Dinámicas demográficas y cambios en los usos del suelo agrario en el largo plazo: el caso de la Sierra de Segura (sur de España, 1880-2020)

José Domingo Sánchez Martínez, Antonio Garrido Almonacid


Se analizan cambios relativos a la población, su distribución geográfica y los usos del suelo. El área de estudio es la Sierra de Segura, una comarca de media montaña mediterránea localizada en el ángulo nororiental de la provincia de Jaén. Como en casi todo el interior peninsular ibérico, este ámbito presenta un acusado declive poblacional, que incluye la desaparición de numerosos núcleos habitados. Igualmente, se ha producido una simplificación paisajística por la reducción de los aprovechamientos forestales y la consolidación de un monocultivo olivarero. La rapidez de estos procesos no es óbice para que aún sean reconocibles elementos heredados del modelo agrario tradicional, que poseen gran interés cultural y educativo.


1. Introduction


            Spain is one of the most prominent examples of the deepening territorial imbalances associated with the antagonism that has hitherto dominated rural-urban relations. This is one of the causes, although not the only one, of the enormous surface area covered by areas beset by depopulation (Burillo, Rubio and Burillo, 2019). Naturally, the intensity of this process admits degrees and requires different scales of spatial and temporal analysis to understand its complexity and diversity, with special emphasis on the specific characteristics of each place. In any case, it should be remembered that more than 60% of Spanish municipalities are in regressive dynamics, which includes not only the smallest nuclei, but also county seats and provincial capitals (González-Leonardo and López-Gay, 2021); or that half of Spanish municipalities have a population density of less than 12.5 inhabitants/km2 (Ministerio de Transición Ecológica y Reto Demográfico 2019). In parallel to demographic transformations, Spanish rural areas have also undergone an intense economic and social transformation, framed in what has been called deagrarianisation, i.e. the loss of local ways of life and production as a result of economic globalisation (Camarero, de Grammont and Quaranta, 2020), translated into a drastic reduction of agricultural employment in the second half of the 20th century (Collantes Guitérrez, 2007).


            This has resulted in a notable shift in land cover and land use within the framework of the decomposition of the traditional agricultural model, giving way to a productivist model, which is marked in the territory through the reduction in the number of farms, the increase in mechanisation and the use of fossil-based inputs, the simplification of the landscape, the increase in irrigated land and the regional specialisation of production. This is the result of complex interconnections of internal and external causes, but conditioned in all cases by local geographical characteristics, which explains the interest in case studies, which is why we have tried to unravel the keys to understanding the responses experienced in the Sierra de Segura. Located in the north-eastern part of the province of Jaén (Figure 1), this agricultural mountain region covers an area of 1,926.9 km2 (Ministerio de Agricultura, 1978) and, like other Andalusian Mediterranean mountains, has been experiencing a considerable demographic decline since the mid-twentieth century (Araque Jiménez, 2009), when it reached historical highs with more than sixty thousand people settled in the area. One of the direct consequences of this process is the decomposition of a very original settlement model in the regional context, as a myriad of small entities (hamlets, farmhouses, cave-houses, etc.) came together here, often located at a considerable distance from the main centre, even in exclaves, which are common in this part of the territory (where they are called "cuartos") for reasons to do with the transhumant pastoral economy.


            The aim of this work is to seek answers to interlinked questions: the relationship between depopulation and depopulation, the redistribution of the population according to agricultural resources, the value of the vestiges of traditional agricultural activities and the role of monoculture olive growing as a means of retaining the rural population. Underlying this aim is the need to tackle current challenges on the basis of an in-depth knowledge of the characteristics of specific places. The research questions are as follows: When and where did the changes take place, why were they triggered, what are the consequences? To what extent can the knowledge generated contribute to overcoming current territorial challenges in this geographical area?


2. Sources and methodology


            Different demographic, geographical, economic, social and labour sources have been used, to which we will refer immediately. All the data extracted have been geolocated, using the ETRS89 reference system (EPSG25830), and incorporated into a geographical database so that, managed by means of GIS technologies, it is possible both to superimpose individual variables on a map and to generate, by means of multi-criteria evaluation, synthetic territorial indicators which are essential to complete the diagnosis of the Sierra de Segura region.


3. Main results


            A large part of the municipalities of Segura are currently at risk of depopulation. As far as population is concerned, the fall in the number of inhabited nuclei has been spectacular compared to the peak reached at the end of the 19th century, when 390 were counted, a figure almost four times higher than in 2017 (108). The current pattern is one of selective concentration in those places that are better connected and more specialised in commercial agriculture. In that sense, as shown in Figure 5, the reduction of ager has been accompanied by an extraordinary expansion of olive groves to form a fairly continuous patch; such that one can recognise a half olive-growing region (westernmost portions) and half forest largely covered by pine forests (easternmost portions).


4. Discussion and conclusions


            The phenomenon of population dispersion in the most mountainous part of the Sierra de Segura owes much to the peculiar structure of ownership and land use, dominated by the presence of an important mass of public forests whose ploughing, whether considered arbitrary or regulated by the forestry administration, gave rise to hundreds of tiny entities (Araque Jiménez, 1990). This model of a growing population and dispersed habitat was in full swing at the end of the 19th century and began to shrink from 1930 onwards. In the seventies and eighties of the twentieth century, however, it was a reality in the process of physical disappearance, with the most isolated and worst conditions of habitability remaining abandoned and in a state of ruin (Araque Jiménez, 2016). Part of this departure was forced by the execution of reforestation works, preceded by what was then known as public property reclamation (Sánchez Martínez, 1996). The collapse of the more traditional ways of life in the Mediterranean mountains was thus drastically reflected in the habitat and landscape.


            All these changes confirm the idea that Mediterranean landscapes have traditionally been characterised by the co-existence of agricultural, livestock and forestry uses without precise boundaries between them. In recent decades, on the contrary, agricultural intensification and regional specialisation have simplified and compartmentalised uses, resulting in a clear homogenisation of current landscapes (Pinto Correia, 2021). The permanence of vestiges of the settlement model and traditional agricultural activities are shown as a resource of enormous potential for educational purposes, as they allow the recognition of a rich culture of natural resource management and the shaping of historical landscapes; at the same time, they become possible attractions for the development of activities that can relaunch a tourism more concerned with the territorial heritage (Ruiz-Álvarez et al., 2020).


            As has been suggested for territories comparable to the one we are analysing, among the lessons that can be inferred from the reading of these landscapes of cultural interest are the physical and intellectual effort that generated them, the evocative capacity they have to show that the relationships between people and the environment can adopt different formulas and effects and, ultimately, that the conservation and interpretation of elements inherited from these landscapes can be an incentive to improve our ways of managing natural resources (García Ruiz and Lasanta, 2018).


            The knowledge generated could be useful in issues such as the need to rethink the political-administrative structure, the reordering of land use according to its evolution over time and according to different types of natural resource management, or the use of the traces left by traditional agricultural activities in the landscape for the development of educational and cultural programmes or connected to other incipient tourist activities (Ruíz-Álvarez et al., 2020).


            This option for economic diversification and its capacity to offer opportunities to maintain and attract population, and others that have to do with the capacity to retain greater added value of the economic activities present in the territory are, in any case, grounds for further research, in which it will be necessary to incorporate, equally, the analysis (especially for the most isolated and mountainous areas) of infrastructures for road connections, the supply of public transport and, in short, access to basic services and facilities which allow policies to be designed which attempt to tackle depopulation, as is already being done in other territories with similar challenges (Ruíz-Pulpón and Martínez Sánchez-Mateos, 2022).

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