Where one person sees emptiness, another may find promise. That was the running theme for Dutch anthropologist and photojournalist Sanne Derks as she documented the lives of people who have moved into abandoned homes and villages in the sparsely populated Spanish countryside.
“I’d been working on a story about European citizens developing initiatives to resist climate change,” says Derks. She became fascinated by ecovillages—sustainable cooperative communities—which inspired a larger project.
During 2020 and 2021, she explored seven Spanish hamlets that have been “repopulated,” including not only ecovillages but other types of living arrangements. Derks found the residents shared a common outlook. “Almost all of them are doing it from the conviction that things have to be different in today’s world,” Derks says. “They believe that the city is no longer the place to live.”
She christened her photography project Rutopia, a blend of “rural” and “utopia,” which explores two questions: What compels someone to pack up and move to a village in ruins, and what challenges do they face once there?
The sustainable community concept may have existed for centuries, but the term “ecovillage” is relatively new. Founded over 30 years ago, one of Spain’s oldest examples is Matavenero, a remote mountain outpost in the León Province. The deserted village, which can be reached only by foot, was settled anew by a group of German hippies in the late 1980s, and today has about 50 permanent residents. According to the Global Ecovillage Network, a volunteer organization, Spain has about 90 ecovillages, far more than most countries in Europe.
Spain also has something other European countries lack. “Spain is much more spacious than, say, the Netherlands or Belgium,” Derks says. “On top of that, there has been a great deal of migration to the coastal cities and to Madrid since the 1970s.” According to the Spanish government, 70 percent of the country’s land is occupied by just 10 percent of the population, a phenomenon commonly referred to as España vacía, or empty Spain. The exodus is so extreme that many rural villages are now complete ghost towns.
In addition to a desire for a lifestyle change, Derks observed that people moving into these sparsely populated reaches were also spurred by the strict lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic and a series of economic and housing crises. “They are turning away from capitalism, from consumerism—and seeking some kind of utopian mini-society,” she explains. But Derks discovered that this ideal has more than a few imperfections.
An unreliable phone connection. Getting snowed in during the winter. Not being able to survive on just the harvest from your own vegetable garden. Before she began her reporting, Derks expected the challenges of the countryside would primarily be found in the hardships of an isolated, self-sufficient life. “Those do play a role, of course,” she says. “But after I visited a few places, I realized that most of the problems in the communities by far had to do with internal conflict.”
A bad brew of NIMBY and gossip could spoil the espirit de corps. “You have a nice tree but it casts a shadow on someone else’s place. Or you are very happy with your berry bush, but if you don’t prune it in time, the neighbor children will scratch their legs on it,” she says. “Or suppose your romantic relationship breaks up. That can suddenly become a big issue in such a small community.”
Even venerable Matavenero couldn’t reach perfect harmony. “I expected that community to be a success story because it has already lasted multiple generations,” Derks says. “But the problems turned out to be at least as severe as in other places. In one case, someone even set someone else’s house on fire.”
Communication seemed to be a perennial challenge, and a person might even be expelled from the group because of a conflict.
One nascent community in Girona Province was completely free of interpersonal conflict—because it has only a single resident. In La Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Natural Park, an idyllic landscape of tree-covered extinct volcanoes north of Barcelona, Derks visited Dídac Costa. With money inherited from his father, he had purchased 170 acres of land in the park, including several ruins in the hamlet of Ca l’Amat in order to found a community.
“He completely renovated one house. He lives there now with three dogs, four cats, two donkeys, and 35 goats.” But apart from the animals, he hasn’t yet been able to find any like-minded people for the community he calls Ecovila Amat.
“What Dídac has in mind is politically complicated,” Derks explains. “In order to live with him, people have to share his anarchistic convictions. And candidates who are sufficiently eco-libertarian/pacifist/hippie, “often don’t have any money to invest,” she says. “So he’s been living there alone for years.”
No matter how idyllic the setting, there’s no such thing as a conflict-free social group, Derks says. It’s “the price you have to pay if you want to start a community with diverse personalities.”
But now and then she found herself in places that felt pretty utopian. In Barchel, an off-grid village west of Valencia, Derks immediately felt right at home. A group of young idealists were converting a vacant farmhouse there into their new residence. Until they arrived seven years ago, the place had been deserted for four decades.
