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June 26, 2024
Social Justice

Why we need informed communities: the case of Diano Valley

Insight by Sara Manisera

There are tiny stories of resistance that rarely make it to the pages of newspapers. These are stories of ordinary people who chose not to remain indifferent in the face of injustices and various forms of oppressive tyranny. The story of RESTA – Network for Ecology, Health, Territory, and Anti-Mafia – is one of active citizenship in the South of Italy that refuses to succumb to resignation but instead chooses to plant the seeds in the present furrow of History.

The FADA Collective, of which I am a part, first encountered this small provincial story in 2020. That year, RESTA had not yet been born, but in November 2020, Vallo di Diano became the center of an enormous international waste scandal. For those unfamiliar with the area, Vallo di Diano is a plain in the province of Salerno, nestled between the Apennine ranges and the Tanagro River. Its geographic position – between Basilicata, Calabria, and northern Campania, and its proximity to the Salerno-Reggio Calabria highway – has always made the area a key junction and connection point. These characteristics have made it attractive for at least thirty years to the expansionist and hegemonic ambitions of the Campanian and Calabrian criminal organizations. At the same time, it is an open, vast, and sparsely populated territory, lacking State presence and law enforcement.

This is the context from which the story arises. From a small provincial town – Polla – 282 containers of waste were shipped to Tunisia. Together with local journalist Pasquale Sorrentino and colleague Arianna Poletti, based in Tunisia, we began working on the documents. Arianna and I are co-founders of the FADA journalists' collective, focusing on investigative and participatory journalism, with an emphasis on rights, social justice, and the environment. Together, we contacted and spoke with various local sources with information. We requested access to documents in Italy and Tunisia, cross-checked the data, and met with waste company executives. From that journalistic work came the first investigations published on IrpiMedia in collaboration with Rai News 24, Inkyfada, Domani, and Repubblica. The journalistic work led to the opening of an investigation by two District Anti-Mafia Prosecutor’s Offices in Potenza and Salerno. Three years later, in February 2024, arrests were made of a Campania region official and several businessmen in the sector.

Meanwhile, Vallo di Diano once again woke up to an environmental pollution case. On April 12, 2021, seven people were investigated for the trafficking and illegal dumping of 22 tankers of chemical waste on some lands. It wasn't the first time. The names in the investigation papers were linked to waste dumping activities for over thirty years: Luigi Cardiello and Raffaele Diana, both involved in the Mida investigation, both acquitted due to the statute of limitations.

This time, however, resignation was swept away by anger. RESTA was born, a significant exercise in collective resistance that combines decades of civil and environmental struggles with intergenerational activism practices. While RESTA carries on with creative forms of mobilization, the journalistic work continues. In July 2021, we published a detailed report on IrpiMedia about Vallo di Diano, reconstructing the historical presence of mafia-style organizations in the area. In 2021, it was one of the most-read articles on IrpiMedia. We realized that local communities – whether peripheral or inland – are hungry for good journalism and stories that tell of an alternative imagination, all waiting to be built. With colleague Arianna Pagani, also from FADA Collective, we made "La Terra mi tiene" ("The Land Holds Me"), a documentary that tells the story of those who, in these Apennine territories, are trying to create new forms of civil economy and agriculture, starting with wheat. A healthy economy that protects the rights of people and, at the same time, the environment. "We need to return to eating our bread," say the farmers featured in the documentary, sowers of the future. A valuable lesson comes from these marginal areas where resistance is practiced. Eating one's bread means sowing and growing food, protecting the land from chemicals and the mafia, living on it, and guarding it.

After the journalistic investigations, documentaries, and civil mobilization, there also comes participatory academic research. Between late 2022 and 2023, Thomas Aureliani, a Sociology researcher from the University of Milan, contacted me. He was conducting participatory research in some areas affected by environmental pollution, the presence of mafia organizations, and practices of resistance and civil participation. I immediately told him about RESTA, the ecological fractures in Vallo di Diano, the impunity of some mafia figures, and the justice that had never come all these years. Aureliani accepted the invitation, and a few months later, he was in Vallo di Diano interviewing the RESTA network. From that meeting and evening reflections by the fire, the idea of organizing the social conference "Crimes, Environmental Damage, and Struggles: Stories and Voices from Vallo di Diano" was born – a two-day event to raise awareness among civil society, citizens, and institutions about environmental crime and the mafia, environmental damage and health consequences, and movements and struggles for environmental defense. A social conference also supported by the Voice Over Foundation.

It's always in this journey, beyond conferences and initiatives, living with constant human relationships on the territory, that "Senza Segnale" ("No Signal") fits in, a participatory journalism project that aims to reconnect those territories forgotten by the media industry, becoming informational deserts. A project curated by IrpiMedia, in collaboration with FADA Collective, Indip, Dotz Media, and the Permanent Journalism Center, built thanks to the support of the LocalMedia4Democracy grant from the Journalism Fund Europe, demonstrating how precious the link between cross-border journalism and on-the-ground journalism is.

As a journalist but above all as a citizen who chose to return to live in these inland areas of Vallo di Diano, the village from where my parents were forced to emigrate forty years ago to improve their living conditions, I felt the urgency of restitution but above all of storytelling. I spoke to the group, and we decided to involve RESTA because we believe it is necessary not only to rebuild relationships with local communities and more internal and peripheral areas where there is a media desert but also that these communities should tell their own stories firsthand.

For too long, these territories have been described as submissive and compliant. The causes, the responsibilities of a predatory and feudal political and business class, were never narrated and denounced. My grandparents first and then my parents became migrants because they did not accept the compromise: the job, a medical visit, a house, a right exchanged as a favor. They had no other choice but to leave.

Choosing to involve RESTA was, in some way, a form of restitution for the sacrifices made by my grandparents and all those who emigrated. A tribute to those who left and those who chose to stay and resist, mobilizing, activating, trying to mend communities in increasingly polarized and disoriented towns.

As a citizen and journalist living in these "marginal" places, without services, rights, and infrastructures, often turned into dumping grounds for the North, but at the same time sparsely populated and of admirable beauty, I realized that there is still room here to imagine the future. But to imagine the future, one needs to act. And to act, it is essential to be informed. The two things go hand in hand. The active resistance of RESTA in the Southern territories is a practice that needed to be told – and self-narrated – because it teaches us that resignation is not the only answer. Thinking of the alternative, practicing it, and imagining another world is a tortuous but urgent path. To build new worlds, we need stories that inspire new imaginations and help us walk and face the struggles of the present. After all, it is the tiny stories of those who have the courage to imagine that change the course of History.

*The article is a revisited excerpt of a long in-depth article that appeared in the book ‘Senza Segnale’.

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