- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 28, 2004

AGHIOS PAVLOS, Greece — The houses and the church are in ruins. The narrow streets are dead silent.

Everyone is gone.

“Aghios Pavlos is totally deserted and the buildings have collapsed,” said Eftyhis Sfakianakis, the former community leader in this forsaken region of southwestern Crete.

Greece’s 2001 census listed two residents for Aghios Pavlos, but they have since died, he said.

The same fate someday may befall the nearby village of Voutas, which has just five children among its 61 remaining residents. The nearest school is a 20-minute drive. Bus service has been canceled.

The villages in this part of Greece’s biggest island are falling victim to the lure of urban living, as are many other rural areas around the world.

According to the World Bank, in 1999 as much as 60 percent of Greece’s population — 6.3 million people — lived in urban areas, a 2 percent increase from 1980.

The rate, though, is still far less than in most European countries. In the Netherlands, 89 percent of the people lived in urban areas in 1999, trailed closely by Denmark at 85 percent and Germany at 87 percent.

“The issue of rural depopulation is a serious one in all of the countries of Western Europe and the United States,” said Richard Taub, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago.

Mr. Taub said the issue is mainly economic opportunity: Jobs are in cities and the surrounding regions, and people would rather work in an office than do agricultural jobs.

Moreover, rural communities don’t have access to quality medical care, as big medical centers are concentrated in cities. In Greece, a single doctor is usually assigned to areas covering several villages and rural communities.

According to the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau, only 14 percent of the world’s people lived in urban areas in 1900. By 1950, 30 percent did, and by the end of the century, urban areas held 47 percent — 2.8 billion people.

“People had hopes that the rise of computer-based communications systems would allow rural people to work at home. So far that has not happened in any important way,” Mr. Taub said.

Many European governments are trying to find ways to entice people to stay in rural areas.

But urbanization is not the only threat to life in rural Greece. Efforts to revive villages are hampered by the rapid aging of the population, which is a result of a birthrate at a 20-year low and longer life expectancy.

“The future for rural Greece is very dark, because most of them living there are elderly people, and sooner than later they will die,” Mr. Sfakianakis said.

According to Greece’s 2001 census, the population stood just under 11 million people. That was a 6.9 percent increase from 1991, but the figures showed the increase came from an influx of about a million immigrants rather than natural population growth.

The latest figures from the European Union and Greek state agencies say Greece has the lowest birthrate in the European Union and the highest proportion of elderly people.

The EU’s statistical service says the 65-79 age group accounts for 12.3 percent of Greece’s population, compared to an EU average of 11.7 percent. At the same time, the number of Greeks younger than 14 has decreased steadily since the mid-1950s to 15.2 percent in the 2001 census.

Moreover, foreigners now account for 70 percent of the births that do occur in Greece.

Although no part of Greece has escaped the decline in the birthrate, the mainland suffered the most, reporting a 41 percent decline between 1980 and 1998. Other areas with big drops included the islands of the northern Aegean and the area around Athens, the capital.

This trend is not limited to Greece. It can be seen in varying degrees across the industrialized world.

Studies indicate that population growth from births has stopped in many industrialized countries, with the preponderance of births coming in the less-developed countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

A report last year by the Population Reference Bureau said that of the 83 million people added to world’s population each year by more births over deaths, only 1 million are in the industrial countries.

“Many of the economically developed countries can no longer reproduce themselves and are turning to immigration in order to provide a young working population,” Mr. Taub said.

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