From Sicily to Scotland: Social enterprise and the Mafia

Our participation in the FAB-MOVE exchange project has opened up a whole host of opportunities for staff to travel, experience other academic environments and promote GCU across the world. Perhaps, the greatest benefit of this programme however lies in the quality of the visiting academics that come to the University and share their research and experience with us. We asked one such visitor to the Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health, Maria Olivella Rizza, to share a snapshot of her time with the Centre.

Since my arrival last summer, I could feel the unspoken question: why on earth would someone coming from a sunny place like Sicily decide to pick up Glasgow to spend a period abroad, when the alternative could be South Africa, Indonesia, Costa Rica, Andalusia? Glaswegians complain so much about the weather here so when I arrived on January 17th I came prepared equipped to face the glacial era.

This is my second period of the Fab-Move exchange program and I have learnt that as well as huge differences between my Sicily and this magnificent Scotland, there are also similarities. First of all, like Sicilians, Scottish people do not seem to recognize all the incredible things I see around here in Glasgow: excellent institutions, kind people, extraordinary music culture, organization as an instinct, preservation of historical heritage. All that is taken for granted. Sicilians also are always ready to complain: the weather, the crazy traffic jams, people’s laziness. But if you dare to criticize Sicily you will get an enemy: only Sicilians are allowed to speak badly about Sicily. I do not want to suggest that I flatter Scottish people to make my life easier (or simply longer!), but that I understand this sense of entitlement in speaking badly about your own city and your own kind.

This time I am scheduled to share my research about Libera Terra, the project on which I work back home, with the staff and students of the Yunus Centre. Launched in 1995, Libera tasked itself with the challenging aim of creating job opportunities in the land and property confiscated from the Mafia. I wonder how I can convey, with my limited English, to these excellent researchers who only know about the Mafia from the Godfather and the Sopranos. How can I explain that a young man or a girl in the 21st century can be forced to obey and to work for local mafioso, due to lack of opportunity, in exchange of rights given as personal favors (public health care, education, safety) and jobs paid for a third of the minimum wage? Is it possible for women and men raised under the umbrella of solid public institutions to figure out an oppression of individuals and groups to which state power is impotent or accountable? Is it possible to imagine that when in 1995 a priest from Turin, on the opposite side of Italy, started to collect signatures to ask the Parliament to approve a bill to assign confiscated lands to social enterprises everybody considered him either a wishful thinker or a man with a deathwish? Can they imagine the revolutionary power of market economy in a land dominated by feudal powers?

The big day arrives, my internal seminar presentation. I am always impressed by the high standard of the organization coupled with informality at these events. Clemmie is very helpful, introduces me and I start talking. I describe very briefly the economic situation of Sicily, where the per capita GDP in 2014 was equal to £13,390, in contrast to the Italian average which was £21,637; its employment rate (20-64 years) amounts to a 42,4% and is one of the lowest in Europe; the percentage of NEET  (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) young people in 2014 was over 40% when the (descending) average rate in Europe is 16.3% (in 2012 it was 17.1%). In recent years, emigration from Sicily and Southern Sicily is increasing with unceasing speed; the brain drain has been labelled as a “demographic tsunami” by the most authoritative report on the Southern Italy’s economy. Sicily is locked in an institutional trap, in which cultural inertia is a recurrent feature: the tendency to reproduce dysfunctional and/or inefficient behavioral patterns and to mistrust new ideas or ways of doing things.

Later in my presentation I explain why I started to study Libera Terra. I trace my research interests, stemming from new growth theory, passing through human development theorisers and social capital until the question arises: ‘How to produce social capital when and where it lacks?’. Then I dare to expose my personal motivations.

I am Sicilian, deeply unsatisfied that my wonderful, miserable land is known for Mafia and not for all the Sicilian heroes died to fight against it. As a matter of fact, nobody seems to know that with one exception (Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa), all the judges, politicians, entrepreneurs, priests, journalists, policemen and so on killed by mafia were all Sicilian. Nobody has ever fought the Mafia for us. Libera Terra is the first civil society initiative in which Sicilians could create a form of solidarity with Italians from the other regions. As a Sicilian, I felt abandoned by the central government of Italy. But in the world of Libera Terra I could believe that there were Italians willing to support our efforts, who sympathize with our cause.

At this point during my presentation I feel the air thickening and instinctively sense that I have captured the interest and understanding of the proud and independent people whom I am addressing.

I am more confident in telling Libera’s story. Libera in a few words is a project of organic agriculture in lands confiscated from Mafiosi. These lands would be assigned through public tender to social enterprises. In 2002, there was no demand for such expensive organic products in Sicily so with the help of cooperatives from Northern Italy; organic cereals, chickpeas, and lentils were processed, marketed and sold to consumers in Northern Italy at a higher price in a supermarket chain called Coop. That higher price would then be paid in exchange for a higher quality product and as a form of support to the Sicilian social enterprises. These social enterprises would then face environmental hostility and a great economic effort, due to the extraordinary labor and financial investment required to restore lands abandoned for many years (the process of confiscation and assignment of land may require as much as 15-20 years). Libera Terra now is an established social enterprise and Italian ‘success story’ with “The Global Journal” identifying Libera as one of the hundred best NGOs in the world in 2012. I am asked if, because of this seeming success, the risk of Mafia retaliation has faded over time. Absolutely not, I assure them, only last year one such cooperative farm was firebombed. But having the opportunity to escape from the thumb of the Mafia seems a risk worth taking.  

The Story of Libera Terra is very easy to tell; perhaps a more difficult task is to explain is why it is so special. The words of the president of the social enterprise “Pio La Torre ”, Salvatore Gibiino, for me perfectly depict and summarise the challenges faced by Libera Terra:

“Market is tyrannous. It seems straightforward to produce organic food with legal labor contracts for a big chain of supermarket like “Coop” but it is not. To guarantee the constant amount of products on the shelves of the supermarkets requires a big effort in term of organization. We receive a great support from Libera Terra Mediterraneo, the consortium created to commercialize our products. In Sicily, we only concentrate on the production on the fields. When you produce on the land, the risks due to weather conditions or possible parasites are extreme. And if the sun makes your tomatoes ripen well in advance than what you expected and you decide not to follow your competitors who use illegal migrants to pick up for example tomatoes at night for a tenth of the salary you pay to your workers, you know that your costs will rocket!  You have to rely on a communication campaign that makes it evident that your tomato sauce is expensive because it is an ethical product of high organic standard. It must be kept in mind that we (the Sicilian social enterprises) tied our owns hands in advance with a contract for the entrusting of the confiscated lands that oblige us to produce organic food. The quality controls of the independent agency we are submitted to are severe, and if we lose the quality certification we lose the right to cultivate the land. And if you sell to consumers of the “Coop” supermarkets, you reached your aim which is to demonstrate that you can live in your home town and have a decent life on your own, with no dependency links that humiliate you.”

We would like to thank Olivella for sharing her research with us on a topic that is clearly very personal to her and the lives of her friends and family. We look forward to any return visits to Glasgow she may have in the works! For more information on the work of Libera Terra please visit their website here


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