A social initiative shows that remote working could feed the relocation to small villages

Rooral joins forces with small villages in Spain to arrange short-term stays for professionals in order to experience a countryside immersion.
<p>Javier Alzórriz, in his rural office. Photo: J.B.</p>

Javier Alzórriz, in his rural office. Photo: J.B.

October is always the busiest time of the year for Ignacio Barrero. This 34-year-old Sevillian works for a family business that sells Iberian products and wines. Their run up to Christmas is when work gets frenetic due to the festive season orders. It was precisely during this hectic period that Igancio decided to leave the city leaving his family shocked behind, and go to Artieda (Zaragoza) for three weeks, a town of 70 inhabitants in the Aragonese Pre-Pyrenees.

Days later, they weren’t the only ones surprised.

By 7:30am Ignacio was already busy, but not among hams and wines, nor by his computer or on the phone. He was digging a pond for the ducks in the local farm instead. Later, he connected with his work duties remotely to attend meetings as if he was in the office. “I had never done anything like this before”, he recalls. “Those days helped me reconnect with my childhood and brought up vivid memories of when I helped my grandfather take care of his fruit trees”.

Upon his return from Artieda, he moved to his parents’ house and installed recycled wooden planks in one corner of their garden. Currently he grows chard, zucchini and tomatoes, which reach two meters tall, and continues to spend most of his free time there: “I wonder if I would relocate to Seville’s city centre ever again”.

Collaboration in Artieda’s farm was one of the activities available to the first group of seven people who experienced remote working and immersion in the rural world organized by the association Rooral in October 2020. By now, 18 people have taken part of these experiences, one in Camprovín (La Rioja), with 177 inhabitants, and two in Artieda, the last one was in May 2021. Some, like Ignacio, wonder if they want to continue living in the city. Others have already made the decision to move to a small village.

Rooral’s offering provides more than just the countryside lifestyle. Its founders created this initiative as something more than a mere transaction in which city people enjoy nature. They promote spaces for people to experience “other ways of feeling and doing”.

“Our aim is for those who live in the city to reconnect with themselves, with nature and also with the local community”, says Juan Barbed from Bilbao, 34. Juan co-founded Rooral alongside Ana Amrein, from Malaga, 34.

Barbed explains in detail one of the pillars on which his association is based: “We want to help unite two worlds that do not speak to each other. Our society wants you to meet those who think like you, with similar socio-economic backgrounds, age… We have lost the diversity of engaging with other demographics and we can recover part of it by getting closer to the rural world, its traditions, its culture and its spirituality”.

Users are professionals with a medium and medium-high economic level, who perform in positions that allow them to work remotely.

Go deep into the village’s lifestyle

Users are professionals with a medium-to-high economic level, who work in positions that allow them to work remotely. Seven out of ten are women, they are concerned about their well-being, they miss contact with nature and with a “sense of community”.

They pay between 500 and 1,500 euros for a single room for one to four weeks and receive yoga classes, meditation sessions, forest baths or mushroom picking accompanied by local guides. During their stay, they spend time interacting with the residents of these small towns that offer good Internet connection, ongoing rural development initiatives and an open population willing to receive visitors.

Artieda, located on top of a hill protected from the threatening tongue of the Yesa water reservoir, meets these characteristics and more. Since 2017, its 70 neighbors have joined forces to stop depopulation around a project called Empenta (Boost in Aragonese), which relies on the participation of its own citizens to identify development needs and opportunities.

The improvement of their Internet access, a co-working space, a pilgrims’ hostel, a campsite, an ecological farm, the support program for the elderly called Envejece en tu Pueblo ( Grow old in your town) and the social initiative La jardinera, which recovers autochthonous aromatic plants, are some of these development initiatives that have been taken place since then.

In this context, Rooral’s proposal offers Artieda the possibility of achieving several objectives. Its Mayor, Luis Solana (Chunta Aragonesista), names a few: making themselves known to people who can work from anywhere, generating income in rural houses, restaurants, the services provided by its inhabitants, and contributing to the socialization of the neighbours.

“We are excited to collaborate with Rooral because it adds to our initiative and seeks those who visit us have a deep understanding of our town’s life”, he emphasizes. “Those who come to work here give us life, relationships, knowledge, and sometimes their training helps us improve our ongoing local projects”.

