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Ill-fated Spanish village poised to be destroyed a third time

The stone and slate church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán held out for almost 1,000 years before surrendering to the bullet holes that dot its walls, the brambles that twist from its masonry and the rains that hammer its last rotting roof beam.

So, too, did the ill-fated pueblo it once served.

But now Fraguas, which clings to a hillside in the Sierra Norte natural park 90 minutes north-east of Madrid, is poised to achieve the rare and unwelcome distinction of becoming the Spanish village that was destroyed three times.

Its first death came in the late 1960s, when it was expropriated by the Franco regime to make way for a huge reforestation programme; its second when it was used as an army training ground, leaving houses blown up and bullets lodged deep in the church walls.

Fraguas’s third death looms as the regional government of Castilla-La Mancha prepares to reverse the resettlement effort begun nine years ago by a collective of young people who had hoped to find a more sustainable life in the overgrown and abandoned village.

In June, a local court ruled that six members of the collective who had been found guilty of illegally occupying the site and breaking land use regulations must stump up €110,000 (£96,000) to cover the costs of demolishing the village houses they restored. If they cannot find the money, the six will be sent to prison for two years and three months.

Lalo Aracil, one of those facing jail, sounds tired and exasperated but defiant as he sits on a sofa in the 200-year-old communal house and explains the thinking behind the initiative.

Sergio Velasco, a native of Navarra, tends the tomatoes in the vegetable garden. Photograph: Pablo Garcia/The Guardian

Fraguas is a project based on ideas of food and energy self-sufficiency and of collective self-management when it comes to the production and consumption of resources – all in a communal setting,” says the 37-year-old, who is originally from Madrid.

“We thought that this would be a good place because of the depopulation and because it was wasting away.”

Neither Aracil nor his five friends have the money to pay for the costs of the demolition, which, they say, are punitively over-inflated. For the time being, their hopes rest on legal appeals, and should those fail, on a crowdfunding campaign.

Aracil accuses the regional authorities of double standards, pointing out that while Fraguas sits in a natural park, so do 40 other small villages. He also says the park is not quite the rural idyll some may think.

“Yes, there are many areas here with a high environmental value, but generally what you have here is pine monoculture – the whole sierra was terraced and transformed into a pine forest,” he says. “And that’s all exploited. All kinds of economic activity are allowed in the natural park – like hunting, logging and livestock farming – but they don’t allow human activity. You’re also allowed to detonate explosives here. It’s pretty shocking and paradoxical.”

Members of the collective pose with some of the original residents of Fraguas.
Members of the collective pose with some of the original residents of Fraguas. Photograph: Fraguas Collective

The collective, which says it is being made an example of, feels it has done its bit to tackle rural depopulation and the problem known as España vaciada (hollowed-out Spain).

Although Spain’s Socialist-led coalition government established a ministry to ensure that rural areas are not left behind, many say action on the issue is taking far too long. Last week, the España vaciada platform announced a series of protests over the coming months to focus attention on the plight of those who live far from cities and the attendant services.

As well as making and selling beer and jam, installing solar panels and planting courgettes and tomatoes – which have proved irresistible to the local roe deer – the Fraguas resettlers have cleared the area to prevent the forest fires that have plagued Spain over recent years. They also keep an eye on the lily-choked village cemetery, whose graves are still visited by some of those who argue they were unfairly exiled from their village half a century ago.

The former residents of Fraguas, who sold up for a pittance, have swung behind the resettlement, happy to see life return to the narrow lanes where they grew up.

One of them produced an illustrated guide to the village to help the collective piece it back together.

“Let’s see if you can recover this village’s history once more,” he wrote. “I want to remind you to treat these stones with the love and respect they deserve, even if today they’re dead and lost among brambles and weeds. In another time, they were alive and were part of the story of the people who struggled so hard to live and who went through so many calamities.”

The sentiment is echoed by the environmental group Ecologists in Action, which gave the collective an award three years ago, praising it for “promoting rural development in a village that was expropriated against its wishes; for its resistance in the face of unjustified repression, and for being an example of how to run a community”.

Sergio Velasco (left) and Lalo Aracil in the village’s 200-year-old communal house
Sergio Velasco (left) and Lalo Aracil in the village’s 200-year-old communal house. Photograph: Pablo Garcia/The Guardian

Alberto Mayor, a spokesperson for the Guadalajara branch of Ecologists in Action, which has helped mediate between the resettlers and the regional government, says the collective has taken positive steps towards restoring a place that was “totally eroded by Francoist forestry policies”.

The group has already suggested a possible solution: last year, the regional government removed the protection from 1,300 hectares of the Sierra Norte natural park to allow local authorities to urbanise more land.

“We told the sustainable development department and the regional government that they could have included Fraguas in that modification – and we sent them a plan with the relevant hectares,” says Mayor.

“But they refused to do that … [even though] they could have shown the political will to do something and to legalise that situation.”

The regional government of Castilla-La Mancha says it inherited the legal action from the previous administration and has no choice but to carry out the court’s sentence.

“According to that sentence, these constructions are illegal because they do not comply with planning regulations … nor with the regulations governing the protected space of the Sierra Norte natural park, which forbid urbanisation and habitation,” it said.

Soldiers training in Fraguas and destroying the village in the 1980s
Soldiers training in Fraguas and destroying the village in the 1980s. Photograph: Fraguas Collective

The regional government said mechanisms were in place to help people – including those in Fraguas – resettle in other depopulated rural areas. Exceptions, it added, could not be made.

“Making changes to urbanise a protected natural space would encourage people to break the law, and would also represent a social injustice as we would not be promoting that space for the use and enjoyment of everyone, but for the use and enjoyment of a minority who have occupied and illegally modified that space, as the judgment points out,” the regional government said.

It said the costs of the demolition had been calculated using a “rigorous, scientific and independent” study and reflected the care that needed to be taken so as not to damage the village’s heritage.

Aracil, one of the 10 or so people now living in Fraguas, checks on the oyster and shiitake mushrooms the collective grows on logs and cheerfully bemoans the vegetable depredations of the deer as he waits for news about Fraguas’s future.

But the clock is ticking for the resettlers and for their beloved village. The church, built to consolidate the Christian reconquista (reconquest) as Muslim forces retreated south in the 12th century, will not stand much longer and has already been placed on a heritage red list.

Whatever happens to Fraguas though, Aracil has no intention of returning to the capital.

“We’ll go to some other rural village if we have to,” he says. “But we want to think we’ll be able to stay here. We’ve been fighting this battle for years and they haven’t managed to kick us out yet, so we must be doing something right.”

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