‘We’re being invaded by pigs’: Spain’s pork revolution faces backlash

The village school shut down more than four decades ago. The two-storey stone hotel closed its doors in 2008. Yet the past 15 years have seen a population boom – of sorts – in the Spanish village of Balsa de Ves.

“We’re being invaded by pigs,” says the mayor, Natividad Pérez García, pointing to a cluster of elongated sheds on the outskirts of the village. The buildings are home to 3,900 sows, who produce approximately 100,000 piglets a year. “We’re at more than 800 pigs for every resident,” says Pérez García.

It’s a transformation playing out across rural Spain, with close to half of the pork industry located in municipalities with a population below 5,000. In 2021, the country of 47 million people slaughtered 58 million pigs – up 40% from a decade earlier – turning Spain into Europe’s largest pork meat producer.

But promises that pork production would revitalise Spain’s rural communities remain unfulfilled in Balsa de Ves, about 60 miles (100km) inland from Valencia.

Pérez García remembers the early days in 2006, when a representative of the industry turned up at a council meeting. “He said we would be the envy of the surrounding villages,” she says. “That the world was going to want to come and live here. That the village school would reopen and we would have green spaces.”

His pitch – which convinced all the local councillors save Pérez García to sign off on the idea – offered a glimmer of hope amid a battery of alarming statistics. In the past decade, 90% of Spanish villages with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants have seen their populations shrink. As villages across the country peddled bargain land or even the local bachelors to stave off their demise, Balsa de Ves gambled on intensive pig farming.

“That was the beginning of the nightmare in my village,” says Pérez García. “In one of the hamlets about three kilometres from the farm, it smells 362 days a year. A constant stream of heavy trucks come and go, destroying our roads.”

In May, testing carried out by Greenpeace suggested that one of the village’s five water sources – albeit one that is not connected to the drinking water supply – had a nitrate level of 120 milligrams per litre, more than doubling the EU directive limit of 50mg/l. Peréz García hastily moved to curb residents’ habit of filling up jugs with the spring water.

The presence of nitrates has been linked to the spread of manure by the farm, a correlation found across Spain. In the north-eastern region of Aragón, home to roughly seven pigs for every inhabitant, a recent investigation found that nearly 50 municipalities had recorded dangerously high levels of nitrates in their drinking water at some point between 2016 and 2020.

The farm in Balsa de Ves employs few people, but more worryingly for Pérez García, the village’s population has dropped 40% since its arrival.

A 2021 study comparing nearly 400 small villages across the country found that 74% of the municipalities where pigs outnumbered people had shrunk over the previous two decades; by comparison, 25% of municipalities where pigs were not being farmed in large numbers had undergone a similar decline.

“It makes sense,” says Pérez García. “What do people prefer? The smell of pine, rosemary, or the smell of shit?”

The farm did not reply to a request for comment.

The proliferation of intensive farms has polarised rural Spain, pitting those who see the farms as a source of much-needed jobs against the more than 70 grassroots groups who oppose their rapid growth.

“You can’t fill empty Spain with pigs,” says Antonio Escribano, a winemaker based in the village of Quintanar del Rey, who has for years been part of a grassroots group battling plans for a farm that would produce nearly 40,000 piglets a year. “Who would come and live in a village with polluted water, where one can’t open the window and breathe healthy air?”

The debate has at times shredded the social fabric of these villages. “Before we were a village like any other village,” says Milagros Herrero, who has spearheaded opposition to a farm housing as many as 6,300 pigs in the municipality of Cardenete.

Amid complaints about a persistent bad smell and concerns over the potential for nitrate-laden runoff to enter the water supply, an atmosphere of “tense calm” set in, Herrero says. “Some neighbours stopped speaking to others.”

Related: ‘Toilet of Europe’: Spain’s pig farms blamed for mass fish die-offs

About 50,000 jobs in the pork industry are located in Spain’s least populated municipalities, according to Interporc Spain, which represents the large-white sector – the breed widely used in intensive pig farming. Businesses create “jobs, opportunities and a future for families who want to remain where their roots are”, the trade body says.

Addressing the concerns of some communities, it says: “A farm is not set up indiscriminately. There is a strict series of requirements that must be followed in order to be granted the appropriate permits by the different administrations involved. This includes distances to municipalities and strict environmental regulations.”

In Balsa de Ves, Pérez García argues that the arrival of the pig farm has ruled out other possibilities for the village’s survival. “We could be living perfectly well from tourism, we have some beautiful spots,” the mayor says. “But nobody is interested because of the megafarm.”