One of the key objectives of this exchange is a “modesty alliance”, as defined by its founders, who always go hand in hand with the town councils and the local population. Luis Solana greatly appreciates the way in which Barbed and Amrein approached Artieda: “They reached us with intentional respect, something that is fundamental”, he highlights. Arturo Villar (Izquierda Unida), mayor of Camprovín also insists on this aspect: “They arrived very carefully and with great diplomacy, without the arrogance shown by some people in the city”.

“Our main objective is to protect these villages, because the foundation of our social life relies in them and in their inhabitants”, defends Barbed, who was one of the four invited by the Ministry for the Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge to the debate Youth and territory: talent and entrepreneurship in the decade of sustainable development, on June 4.

He assures that they do not aspire to repopulate these villages or to “place them on the map”, but rather to contribute with one more action to the activities that are already taking place. “Not everyone could live in a village, but an experience like this helps you understand and love its lifestyle”.

<p>Juan Barbed and Ana Amrein, in the Artieda coworking center. Photo: J.B.</p>

Juan Barbed and Ana Amrein, in the Artieda coworking center. Photo: J.B.

Inner changes

In any case, they have already discovered that change happened within for some of the people who live the experience of working remotely from a village. The mayor of Camprovín shares an example: four years ago his city council rehabilitated an old winery and turned it into a municipal coworking centre, plus few bedrooms. “Three young couples came to work remotely, they spent between six months and a year here before deciding to stay permanently. By now, all three of them have rented and bought houses here”, says Villar.

Araceli Rodríguez, a 38-year-old Valencian woman working as a social innovation consultant, also felt that the two weeks she spent in Camprovín with Rooral were the final the push to make a decision that she had been pondering for a long time: to relocate to a village. She has her home in Canet de Berenguer, a town of 4,000 inhabitants on the Mediterranean coast. She shares that it is not a big city, but it suffers from urban pressure and gets overcrowded during the summer time.

Upon her return from her Rooral stay in La Rioja, she moved to a village of 60 inhabitants in the inland province of Castellón, next to the border with Teruel, at an altitude of 900 meters –Villanueva de Viver. There she works remotely and lives with her partner and their two Spanish water dogs, Sangui and Inka. “Firstly we tried living for a month in a local B&B, to see if this lifestyle was what we wanted, and then we decided to rent a house for six months”, she said.

Artieda’s mayor likes the idea that remote working converts into permanent residents some of these temporary visitors. “Nowadays it is clear that repopulation requires welcoming people who have no previous ties with the local people, attracting new habitants and digital workers is a viable option”, says Solana.

This trend has drawn the attention of the Depopulation and Creativity Chair of the University of Zaragoza. “We are so interested that we are going to commission two studies to analyze it”, announced its director, the economist Vicente Pinilla.

In his opinion, remote working has a high potential to fix the low population in rural areas, especially if it breaks down the barrier posed by continuous trips to a company’s headquarters. “It is a doable option if you can work in a city and live within an hour of it and you travel only once or twice a week”, says Pinilla.

However, not all small villages start equally, warns the professor. Those with easy access from the cities, with a good Internet connection and offering attractions to outsiders –such as scenic beauty or leisure activities– have an initial competitive advantage.

Anchel Reyes, 29, a sociologist and a neighbour of Artieda, agrees with this reflection from his situation of being an affected inhabitant and an expert studying the phenomenon. He was one of the professionals who led the concept behind Empenta.

In his opinion, remote working is a growing trend that could be seen as “a miracle” when it is not possible to fund rural development based on agriculture or livestock. “I have a critical view as not all towns can aspire to have a coworking space”, he argues. “Also, you must bear in mind that not all places are like Artieda, with young and such participative people, therefore copying the model elsewhere could be challenging”.

<p>The bar is a space for conversation that brings together teleworkers and neighbors. Photo: J.B.</p>

The bar is a space for conversation that brings together teleworkers and neighbors. Photo: J.B.

Expand profiles and villages

The founders of Rooral have focused the initial phase of this project on a specific demographic and type of village. “Firstly, we aim to validate the model. Once validated, we would like to be able to offer scholarships to people who cannot afford the experience. As well as finding a way to help other villages that do not have a suitable infrastructure or that type of population”, says Barbed.

Reyes adds an additional challenge to drive and consolidate new inhabitants: the housing market, both for rent or to buy. He says that the program Empenta brought 15 new residents to Artieda, who have occupied all the available spaces. “At the moment we are at full capacity”, he says.

