A study by JPQ consultants, supervised by geographer Teresa Sá Marques, of the University of Porto, reveals that the demographic risks associated with the rupture of fertility rates and the ageing of the population are most marked in the border territories of Portugal and Spain. The work, carried out at the request of a consortium of entities from the two countries, points to some measures to reinforce the attractiveness of these territories, but its authors assume that, rather than reversing the demographic process - a "utopia" - it is necessary to adapt the local and national economy to a country with fewer people.
It is necessary to return the heritage, but first it is necessary to admit the error of colonization.
In the week when Eurostat released a forecast pointing to a scenario of a quarter reduction in the population living in Portugal over the next 50 years, the image taken by the team coordinated by José Paulo Queiroz on the seams between Portugal and Spain shows that national trends of population decline, ageing, declining assets and falling fertility rates have an even more worrying expression in these areas than in other areas within both countries.
The study, which adds more information to the recent work that has tackled the problems and proposed solutions for the so-called low-density territories, has been financed by the European Interreg Programme and requested by a consortium that brings together the Boards of Galicia, Castilla y León and Extremadura, on the Spanish side, and the University of Porto, the Alto Minho Intermunicipal Community and the Braga Chamber, on the Portuguese team. The team involved analysed statistical information and prospective data for the subregions (NUT III) of Pontevedra, Ourense, Zamora, Salamanca, Cáceres, Badajoz and Huelva, all of Spain, and Alto Minho, Cávado, Alto Támega, Duero, Tierras de Trás -os-Montes, Algarve, Beira, Beiras and Serra da Estrela, Baixo Alentejo, Alentejo and the central Alentejo, Portugal.
One of the elements that stand out, of course, in this work - which draws heavily on statistical information on the territories of the European Union - is the disparity between the two sides. The Portuguese NUT III border is home to 22% of the population, some 2.2 million people, while on the Spanish side, and a much larger territory, live only 7% of the neighbouring country's population, 3.1 million. On a European scale, and according to the seventh report on economic, social and territorial cohesion, in 2014, approximately one third of the population lived in land border regions.
In Europe, these border regions are responsible for 28% of the total Community gross domestic product, but on an Iberian scale, although the data are not indicated in this work, the maps on the weight of regional GDP show that development occurs asymmetrically. In 2015, while the metropolis is clearly evident, rural areas, especially the border between Portugal and Spain, contribute little to the gross domestic product (GDP) of both countries. In 2030, territorial disparities remain, although this means that there is an expectation of an increase in the wealth produced in these areas, with Trás-os-Montes, Baixo Alentejo and Badajoz standing out. What is estimated, however, is that it will be insufficient to reduce the existing gap.
One of the known problems of the economy of these regions is that it is very sustained in activities with a high demand for manpower, which is going to become more and more scarce. Like the country, and at a worse rate than the rest of the country, due to the migration of the youngest, the border territories will have a notable decrease in the active population, which, for geographer and researcher Teresa Sá Marques, poses several challenges. And the most important of them is, of course, that of finding ways to guarantee quality of life to those who stay.
Assuming that birth policies will have little or no effect in territories where there are already few women of childbearing age, the academic who in recent years coordinated the National Programme for Territorial Planning Policies refers to the need to work on the conditions of attractiveness of these spaces, guaranteeing essential public and private services, mobility and digital connectivity. "We have to know how to build a future with fewer people and create a development discourse for a territory with other resources," says the geographer of the University of Oporto.
In the debate with entities linked to the institutions that commissioned this study, a range of proposals emerged, some of them already put into practice by some of the organizations that participated in a survey. Some, such as the decentralisation of State services, are meeting the recently published reflections on the interior, but, at the request of the consortium, attention has been paid to measures that can mitigate the gender inequalities present in these as well as in other spaces on the peninsula.
Within this framework, the group highlights the need to increase aid for business projects that promote quality employment, particularly in terms of reconciling work and private life and promoting equal opportunities (Equality Plans, flexibility in the organisation of working times, support services, etc.) and the hiring of young workers. It is also proposed to introduce or reinforce specific incentives for hiring workers, particularly women, who are unemployed or inactive due to maternity, childcare or other dependents, domestic violence, etc.
It also advocates the development of language training programmes and the promotion of bilingualism, aimed especially at younger audiences, and the creation of cross-border programmes to support entrepreneurship and the creation of one's own employment, particularly for women. To this end, they also call for cross-border shared service and coworking centres and the development of telework as a way of attracting residents. This requires, they point out, the "strengthening of telecommunications infrastructures".
From the point of view of physical mobility, and even if one guesses that technologies can bring citizens living in these territories closer to many services that have been lost (such as health, through telemedicine), the group does not cease to consider it urgent to develop new solutions in the field of transport, in order to respond to an ever-increasing population that, in this respect, has more difficulties. It also proposes the establishment of programmes for the distribution of public services and the use of equipment in border areas.
In view of the ageing of the population, support measures for organisations providing care for children and the elderly and the development of a support programme for the creation and deepening of action and cooperation between universities for the elderly, also with a cross-border dimension, are also indicated. Closely linked to this aspect of active ageing, it advocates the "promotion of solutions to support the independent life of older people, involving telecare, home care, transport services and training".
The authors of this paper also stress the need for direct support for individuals and families. For example, they advocate the "creation of subsidies and other forms of support for the return and fixation of relatives of elderly people and dependents who assume permanent care functions, allowing the maintenance of the cared person in their domestic and living context, access to housing at an affordable cost and a specific programme to encourage the installation of young entrepreneurs and the creation of businesses in "sustainable" business areas (new agricultural products, including products from organic farming, tourism, business support services, etc.).