Mega farms drive out residents of rural Spanish villages

by Deborah Cater
Mega farms contribute to rural depopulation

Residents of areas where mega farms are planned are calling en masse for an end to what they see as a threat to their quality of life and future. According to the sector, the farms will provide jobs for 400,000 families.  

Mayor Natividad Pérez of Balsa de Ves, a small municipality in the province of Albacete with 131 inhabitants, is talking to the inhabitants about what will happen if a large-scale pig farm is built in their village. Every year, 100,000 pigs are bred there. That equates to 763 animals per inhabitant – causing soil and water pollution, and odours. Pérez wants to fight against new industrial livestock projects in cities in empty Spain: Albacete, Cuenca, Toledo, Zamora, Avila. Several protests have already been organised this year; another is planned for Friday in 50 cities. 

Extensive pig farming accelerates depopulation

The inhabitants of the villages are not only worried about the deterioration of their quality of life. Their concern is for the future. A new report by environmental movement Ecologistas en Acción shows intensive pig farming is accelerating the exodus from the villages. Balsa de Ves is a fin example; 40% of the population has already left the village since the arrival of the pig farm in 2006.

Other factors, such as the lack of services, also played a role. Employers’ organisation Interporc stresses the more than 86,000 pig farms in Spain provide direct and indirect employment for 400,000 families. Most of these families are in rural areas, making them ‘essential in the fight against depopulation’. Interporc blames the protests on ‘animal activists’. 

 Yet research by Ecologistas en Acción shows otherwise. Their data shows that 74% of inhabitants left remote small municipalities that have a large intensive pig population of between 5,000 and over 100,000 animals. That is more than left than from nearby municipalities with a similar population but no mega-farm.  This does not prove the positive effect,’ says Daniel González, coordinator of the report. 

Economy of rural areas complicated

 Jorge Blanco, a demographic researcher at Madrid’s Complutense University, explains this type of industry ‘steers the economy of rural areas.  The countryside economy is usually based on agriculture and extensive stockbreeding; in one direction that does not necessarily affect village life, thus removing some of the wealth associated with the different labour activities’.

For example, people sell their land and become tenants. And yes, the pig industry ‘may indeed attract workers, but they don’t have to live in the village.  And if they don’t, they don’t pay taxes there and no income flows to the municipality’, Blanco continues. 

Cause or effect 

 Vicente Pinilla of the University of Zaragoza points out that ‘the fact that municipalities with mega farms grow less does not prove that these facilities are the cause. I.e. it does not imply a causal relationship’. The key question ‘is whether pig farming is the cause of depopulation, or whether pig farming settles where depopulation occurs, which seems more likely’.

According to Pinilla, there are other causes for rural depopulation. These are the lack of employment and public services and a very unbalanced demographic structure, with many men and older people. ‘This kind of depopulation has occurred all over Europe in recent years,’ he adds. 

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Reality and Illusion

Ecologists and neighbourhood platforms recognise industrial livestock production is not the only factor leading to depopulation. However, they stress they do not contribute to keeping the inhabitants as the sector claims.

Natividad Pérez explains the example of Balsa de Ves. ‘In 2006, when I was an opposition councillor, the mega-stall was installed and we were told they would employ all the unemployed and provide a lot of work. But they only hired five people from the village’.

In fact, between 2000 and 2020, 50% of the population left the village. Out of 259 inhabitants, 131 are left. The majority (40%) left after 2006. The same thing happened in a nearby village. No one wants to live next to a farm that causes unbearable stench and pollutes. In addition, there are the huge trucks which destroy the public road.

Slurry and other waste litters the fields because there is also a biogas plant on the complex. According to the regulations, the land must be ploughed within 24 hours to prevent air pollution. This does not happen in practice.  

 The opinion of Interporc  

Interporc explains that, according to analysis, ‘in no village has the arrival of a mega-stall led to the departure of families, on the contrary. And the sector is strongly committed to the countryside, attracting the agri-food and supply industries. Agricultural and livestock activities are essential in the fight against depopulation,’ says an Interporc spokesman. ‘And as for pollution, regulations require slurry to be applied directly to the soil and buried within 12 hours, reducing ammonia emissions by 30%. ‘The sector now produces 50% less slurry and more than 90% of slurry is reused to replace fertiliser,’ he adds.

According to data from the various employers’ organisations, there are 86,000 pig farms (80% of them industrial), 130,000 cattle farms and 5,000 poultry farms in Spain. 

Citizen platforms and protests 

In several places in the country, citizens’ platforms against this type of industrial livestock farming continue to emerge. Furthermore, there are the associated problems; the slurry contains antibiotics, heavy metals and nitrates, which seep into the soil and end up in aquifers, polluting the water. There are already many municipalities with undrinkable water.

Meanwhile, the nationwide coalition ‘Stop Industrial Livestock Farming’ is coordinating similar movements throughout Spain. According to Greenpeace calculations, in the past three years authorities issued 1.5 permits per day for new installations. Therefore, Greenpeace demands a suspension of this form of livestock farming, something all platforms agree on. In recent months there have been many demonstrations against new complexes, although most of them took place in small towns and were not very visible.

In May, they took their protest to several provincial capitals. On Friday, protests will take place again. Mayor Natividad Pérez summarises it as follows: ‘Villages are an area of suffering and resistance. The platforms give voice and dignity to the neighbours to stop this madness’. 


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