Freedom food: the organic farmers who took on the Italian mafia

| 25th October 2011
Fields in Italy

Land confiscated from people associated with organised crime is being using to produce organic food

Would you work on confiscated lands owned by mafia bosses who have killed countless people? The Ecologist reports from Italy on the new farming cooperative turning a bloody past into organic olive oil, oranges and wine

Once there was blood. Now there are organic blood oranges. This is southern Italy. These are lands once dominated by mafia bosses but now witnessing pockets of defiance blossoming into a wide network of cooperatives operating under the umbrella of the 'Libera' association. Libera means 'free', just like these freed lands, where small groups of farmers produce olive oil, pasta, wine and preserves under the label 'Libera Terra' (Free Land). They say that in this food you can taste the freedom.

The organic method of mafia resistance came to life in 1995. Libera, founded by Luigi Ciotti, a Catholic priest, started collecting signatures to spur the Italian parliament to pass a law allowing properties confiscated from people associated with organised crime to be used for 'socially useful purposes'. The petition, signed by one million people, became law in 1996.

The first Libera Terra cooperative – Cooperativa Placido Rizzotto – was set up in 2001 in San Giuseppe Jato, Sicily, a few miles from Corleone, the capital town of Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian mafia.

Nowadays, there are eight co-ops like this. In addition, Libera is planning to set up another three farms. According to Ismea, the state-run research institute for the  agricultural market, there was an increase of 11.5 per cent in the organic food sector in 2011, despite the global economic crisis.

That means that Italians prefer spending significantly more money on products that are healthy and, perhaps, untainted by the mafia.

The consignment of confiscated property starts with a public call for tender. If the bid is successful, the winners must set up a cooperative and, if they want, they can join Libera. The association supplies farms like these with start-up funding. From that point forward, the cooperative must be self-sufficient.

Nevertheless, Libera continues to assist the co-op in logistical organisation from the initial food-processing to supermarket distribution. The aim is to reduce and control the supply chain by asking the suppliers to produce mafia-free documentation and organic certificates, Italian bureaucracy permitting.

'We have to be “gentle” with lands that have been exploited and “disfigured”. That's why we are used to spending three years reclaiming the fields in order to obtain the organic certification', says Francesco Galante, spokesperson for Libera Terra.

Libera farmers must take the long view and must also be fearless. But they don't like to be depicted as heroes. Actually, working on confiscated lands owned by mafia bosses who have killed countless people means risking your own life and challenging one of the most powerful and shadowy criminal organisations in the world on its own turf. A short trip from Sicily to Campania is instructive in understanding just what ingredients contribute to the taste of freedom in the face of such risks.

Sicily’s orange revolution

A large grey strip stains the Sicilian sky’s azure. 'The volcano is going to erupt tonight. We are waiting for the fireworks', says Antonella Dipietro, a member of the Beppe Montana cooperative. The co-op is based in Belpasso, near Catania, in the shadow of Etna, the main volcano of the Italian island.


Antonella's old Fiat trudges tiredly through sun-burnt fields of citrus trees. The oranges are still green and will be ready for the harvest in December, but there are already men at work. Giovanni, one of the volunteers, 20, explains: 'We are pruning the orange trees today'. Francesco, another aspiring farmer, adds: 'This field has been neglected for twelve years. That is why it is full of brambles'.

Giovanni and Francesco are both attending the 'Libera Summer Camp', which organizes approximately 90 student-volunteers per week to help cultivate the fields for the co-op.

'This land was owned by the Nardo and Riela coscas, associate clans of the infamous Santapaola family, whose boss' – Nitto Santapaola, also known as 'The Hunter' or 'The Werewolf' – 'is considered one of the most bloodthirsty godfathers', says Antonella Dipietro, member of the co-op. According to the judges who ordered the confiscation of the land, this farm was used for money-laundering and – perhaps – as a hideout for fugitives.

