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Galicia's abandoned villages get new lives

Joan Sisa drives his tractor in the little village of Xestas, close to Porto do Son in Galicia. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Staff Writers
Porto Do Son, Spain (AFP) Feb 21, 2009
For hundreds of years, the inhabitants of Spain's rugged Galicia region have emigrated throughout the world in search of better lives, leaving their homes and villages to fall into decline.

But some enterprising spirits are now breathing new life into those run-down and deserted hamlets in the remote northwestern region.

One of them is Joan Sisa, who in January arrived in Xestas, a tiny mountain village with magnificent views over the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Muros y Noya river.

This experienced traveler of 52 who has already rejuvenated villages in the Pyrenees mountains has just moved into one of the three houses in Xestas with his wife and two children, aged two and four.

He hopes to be self-sufficient, planting fruits and vegetables, raising chickens and, eventually, pigs. Electricity comes from solar panels in the garden and water from the river.

Bearded and with shoulder-length hair, he rejects the label of modern hippy.

"I don't smoke joints all day. Xestas requires a lot of work, it's a real project," he says.

-- We hope to set an example in sustainable development --

Sisa is now getting the village ready to bring in other families, and already has a long waiting list.

His children study at home, and he has plans to set up a classroom for the village children in a few years.

He has a website and makes money by selling CD-Roms and from running courses on organic farming and aromatherapy at the village in the summer. Soon, he will be able to sell his products in the market of Porto do Son.

Xestas, a six-hectare (15-acre) site that is accessible only via a footpath, was once inhabited by farmers, who left the land like thousands of other Galicians.

Galicia, which votes in regional elections on March 1, saw 825,000 of its inhabitants emigrate in the 20th century alone, mostly to other parts of Spain and Europe and to Latin America, according to a study by the BBVA bank.

About 13 percent of the electorate now live overseas.

This has left 1,300 abandoned villages, or almost half of the total of 2,874 throughout Spain, according to the National Statistics Institute.

Manuel Tome Pineiro, the mayor of Porto do Son, a town of 10,000 inhabitants and of which Xestas is part, is backing Joan Sisa's initiative 100 percent.

"It's a pioneer project, we hope to set an example in terms of sustainable development," he said.

Xestas was bought in 1973 by a young lawyer, but he died young and his children, now students, could not manage the village on their own.

Joan Sisa reached an agreement with the young owners to revive the village over the next 15 years.

Melchor, a 33-year-old journalism graduate, had no hesitation in moving to Xestas to help Sisa.

"The creation of this type of mini-community is also a way of overcoming the economic crisis," he said as he planted cabbages.

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