Seeking solutions to overcome some of these challenges, Amrein found a way to expand the offer with the incorporation of Benarrabá (Málaga), in the south of Ronda’s Serranía. With a steady population of around 460 inhabitants, it had fiber-optic broadband installed in December 2018 and has plans to open a 500 square meters co-working space within six months, with capacity for 70 people.

Benarrabá’s mayor –Silvestre Barroso (Partido Popular)– finds Rooral’s proposal very attractive because it endorses local immersion. “I really like Rooral’s intentions as they want those who arrive to engage with our local people. Previous visitors hardly ever left their rental accommodations, maybe just to take the dog out, and that is not co-living”, he regrets.

“It’s good that people come and, if they like it, stay”, Benarrabá has a hostel with 100 beds and houses for rent for 250 or 300 euros per month, according to Barroso. Plus an open and approachable population: “Here we make it very easy for you, even if you come from abroad, you go to the bar to have a coffee and someone will be engaging with you in a conversation in no time”.

Writer John Berger talks about these city citizens who move to the countryside in his book Puerca tierra, which kicks off the trilogy De sus fatigas, a portrait of the strength of those who live in rural areas: “We are just outsiders who have chosen to live here”.

This was Araceli Rodríguez’s experience when she moved to the mountains of Castellón. “When you first arrive there is a barrier, you have to earn the neighbours’ trust,” she says. “I realized that I was somewhat intrusive. I showed my enthusiasm by speaking a lot and very fast, and I listened little. The people of the village are more observant, and they really want to welcome you”.

Nowadays the women of Villanueva de Viver invite her to their daily walk at five every afternoon.

It was also essential learning to interact with Artieda’s population. During the first meetings, both visitors and locals, made a round of presentations in which each person shared aloud who they were and what they did for a living. A similar style to the exercises that are usually organized in seminars and professional meetings. It did not work. “We realized it straight away, and we looked for other ways to get closer and to talk with the neighbours. The solution was to share spaces and some tasks with them, such as helping them plant a variety of native beans”, admits Barbed.

During their stay they organized meals, parties with the youngest and meetings around vermouth, a ritual that is repeated at noon and at 8pm on the terrace of the local hostel. In one of these meetings, Javier Alzórriz met Rosa Roca. Javier, 32, is a digital nomad who manages sales teams remotely for a London company. Rosa, 35, is a psychologist who cares for 45 elderly people who live alone in Artieda and in three other towns in the region. They both discovered that they share much more than they would have expected.

<p>Teleworkers cultivate the garden. Photo: J.B.</p>

Teleworkers cultivate the garden. Photo: J.B.

“A grand knowledge exchange”

Such was the harmony, it led to Javier taking his “first annual leave of the year” to spend the day with Rosa. He joined Rosa to visit three elderly people who live alone and went to the doctor to pick up some prescriptions. “We connected very quickly, I was amazed with her”, says Javier. “I am finishing an MBA dissertation focused on the lifestyle of our elderly. What Rosa shared with me was fascinating. I saw her interacting with these elderly and the human bond that they established. Rosa brought so much value and happiness to these people with her unique approach”.

Rosa manages an initiative called Envejece en tu Pueblo (Grow old in your village) in Artieda, Salvatierra de Esca, Sigüés and Mianos. She regularly visits 45 elderly people, keeps them company, exercises movement and memory skills with them, as well as takes them to the doctor or to the bank. “I needed to know how I could measure the impact that the program has on the elderly and Javier helped me a lot with that”, she recalls. “He designed a simple customer satisfaction survey for them to fill out. A digital solution with emoticons that helps me measure their expectations when we start the programme, and also to understand how they value the service and their progress over time”.

After two weeks in Artieda, Javier is not planning to move to the countryside, however he would like to buy a house in a small town to spend some periods per year. His Rooral stay was not what he expected: “There was a grand and deep exchange of knowledge and life experiences that is not easy to quantify or explain unless you were there”. The elderly that he visited that day still often ask Rosa: “How’s Javier? Give my regards”.

Anchel Reyes talks about this exchange “between two worlds that might not have met otherwise”. He highly values ​​the intensity of the relationship that emerges between the inhabitants and visitors: “a meeting space is created for people with very different lifestyles and we ​​can learn from each other”.

According to Rosa Roca, “when people arrive their rural stereotypes crash with the reality, they discover that there are entrepreneur projects in the rural world and that we have chosen this lifestyle because there is something special here”.