“There is an enormous vegetable garden, and they have a lot of fun together,” she says. “They’re highly motivated to develop the village based on their values.” For one, Barchel has no hierarchy. The residents make nearly all of their decisions by holding a meeting. “Who will milk the goats? Who will work in the garden? Who is taking care of lunch? Who is making soap? It’s kind of like a perpetual school camping trip,” she says.
Derks realized that she wasn’t cut out for communal life. “That was perhaps the greatest challenge of this project,” she says. “I embrace many of the ideas that make up the foundation of such a village, such as sustainability and minimalism.” But her individualistic side tugs more.
“You have to set yourself aside in a certain sense for the collective goal of building a sustainable future together,” she says. “It’s fantastic that they do it, but I couldn’t do it myself. Holding a meeting for each little decision? I don’t have the patience for that.”
Although a utopia in the Spanish mountains may not be for everyone, many people do flourish. Jürgen Pluindrich, originally from Germany, has been living in Matavenero for 30 years and raised a child there. “He told me he wouldn’t be able to find his way among the asphalt and consumerism of a city,” Derks says.
In Aguinalíu, a mountain village in the Aragon region, she heard a similar story from Guillem Mateu Prat. He bought a place for a thousand euros and wants to renovate it using only recycled materials. He’s found an inner peace he was missing in his earlier life. “He felt lost in the city,” says Derks.
She also met people who had grown up in an ecovillage. “Once the children go to school, the parents often move to a village nearby that has facilities,” she explains. “But when they’re grown and want to start a family themselves, many of them go back to the community. It gives them a warm feeling.”
Even Dídac Costa, still searching for those like-minded residents for Ecovila Amat, doesn’t see his community of one as a failure. Derks expresses Costa’s mindset: “Even if you never reach the destination, it still gives direction to your life.”
She sees the value in the paring back one’s possessions. “When I worked as a tour guide in South America, I saw people in my groups with trekking poles, 17 pairs of shoes, convertible pants,” she says. “Everyone thinks that they need all that stuff. When you learn how to tear yourself away from that idea, in a certain sense you are more free.”
Felix Franco Escobar, a Paraguayan Derks met in Aguinalíu, embodied that spirit. “Always in good humor and completely satisfied, although he owns practically nothing,” she says. “A master of minimalism.” Escobar can usually be found sipping maté tea. He lives in a former sheep pen, made of stone and without a door or windows, where he sleeps on a bed without a mattress.
“He works in construction but is in no hurry at all to renovate that cottage,” Derks says. As for the lack of a mattress, he maintains it’s good for your back. “I’m not saying that everyone should go and live that way,” says Derks. “But you could reflect on what you really have to have.”
In a manner of speaking, the small Fraguas community in the forested hills of Guadalajara, northeast of Madrid, takes minimizing possessions to the extreme—according to the local government they have no right to live there. Derks recalls its fruit trees and berry bushes in bloom during her visit. “Very idyllic, but there is a good chance the people will be evicted,” she says.
The inhabitants consider repopulation to be their right, but the Spanish government holds a different view. The settlers, labeled as “squatters"—Spain has a complex history of squatting, which originated in the post-Franco era—have been entangled in a legal dispute with authorities for seven years, partly about violating property rights.
Recently a court ordered six members of the Fraguas community to pay 110,000 euros to demolish the town they rebuilt or go to prison for more than two years. They’ve announced they will appeal the decision. “They can’t pay, after all, because they have nothing. Now some of them have a prison sentence hanging over their heads,” says Derks. “That’s a high price for a utopia.”
These communities grapple with so many conflicts, Derks believes, precisely because they are pioneers. “They’re experimenting with anti-capitalist models, something that seems totally impossible in a capitalistic world,” she says.
Ideological commitment is a common denominator of the places Derks visited—whether that's residents who want to reduce their ecological footprint, live with fewer possessions, or experiment with new political and economic systems. “That’s exactly where the utopia lies, I think,” says Derks. “I started to admire the fact that they dared make such a conscious choice. Because no matter how small it is, they are doing something.”
The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, has funded Explorer Sanne Derks’s expeditions in Latin America. Learn more about the Society’s support of Explorers.