Alejandro Garcia Moratilla alias “Mazo Agrio”, paints a Roman-inspired mural in Driebes, Spain Image Credit: NYT

The 339 inhabitants of Driebes have reasons to worry. The village has only one shepherd left. He is 82. The school, built for as many as 50 children, now holds 11. So far this year, six of its ageing residents have died and not a single birth has been registered.

The demographic evolution of Driebes is set to cut the population to less than 200 inhabitants within 20 years, warned the mayor, Pedro Rincon. That is, unless Driebes can attract tourism or investment.

That is why he and his dwindling band of constituents got so excited last summer when archaeologists spent a month excavating outside Driebes, on a plateau overlooking the Tagus river. What they found was the first remains of what was once an important Roman mining and farming settlement, Caraca, complete with a forum, public baths and an estimated 1,800 residents, several times larger than the population of Driebes today.

Now Driebes is pining for the Caraca digs to resume, hoping a Roman past can help secure the village’s future as a tourist destination.

That may be something of a pipe dream. Even so, in April, the village organised a competition in which 19 graffiti artists covered walls around Driebes with Roman-themed murals.

“It makes me proud to see the people from this village welcome with such enthusiasm an excavation project, especially because archaeology shouldn’t just be about finding old things but also transmitting knowledge to those who live here today,” said David Alvarez Jimenez, a historian who is involved in the Caraca project.

Until the 1950s, Driebes maintained a population of almost 1,200, not bad for a village in a vast area known as “the Lapland of Spain” because of its sparse population.

But just as Caraca was abandoned by the Romans, presumably because their mining activities ended, so too Driebes started emptying because of its dwindling agriculture.

Villagers steadily moved to the new dormitory towns and factories built around Madrid, Spain’s capital, just 50 miles away.

Rincon, the mayor, was born in Driebes in 1962, but left when he was an infant, because his father found work in an oil refinery in Arganda del Rey, a town of over 50,000 inhabitants some 30 miles from Driebes.

Rincon himself went on to work in the same refinery, but then returned to his village when the refinery closed 24 years ago. He set himself up as an independent meat distributor and was elected mayor in 2010.

“I always felt that I’d been snatched away as a baby from the family village that I really love,” he said. “I’ve been lucky to come back and also work here, but there’s no question that we will need to create more jobs to save this village and keep young people.”

His own daughter, Montserrat, 32, lives in Driebes with her parents but is now unemployed.

Driebes is not alone in facing a bleak future, even as Spain’s economy continues its strong recovery from its 2012 banking crisis.

In February, the Spanish government said it would elaborate a new plan to fight loss of population in the countryside, particularly in this huge and arid stretch of land that averages less than eight inhabitants per square kilometre, making it one the least densely populated areas of Europe.

Overall, Spain’s national statistics show that more than half the country’s municipalities are at risk of ceasing to exist, because they have already fallen below the threshold of 1,000 inhabitants.

Around Driebes, some villages have survived only on the whims of good fortune or special investment projects.

In 2016, residents of nearby Brea de Tajo shared €120 million after buying a joint winning ticket for Spain’s huge Christmas lottery.

In Estremera, the village’s economy was lifted a decade ago by the opening of a penitentiary, whose inmates now include Catalan politicians awaiting trial for trying to secede from Spain.

Like most other villages, Driebes has kept itself alive through a mix of regional, national and European subsidies.

“If we talk purely about economics, neither our school, nor our medical centre nor anything else in this village is now viable without subsidies,” said Rincon, the mayor.

The only thriving business involves retired people, he said, since about 40 pensioners regularly visit a community center that used to welcome about 10 people a decade ago.

Fernando Bachiller Higuera, one of seven farmers remaining in Driebes, said that he would struggle to break even without the subsidies he received from the European Union’s common agricultural policy to grow cereals on land that “isn’t actually that suitable for cereals,” he said.

“I only became a farmer because my father died and something had to be done with the land, and we could get European subsidies,” Bachiller Higuera, 47, said.

“If my two sons decide they prefer studying than the fields, I myself will stop in 20 years and this farming story will come to an end,” he said.

On weekends and during the summer vacations, the population of Driebes swells as former residents return to enjoy traditional village feasts and take a break from city life. Even so, a dozen houses stand in ruins, half awaiting demolition.

“What this village doesn’t have in physical beauty, it compensates for with its great personality and the friendliness of its people,” said Maria Teresa Vadillo Sanchez, who works in a town 30 miles away but returns most weekends with her daughters to a family home where her mother now lives alone.

It’s too early to understand the Roman history that once breathed life into Caraca. But using a drone and ground radar technology, archaeologists have mapped the town that they will unearth, pending more funding.

Last summer, 15 people got paid to help with the first excavation, but the archaeologists caution against raising expectations about their project and how it could bring economic sustainability to Driebes.

“It’s great to get local people involved, but excavations are slow and expensive,” said Emilio Gamo, one of Caraca’s archaeologists. “So the people should also know that the dynamics of archaeology aren’t necessarily those of a tourism project.”

–New York Times News Service