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Ghost Villages and the Slow Death of Rural Bulgaria


Bulgaria - 04/11/2013

Paramun is a small village 70 kilometres west of the Bulgarian capital of Sofia.
It is full of old houses with cracked walls, peeling paint and broken windows. Shrubs and oak trees cover the nearby hills.

With its clean air and stunning landscape it could be a holiday resort but Paramun is one of 650 villages in Bulgaria with a population of less than 50 people.

The average inhabitant here is 75 years old so every month, Paramun, and villages like it, sees its population decrease even further.

In the past two years, more than 100 villages have ceased to exist because nobody lives there or because villages with only a handful of residents have been absorbed by larger villages.

The elderly inhabitants often keep a few chickens and small vegetables patches while struggling to survive on miserable state pensions of €100 a month.

But with the rising costs of utility bills, not to mention food and other expenses, the average pension in Bulgaria is barely enough to make ends meet.


“Our grandchildren are foreigners”

But while it is hard for the elderly, there are fewer and fewer young people in rural Bulgaria. Agricultural reforms initiated at the beginning of the 1990s destroyed the rural economy.

Today, there is little work in the villages, forcing young people to head to the big cities or abroad in search of employment.

In Paramun, for example, there are currently about ten elderly, year-round residents.

In the summer, this number increases to about 25 to 30 people – mainly retired folks from the capital city who go there to enjoy the summer.

But Paramun used to have 400 inhabitants. Most of them raised sheep and goats and worked on the cooperative farm, which was closed after the fall of communism in 1989.

Seventy-six year-old Tasko sits under the eaves of an abandoned building, holding a wooden stick. There are no other people in sight.

“I have spent my whole life in Paramun,” he tells us.

“Once, there were around 500 sheep here. Now there aren’t any. We had goats too but there are no longer any young people to act as shepherds. Our grandchildren are already foreigners.”

With a population of approximately 7.3 million, Bulgaria has one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe.

It stood at 13 per cent in August 2013, with a youth unemployment rate of 28.4 per cent.

But the real figure is thought to be closer to 25 to 30 per cent as so many Bulgarians work on a seasonal basis in countries like Greece, Spain and Italy.

According to the Bulgarian trade union centre, the Confederation of Labour Podkrepa, between 20,000 and 25,000 young Bulgarians leave the country in search of work every year.

The Bulgarian diaspora currently stands at about one million.

Young Bulgarians also have to contend with a lack of decent work – salaries in Bulgaria are, on average, five times less than in western Europe.


Out with the old, in with the new

Following the introduction of socialism to Bulgaria and the founding of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria in 1946, all village land was incorporated into farming cooperatives, either forcefully or voluntarily.

At the beginning of the 1990s, Bulgaria made strenuous efforts to break free from the country’s communist past and move forward into what it thought would be a bright, neo-liberal future.

Cooperative farms from the previous regime were liquidated and lots of equipment was sold – much of it for scrap.

The government rejected proposals to keep the cooperatives functioning by changing ownership and converting them into joint stock companies. As a result, hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost, irrigation systems were destroyed, and orchards and large farmlands became fragmented as old borders were reinstituted.

Land was returned to the heirs of the former owners, but they often had little incentive to manage it.

Today, about 80 per cent of these fields are an average of five acres in size, which is unsuitable for a modern farming.

A country which used to be an exporter of fruits, vegetables and meat, is now an importer.

And the rural population continues to reduce.

In 1975, 42 per cent of Bulgarians lived in rural areas.

Today, according to data from the EU statistics office Eurostat, there are just over two million people – a million of which are pensioners – living in rural Bulgaria, making up 27.5 per cent of the population.


Regeneration

About 260 kilometres south-east of Sofia is the popular ski resort Pamporovo, set in the Rhodope mountains.

Nearby are a cluster of empty villages; one of them, Peshtera, hasn’t had any permanent inhabitants since 2012.

The last resident died last autumn. His three starving dogs are barely kept alive by inhabitants of a neighbouring village who use the empty buildings to store hay and come by twice a week to throw the dogs some food.

But as bleak as it sounds, the situation here is actually a little better. Several houses have been converted into villas by some Greek and British families, as well as a couple of people from Sofia.

According to the Institute for Research of Population and People at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (BAS), there are at least 500 empty or ‘ghost’ villages in the country.

In a BAS study, researcher Dona Pickard urged authorities to implement measures to help stimulate rural regeneration by “supporting the traditions of cooperation and collective action which are still alive in the villages.”

It is clear something needs to be done.

Without further intervention, low fertility rates, high mortality rates and a lack of employment opportunities in rural areas will mean that by 2060, there will be no villages left in Bulgaria, according to the BAS.

In recent years, there have been various government and EU interventions to reverse this and in some areas the agricultural sector is gradually beginning to recover.

For example, the Bulgarian government’s decision to restructure the subsidies available via the Rural Development Programme to encourage grain production, vineyards and stock-breeding, has resulted in grain production returns to the kind of crop volumes last seen in the 1980s.

The authorities have also released subsidies to help municipalities make structural improvements to roads, water works and sewage systems.

However, funds are limited and it is difficult to attract investment for bigger, more ambitious projects as the decreasing rural population means that there is no guarantee of a return on investment.

In the meantime, Bulgaria’s ageing rural population can only reminisce about the good old days.

“This was the most beautiful village in the region,” declares Tasko from Paramun as he proudly eyes the once-crowded village square.

It is as if ghosts from his past have appeared right before his eyes – children going to the now- defunct school, women shopping in dilapidated shops, men harvesting fields that no longer grow any crops.

Whether Paramun will ever return to its former glory remains to be seen, but it is unlikely Tasko will see it in his lifetime.


Nevena Borisova and Ivan Bakalov



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