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ITALY: Daring to Put Mafia Assets to Social Utility

Stefania Milan

FLORENCE, May 30 2010 (IPS) - In the small town of Corleone in central Sicily, 13 people, five of whom suffer from psychiatric distress, run a farm on lands confiscated from the Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian mafia.

They grow corn, tomatoes and chickpeas and tend to an almond grove and a vineyard and sell their produce mostly through fair price retail outlets. But that is not the whole story as the mafia is still a going concern in Italy.

“We have to walk every morning through the lands of a notorious mafia boss to access our fields. In the beginning, we were isolated by our friends. And so were our children. We were called the ‘cooperative of madmen’,” Francesco Ancona from the cooperative ‘Lavoro e non solo’ (Not only work), told IPS.

Ancona was recounting his experiences at Terra Futura (Earth of the Future), an international exhibition of good practices on sustainability held annually in Florence. Its seventh edition, held May 28-30, focused on developing sustainable and responsible communities as “laboratories of the future”.

Lavoro e non solo was started in 1998 to rehabilitate psychiatric patients through agricultural labour. Since 2000 it has been entrusted with over 370 acres of land confiscated from the Sicilian mafia. Its members, aged between 30 and 60 years, share the labour.

“Our work with psychiatric patients has a social function. In addition, we aim at promoting an anti-mafia culture on the territory,” said Ancona. Lavoro e non solo employs other psychiatric patients, mainly young people from the Corleone area, and promotes anti-mafia youth summer camps that attract about 600 people over 16 two-week sessions.

Corleone was home to Bernardo Provenzano, considered the most important chief of Cosa Nostra. Provenzano was arrested in 2006, after eluding the law for 40 years.

In one of Provenzano’s houses, confiscated by the state and entrusted to Lavoro e non solo, the cooperative is about to open an anti-mafia museum which will include a historical archive and video library.

“It is very difficult to operate in an area where the mafia still exists and continues to operate. Even if the chiefs have been arrested, their families still live in the territory – and they are not exactly anti-mafia,’’ said Salvatore Ferrara, vice-president of Lavoro e non solo.

In 2004, the government assigned 331 acres of land to Lavoro e non solo in the town of Canicattì, 100 km southeast of Corleone. But, in acts of intimidation by the mafia, the vineyard was burnt down just before the handover and, in 2008 the sprouts of over 700 vines were chopped off.

The cooperative countered such threats by starting a campaign called ‘adopt a vine’ to raise funds for replanting.

In 2009, 1,223 businesses and 9,198 pieces of real estate were confiscated in Italy, according to the government agency that deals assets seized from criminal organisations.

About 73 percent of the confiscated properties were given to non-profit organisations (NPOs) to be used for social ends, according to a report by Agenzia per le Onlus, the Italian organisation of non-profit agencies. The report was presented at Terra Futura.

According to the report, confiscated properties are put to use in several ways. These include taking on social problems (21.7 percent), promoting cultural activities (18.3 percent), or they are put to public utility (17.4 percent). Citizens and individuals with disabilities are intended to be the the main beneficiaries of the scheme.

However, 42.9 percent of these NPOs are facing serious financial problems as the mafia continues to pose a challenge as a viable alternate system.

“Today the mafia is an economic organisation: it employs its assets to obtain and launder money, because it does not have access to credit. This is the terrain where we must fight the mafia,” said Stefano Zamagni, president of the Agenzia per le Onlus.

‘’It is not enough to reclaim the goods: we should reconvert them to ensure they produce income and jobs for citizens. Otherwise, there is a serious risk that they will end up missing the presence of the mafia [as an employer]. We must show them that there is a realistic alternative.”

“The assets confiscated from the mafia become social laboratories for the creation of alternatives. Not only because they are confiscated assets, but also because they embody a different model of production, one that pays attention to sustainability and legality,” said Andrea Giolitti from the anti-mafia network Libera (Free).

Unfortunately, the reallocation of land and assets takes an average of eight years after seizure. Moreover, 57 percent of confiscated properties are delivered in a bad state, and the start-up is generally very difficult. In 36 percent of the cases there is no financial support by institutions.

Zamagni called for a state fund to sustain the start-up of NPOs that are allocated lands and assets formerly owned by the mafia.

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