Greek villages dying off

AGHIOS PAVLOS – The houses and the church are in ruin. The narrow streets are dead silent. Everyone is gone. «Aghios Pavlos is totally deserted and the buildings have collapsed,» said Eftychis Sfakianakis, who as a community president governed Aghios Pavlos and several other villages in this forsaken region in southwestern Crete. The 2001 census lists two residents in Aghios Pavlos, but they have since died, Sfakianakis said. This may also be the fate some day for the nearby village of Voutas, which has just five children among its 61 remaining residents. The nearest school is a 20-minute drive. The bus service has been canceled. The villages in this area of Crete – once the stage of historic battles against the Nazi forces during World War II – are now being rapidly depopulated as they have been infected by what some call the «epidemic» of urbanization. They are not alone in this trend. According to the World Bank, in 1999 as much as 60 percent of Greece’s population – or 6.3 million people – lived in urban areas, a 2 percent increase from 1980. The rate, though, is still far less than in most European countries. In the Netherlands, 89 percent of the population lived in urban areas by 1999, trailed closely by Denmark with 85 percent and Germany with 87 percent. «The issue of rural depopulation is a serious one in all of the countries of Western Europe and the US,» said Richard Taub, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, adding that in the United States small towns also are disappearing. According to Taub, the issue is mainly economic opportunity. He argues that jobs are in the cities and metropolitan areas and that people would rather work in an office than do agricultural jobs. Moreover, rural communities don’t have access to quality medical care – a doctor is usually assigned to areas covering several villages and communities – as big medical centers are concentrated in the cities. The trends in Greece and the rest of Europe reflect a decades-long worldwide population movement from rural to urban areas. According to the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau, in 1900 only 14 percent of the world’s people lived in urban areas, while in 1950 this rose to 30 percent, and in 2000 to a record high of 47 percent, or 2.8 billion people. «People had hopes that the rise of computer-based communications systems would allow rural people to work at home. So far that has not happened in any important way,» Taub said. He notes that «many Western European countries are now involved in programs aimed at keeping people in rural areas.» But, urbanization is not the only threat to life in rural Greece. The aging of population due to a low birthrate and longevity are also hampering any efforts to revive life in villages across the country. According to the 2001 census, Greece’s population is aging at an alarming rate, with the birthrate having hit a 20-year low and deaths in 2000 outnumbering births. The census showed that in 2001, Greece’s population stood at 10,964,000 people – a 6.9 percent increase from 1991 – but records reveal that the increase is attributed to an influx of some 1 million immigrants rather than to natural population growth. The latest figures from the European Union and Greek state agencies show that Greece has the lowest birthrate in the EU and the highest proportion of elderly people. Eurostat, the EU’s statistical service, reports that Greeks in the age group of 65 to 79 account for 12.3 percent of the Greek population, compared to an EU average of 11.7 percent. At the same time the number of Greeks aged below 14 has been decreasing steadily since the mid-1950s. Moreover, foreigners currently account for a bewildering 70 percent of births in Greece. Although no part of Greece was exempt from the recent general decline in the birthrate, the mainland suffered the most, reporting a 41 percent decline between 1980 and 1998. Among areas with notable drops are the islands of the northern Aegean and the greater Athens region. «Of 2 million people who are at a reproductive age approximately 20 percent of the couples face some fertility problem,» Justice Minister Philippos Petsalnikos said last November. The trend is not limited to Greece, but rather extends across the rest of the industrialized world. According to studies, natural population growth has stopped in industrialized countries, shifting almost entirely to the less developed countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. «Many of the economically developed countries can no longer reproduce themselves and are turning to immigration in order to provide a young working population,» said Taub.