Cerignola, a town in the province of Foggia, is by now synonymous with assaults on armoured cars on the highway conducted with military-style. One speaks of “the school of Cerignola” for this type of assault: burning vehicles, burning roads, weapons of war, as if one were on the scene of a conflict in a remote corner of the world, yet it is Italy. The brutality of the Cerignola mafia has entered the lexicon and diction, using the concept of school. Normalization of violence and the subjugation of a land. And yet there is a new school, a handful of concrete dreamers who are making a difference in a territory tormented by this mafia, by caporalato, by economic difficulties. A group of men and women who have given life to a confiscated property dedicated to Francesco Marcone. Real daily action of concrete anti-mafia that, through the fragile, the last, tries to regain possession of territory on the edge of national debate. Interview with Pietro Fragasso by Sergio Nazzaro.
I like to start this dialogue on why the name “Pietra di scarto” (the waste stone) from what was born and what perspective do you want to deliver?
The Social Cooperative “Pietra di Scarto” was born in Cerignola in 1996 within a strong Catholic context: that of the Parish of St. Anthony of Padua. In fact, the name derives from a Psalm in the Bible, 118 to be precise, which reads: “The stone discarded by the builders has become the cornerstone”. It seemed like a perfect name for a Cooperative whose goal was to promote the employment of people in difficult situations. However, when I arrived at the Cooperative two years later, in 1998, I was 19 years old, and I didn’t like that name at all: it seemed too characterized, too “belonging”.
Today, every time I’m asked about it, after 23 years of work in the Cooperative, I answer that we couldn’t have a better name. Personally, I appreciate the heretical matrix, sometimes anarchic, which defines a subversion of the “status quo”, of a particular plastic and respectable vision of reality, which clearly separates the good from the bad. And instead, we are the representation of a different narrative: one that starts from prisons, from the world of addiction and exploitation and affirms that it is possible to witness incredible revolutions, which have people at their centre. Not prisoners, junkies or migrants, but people. With their hardships, their complexities, their deep humanity, made up of suffering and joy.
We always say that we have given ourselves a mission, which we have decided to translate with the words of one of our references in this maieutic path, namely Danilo Dolci, who stated that it is necessary to dream of others as they are not yet. Therefore, if I had to define our work, I couldn’t find better words.
How complex is the work of a social cooperative on a confiscated property in Cerignola? Creating and developing a social economy, as a bastion in a truly complex land that can also be extremely violent, without mincing words
Its’ good to make it clear right away: we inhabit a land of the Mafia. Two years ago, for the first time, the Municipality of Cerignola experienced the drama of the dissolution of the City Council for mafia infiltration, resulting in a commission that still lasts today. But it is good to highlight how the mafia phenomenon was not born today. The arrival of Cutolo in Foggia in 1979 represents the milestone of the criminal evolution of our province, generating organizations such as the “Società foggiana” and the “malavita cerignolana”, which grew with lights off for more than twenty years, far from the attention of the media and especially of the State. Between the early ’80s and mid ’90s the Mafia in my city has made an operation of extraordinary power, often using the most heinous violence, which I would translate into a form of cultural hegemony, able to normalize a phenomenon, making it enter into the ordinary dynamics of the community. What then happened in the very recent past has shown the umpteenth leap in quality, bringing the clans to directly govern public affairs, at times even supported by a certain public opinion devoted to the usual “at least something has been done.
This long introduction tells how our reuse project sets itself the challenge of acting and dialoguing with the territory, trying to develop actions that can directly affect the surrounding reality, avoiding locking up in “cathedrals of legality” that have little to do with people’s lives. The risk is always that of talking about ourselves and not listening to what the surrounding environment tells us.
When the Laboratory of Legality “Francesco Marcone” was founded in 2010, named in memory of the Director of the Registry Office of Foggia, killed by the Foggia society on March 31, 1995, one thing was immediately clear to us: to act according to the deepest spirit of the “Rognoni-La Torre” Law and the subsequent Law 109/96. Giving back to the community not only a symbol but activating actions that had real levers of change at their base.
This is why social agriculture, the production of “Bella di Cerignola” olives and tomatoes, but above all, the ability to generate employment: work as a revolutionary element of change, rebirth, affirmation of identity. Always in a way that has the “sharing of fate” as an element of solidarity and cohesion to achieve the goal that is closest to our hearts: social justice.