This aspect is also welcomed by the mayor of Camprovín, Arturo Villar. His town has held the Camprovinarte contemporary art festival since 2017 and is currently preparing an eco museum, among other activities. “The knowledge of these remote workers gives us the opportunity to provide a very real and positive vision of our people and it seems very good to us”, he explains.

<p>Teleworkers during the first Rooral experience. Photo: Rooral.</p>

Teleworkers during the first Rooral experience. Photo: Rooral.

Humankind lessons

Rooral enables the possibility to understand the rural world as a source of shared stories and powerful learnings. The founders met in Mexico in 2015 and connected instantly.

Ana Amrein had a training in International Relations and worked for Fundes, a social organization that supports micro-SMEs in Latin America. “Nomad since I was 12 years old”, she was born in Malaga, studied in Switzerland and has lived in Argentina, Vietnam and Costa Rica. “I thought that anything new was always the best, and I reinvented myself in each destination”, she explained.

What then led you to stop and promote such a project? “It’s roots”, she said.

Ana’s father was born into a farming family in Wauwil, a town in central Switzerland, where at the age of five he started selling milk to help his mother, who had just been widowed. As a child, Ana spent two months every summer break there and built a very strong relationship with her grandmother.

On her mother’s side, she comes from “an upper class family from Santander and Madrid”. “The relationship with my maternal grandmother was more transactional, she gave me things”, she recalls. “The deal with my paternal grandmother was based on sharing moments, experiences, a deeper relationship that has filled me with strong memories”.

When they met, Juan Barbed worked at Kiva, a crowdfunding platform that offers no-interest microcredits for local initiatives in 80 countries. Juan had studied Business Administration with a speciality in finance; followed by two years in private banking before he decided to focus on social matters.

He travelled as a Kiva volunteer to El Salvador, Nicaragua, Ghana and Togo, before working for the organization. He opened their office in Lima (Peru) and was later relocated to San Francisco (United States) and Bangkok (Thailand).

His experience in rural areas of these countries gave him “the greatest lessons in humankind” he has ever received. And the visit to Luesia (Zaragoza), of 300 inhabitants, to bury his grandmother in 2019 triggered the final push to initiate this project. “I saw it clearly”, he remembers. “I felt how people who did not know us accompanied and hugged us at the funeral and at the burial. They invited us to their homes, sheltered us unintentionally and we thanked them from the deepest of our heart”.

What both Ana and Juan had learned so far will help them with Rooral’s next steps. They are currently considering the incorporation of new destinations in different areas and with different populations; for example Viniegra de Abajo (La Rioja), with 75 inhabitants; Poza de la Sal (Burgos), of 275, and Somiedo (Asturias), of 1,100. This coming Autumn they will continue with an eight-week program in Artieda through which different groups of remote workers will join, and for whose coordination they will hire a local person from Artieda itself.

They are also establishing alliances with other entities that work for rural development, such as Apadrina un Olivo, (Adopt an Olive tree) a social enterprise that began in 2016 by recovering the centennial olive trees of Oliete (Teruel), of 343 inhabitants, and that today has managed to revitalize the area. It has saved 14,000 trees thanks to 6,000 godfathers and godmothers from all over the world who have generated almost 20,000 visits to the town. The initiative produces oil in a local oil mill, it has created 22 jobs and has facilitated keeping the local school open thanks to the arrival of ten employees and their families.

The president of Apadrina un Olivo, Alberto Alfonso, explains that Rooral will take remote workers to live in Oliete, in a 400-square-meter space equipped with facilities and services. This co-working space is part of a project that also includes an incubator for rural entrepreneurship and proposals for digitizing the local economy, called Smart Rural Alarm Clocks.

“The rural environment has the opportunity to embrace technology and digitalisation, in order to open up to people”, defends Alfonso. “It is also a great opportunity for those who want to try living in less toxic spaces, with access to larger and cheaper houses, open spaces and with easy access to cities”.

Not everyone agrees with this ambitious vision from the start. Anchel Reyes is committed to keep the development locally, and base it on each area’s own resources. He is concerned about incorporating remote workers in an appropriate and non-invasive way “with respect towards the local autonomy and pre-existing lifestyle”.

Reyes identifies the danger that the city remains as the main focus, even when people work remotely: “We run the risk of becoming a mere branch of what happens in the cities”.

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