Geographer Marcela Benitez spent the early 1990s conducting research in decaying rural villages in Argentina. Now, she entices young entrepreneurs to move to those same small villages to help reverse their decline and turn them into affordable, vibrant enclaves.
Devex caught up with Benitez at the World Economic Forum Latin America in Buenos Aires, where she presented on RESPONDE, the nonprofit organization she founded in 1999 to address the massive urban migration experienced across the Latin American region. Roughly 80 percent of Latin Americans are currently living in cities and often experience serious social problems associated with urban overcrowding and the development of slums. Yet the number of urban dwellers is still expected to be closer to 90 percent by 2050.
Benitez believes that some of the social pressures on the region’s major cities — and the people who endure life in them — could be relieved by reversing the migration trend.
“Here, in many Latin American countries, when you have few important cities, a huge territory and many people going to those cities, the welfare of the people is terrible,” Benitez told Devex. “Those cities are not prepared to receive, they can’t offer jobs, housing or basic infrastructure.
There is big potential, on the other hand, she said, to live well in rural towns.
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RESPONDE starts by “diagnosing” small villages, with populations ranging from 500 to 1,000, throughout Argentina to identify their potential.
“There is always a small, enthusiastic group wishing for change,” Benitez said.
Often, there is a natural resource that can lend itself to tourism, a cultural practice that warrants a museum or the production of a unique type of food that can be sold elsewhere or attract tourists. RESPONDE, with the help of several international and local partners, helps residents assess this potential and provides necessary informal education and other tools to get started.
To date, the group has reached more than 140 rural villages. But in 2016, they went a step further by inviting young entrepreneurs to move to the town of Colonia Belgrano in Argentina’s Santa Fe Province, in partnership with the local government. Applicants needed to own their own business and not own a house.
“We received applications from 2,000 families,” Benitez said. “We only needed 20.”
Already, five families with young children have relocated, with the other families “eager to move,” Benitez said.
Benitez hopes that an increasing number of actors take an interest in repopulating rural areas to combat negative effects of urban migration: “The problem is migration and growing cities. This pilot to repopulate is, I believe, the answer.”
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