christ’s True Cross. Thus, since the 8th Century AD, St Toribius Abbey guarded a large piece of wood from the Arab invasion. Some of the earliest scholarly manuscripts from the Middle Ages come from this Abbey and its scriptorium. The Abbey commanded great extensions of land that sprawled even into neighbouring Spanish provinces. With the course of time, the region became forgotten, and fell into oblivion.

Its economy lapsed into self sufficiency farming. People had to share the scarce arable land, burn the woods for pasture and men frequently had to join the army, the police, become a priest or try luck somewhere else in Spain, often in America. Hardly anybody came here to stay, mainly enriched immingrants that had been fortunate in the Indies or political exiles. That was the case, Concepción Arenal, the first Spanish woman lawyer. Her liberal beliefs made her an exile and had to reside in Liebana’s main town, Potes.

In the 20th century, particularly after Spanish civil war, mass migration emtpied these villages. It is sad - but wholy understandable - to see that in the era of economic boost (the 60’s and 70’s) people realized that life there was too hard, and abandoned their homes for an easier way of life in town, where winters are milder, life less monotonous, and earning a life much easier.

Only when Spain joined the European Union did these famers gain an opportunity to stay at home: subsidies allowed them to go on farming, mainly cows, but also some goats and sheep. Frison cows (your usual black and white, milk cows) cannot live here, the pastures are too steep and they get sick at the legs. Swiss cows are much happier, and have thus supplanted the native cattle races.

We visited one of such villages where nature is claiming its share, and only cows graze. A shepherd told us that last inhabitant was a lonely, drunken man, and finally killed himself.

Just now the prices of agricultural products are rocketing sky high. Just now the EU is talking of finishing farming subsidies. When Europe needs larger milk production. You can bet that nobody will profit from that measures: the budgetary savings will not translate into other gains, and the so called free market will not give these people the opportunity they deserve. Let us hope that politicians recover good sense and put people’s needs before market needs, ear marked by shameless financial speculators.

Liebana, a land to go back. Unexplored Spain.

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