Villages are slowly dying

Fourka is a beautiful village near Konitsa with just 50 inhabitants, 40 of whom have entered the ninth decade of their lives. Not a single child has been born in the village for the past 27 years. In 1975, the young couple took their newborn baby and left for Ioannina, where the father had found a good job. In 1983, the local primary school closed down after its last pupil left. Greece’s farming areas are dying a slow death. Fourka is only one example of many, many more. According to the National Statistics Service (ESYE), there were 36,975 births in agricultural areas in 1980, but only 16,606 in 1990, a 56-percent decline. In other words, nearly all Greeks of working age are concentrated in four or five major urban centers. The vision of development in Greece’s mountain areas, a well-planned program that has won admiration from the rest of Europe might not become a reality. The Economy Ministry, in the framework of the Regional Development Plan 2000-2006, obtained over 290 million euros (100 billion drachmas) from the Third Community Support Framework for mountain communities; a large sum of money for developing tourism and supporting agriculture and manufacturing. But using what manpower? The list of villages with zero population growth is endless. From Grevena to Kozani and Ioannina, from Kavala to Alexandroupolis, in all mountain regions and on the islands, there are hundreds of villages where babies haven’t been born for years, sometimes decades. Land plots are small in Koumaro and Loutra on the island of Tinos. «Young people who get married usually leave for the town, where they can get jobs in tourism,» Nikiforos Delasoudas, mayor of Exomvourgo, told Kathimerini. In Exomvourgo, a municipality with 10-12 villages, there is only one primary school with 35 pupils; 30 years ago there were three primary schools with 150 pupils. In Marafia, Orestiada, no child has been born for 10 years. According to the 2001 census, Marafia has 196 inhabitants, down from 323 just 10 years previously, and most are over 50 years old. No easy life Those who stay behind themselves face their share of difficulties. They are isolated, their children have to travel long distances to get to school or are even forced to stay in a nearby town during the week, a practice that was common in the 1950s and 1960s. «We don’t have a high school in our village. During the week, about 30 of our children live in a students’ hostel in Konitsa and come home for the weekend,» said Sotiris Tasios, community secretary in Distratos, a mountain village about 50 kilometers from Konitsa. The lack of schools nearby and unequal opportunities (such as lack of access to the cramming schools nearly all city children attend) is a primary reason why families abandon their villages. Employment is another major issue. In Mikrokleisoura, Nevrokopi, the inhabitants lived by farming, livestock breeding and woodcutting. But according to the community president, Symeon Symeonidis, who is only 25 years old, the traditional occupations are dying out. «When I left to do my military service a few years ago, I left behind about 20 people of my own age. When I came back over half had left. There are no incentives for young people to stay here. We feel neglected,» he said. Mikrokleisoura is now a village of old people. Symeonidis, who has been trying to revive it, is disillusioned. «I am very much afraid that we will soon have to follow all those who have already left,» he said. Most of the villages are populated solely by elderly people living on meager pensions. «Our area is one of senior citizens. Around 10 years ago we had 1,000 inhabitants; today there are only 200,» said Theodoros Kaffes, the mayor of Mouzaki, Karditsa, a municipality that covers 14 villages, nine of which no longer have a school. According to Kaffes, 10 years ago the schools each had about 25 pupils. According to ESYE, Karditsa is a prefecture with one of the lowest birth rates. In 1999, only 329 children were born in the prefecture’s farming areas, whereas in 1980 the figure was 981. The situation is equally disheartening in Plastira, according to the chairman of the local council, Thomas Stergiopoulos. «Of our five villages, three are almost deserted. Often in the cafés they have trouble finding a foursome for a card game,» he said. «Moreover, the young people have a hard time finding a spouse. Most women don’t want to stay in the village. There is nowhere for them to have fun. The men might find work in farming or livestock breeding, but there are no jobs for the women,» he added. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to conclude that this only applies to areas far from the larger towns. Even near Attica, villages are dying out. On the island of Andros, for example, where there is a major tourism industry, the problem is serious. In the village of Vourkoti, about 15 kilometers from the island capital, Hora, there were about 150 families just 10 years ago. Nearly half have now gone. Anna Zanaki remembers the laughter of about 50 children in the village; now there are only four. Families have moved away and the primary school eventually closed down four years ago. «Living conditions were very harsh. There was no proper road – we had to use mules on a dirt track – and no electricity until 1984. Who could live here?» she asked. Yet while conditions have improved, no one has returned because there are no jobs. The merchant marine, which employed most men on Andros, is in crisis. Those working in tourism live mostly in Batsi, Gavrion and Hora. Yet even in those villages, more and more people have been moving to Attica during the winter months. In Evia the problems are similarly acute. According to ESYE, the birthrate has dropped by over 50 percent in the past 20 years. In the municipality of Avlona, the population has aged. «The young people have abandoned our villages. Around 70 percent of the some 5,500 inhabitants are elderly. The settlement of Myrtea, for example, which once buzzed with life, now has only two families of old people. There are no jobs to keep young people here,» said Mayor Dimitris Tsapatsaris. Most of the deserted villages are very beautiful, but EU funds are not enough to make them come alive again. What is needed is something to entice young people to live there. «We have used subsidies to restore traditional village squares,» said Dimitris Papavasileiou, community president of Lavdani, Ioannina. «That is not the way to revive villages. Areas at greatest risk of depopulation need radical measures.»