'This is a good place for oranges' – she continues – 'thanks to the temperature range and the volcanic ash. We produce a tasty jam and a jasmine flavoured orange juice'. Antonella is proud of her new job. Born nearby, she left to work in marketing in Urbino, central Italy, but returned home to work with Libera. 'It is a kind of revenge' – she explains – 'I can remember a time when this field belonged to organized crime. Now, this land is my land.'

A Libera field works like the hub of a network. The co-op produces, sells and buys raw material. For instance, the cooperative pays € 0.30 per kilo (£0.26 per 2.26 lb) for oranges, which is double the market rate.

In this way, Libera helps local farmers maintain wage levels and, most important, the co-op helps the farmers steer clear of organised crime. 'If you want to be part of the network, you have to respect our rules. If not, you are out. We give farmers a chance: this is the real fight against mafia', Antonella says proudly. 

The farmland of the Neapolitan mafia

Libera lies quietly in the yellow fields, waiting for company. Libera – a wolfdog – has been living here since before the cooperative was born. Perhaps, she can remember the stables and the thoroughbreds running through the fields. Or, better, her mother could, as this is a very old story.

Castel Volturno is a town born of cement, blood and criminality. A few miles from Naples and even closer to Casal di Principe, hometown of the infamous Casalesi family, one of the most powerful clans of the Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia. 

The land occupied by Libera – the dog and the association – used to belong to Michele Zazza. 'O pazzo – the fool – was considered the local king of cigarette smuggling in the late Seventies and Eighties. But this was not his only business. Here, a few steps from the littoral zone, on the road to Gomorrah, he used to breed horses for illegal races.

The thoroughbreds ran fast, but Italian law is as slow as a snail. The process of seizing his property was protracted and, during that time, Michele Zazza died in jail. It was 1994. The same year, Don Peppe Diana, a priest from Casal di Principe who fought the mafia, was killed by two gunmen in his own church. Now, in 2011, the confiscated land is named after him.

'The lands of Gomorrah turned into “The Lands of Don Peppe Diana”, that is the name of our cooperative', explains Massimo Rocco, 34, president of the co-op. After completing a course in Cinema studies in Rome, he came back home in order to fight back against organised crime. How does he intend to do it? With cheese. 'I am training as a dairyman. We are setting up a dairy in the old stables in order to produce buffalo mozzarella cheese by October', he says.

Massimo is not alone. The cooperative employs another dairyman, an agronomist, a tractor driver and a product specialist. They have sown the fields with wheat and 'cicerchia' – a vanishing legume typical of that area – and they already produce 'Paccheri', a particular kind of pasta.

The area is kept under surveillance by a private company – a single man more focused on watching television than security when the Ecologist visited the farm – paid for by the local mayor. But Massimo is not afraid. 'If I was scared, I wouldn't be here. I mean, we do not expect to be an island of peace. Not at all. But we would like to spur people to reject the lawlessness of the past', he says.

Massimo and Antonella are not scared. They say that people have been threatened and that often it is hard to find anyone who wants to work in those lands. People are afraid but, in their view, the fear is not justified. Yes, fires have been set and yes, other co-ops have discovered their trees mysteriously felled. But when criminals saw the Libera workers doggedly persisting in the fields, the threats stopped.

Italy is full of people like Antonella and Massimo. They have to cope with the Byzantine intricacies of local bureaucracy in addition to facing the fact that – often – confiscated goods end up in the wrong hands thanks to 'prestanome' (dummies), people having a clean criminal record but on the mafia's payroll.

In spite of it all, Libera Terra turned a profit of more than £2 billion in 2010 in the food sector. The network intends to strengthen its business in other countries, such as Germany. 'And the UK, as well' – adds Francesco Galante, spokesperson for Libera Terra – 'we are going to sell our products in Great Britain by this Autumn'. Fair trade from a developed country. It costs a bit more. But, in the end, can you really put a price on the taste of freedom?

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