Can you tell us about your relationship with the local community, with the people of the area? You are from Cerignola and the surrounding area. What was the climate before and what is the environment around you?
There is no doubt that we live in a complicated land, which someone has defined as “beautiful and desperate”, finding a practically perfect synthesis. We inhabit a land of the Mafia, it’s true. But our DNA is of an elevated nature: Giuseppe Di Vittorio was born here, the struggles of farmworkers against the latifundia began here, the union and the battle for the rights of the nameless were born here. Nicola Zingarelli was born, Pasquale Bona was born. Much of this legacy over time has been lost, often immolated in dynamics of corruption and malfeasance. And slowly, this land, this city has become accustomed to being what others wanted it to be: asleep, distracted, servant of the mafia. And that brought the mafiosi to rule. This is why in the fight against mafias, the confiscated goods become not useful, but decisive: they tell the community that the State is there, that it is possible to affirm what we have written at the top of the structure that insists on the good, namely: “Here the mafia has lost”! And it becomes necessary to the extent that the community realizes that the anti-mafia is not a license in the hands of insiders, but it involves all of us, no one excluded. In these ten years of management of the confiscated property, we have realized how it is only by opening up to the territory, contaminating and contaminating ourselves, that important and collective goal can be achieved. In this sense, I always like to remember one thing: when a person who has completed his prison term manages to find an active role in the community, it represents a “plus” sign on the state budget. In this sense, we like to think that ours is a constitutional function.
In a land that has agriculture as one of its driving economic factors, bringing it back to be human, sustainable, organic, how difficult is this road, which also saw the death of Camara Fantamadi, due to heat and exhaustion?
We have to start from two elements: the first is that we live in the third-largest agricultural area in Italy and that almost all the land is cultivated, often intensively and with considerable use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, which have very little to do with environmental sustainability; the second is that the exploitation of labour is a historical phenomenon of this territory, even if the difference between that of the early ‘900 and the contemporary one is abysmal.
The two elements are obviously connected and inexorably recall episodes such as the one you referred to that happened a few days ago. One element is decisive in terms of analysis: it is impossible to give simple answers to complex problems. Therefore, simplification is not allowed, especially when it comes to agri-food supply chains.
What we see, the slave, the corporal, the “cassoni” are effects and not causes that often belong to a stereotyped narrative that does not belong only to the tomato, to the summer or Puglia. We find phenomena of “caporalato” also in Trentino in the apple harvest.
However, it is necessary to ask ourselves about the causes that generate exploitation and that often have to do with the large-scale retail trade (not all of them, obviously), with a price policy of raw materials that is absolutely savage and far from the concept of sustainability and with hateful tools such as the “double-drop auctions”, widely used by some chains, which can make a kilogram of tomatoes cost as little as 5 cents.
It is clear that in a cascade system of this type, the one who will bear the brunt will be the worker who – and here too it is good to clarify – often has a regular contract but is paid very few days’ pay compared to the many worked.
What happened to Camara is a tragic summer refrain that has been repeating itself for thirty years: it was 1989 when Jerry Masslo died in Villa Literno, and it was 1999 when Hyso Telharay was massacred by corporals right here in Cerignola. Even Law 199/16, approved after the death of an Italian slave, Paola Clemente, risks being greatly weakened if politics and the market continue to travel on parallel tracks. It is time to start talking about a guaranteed minimum price for food commodities; it is time to weld a new alliance between producers and consumers that is based not only on advantageous prices and discounts but on political needs with a view to collective action that affects the welfare of the community.
What is your anti-mafia action concretely based on? How do you manage to really make an impact without lapsing into slogans devoid of content?
I would give you a dry answer: on work. For years we have dealt with the theme of confiscated goods by telling their symbolic value in the territories, and it was right. Now it is time to think of these places as social enterprises capable of opening up new paths in the communities where they are located, without remaining simulacra of legality. For years we have worked to provide our solutions to an atavistic problem of the territory: the lack of work. And so, we have oriented our action to make this happen, looking for functional alliances. And then the constant collaboration with the Flai-CGIL territorial, with the Local Office of External Criminal Execution of Foggia, with the same Court and with various organizations that represent historical companions of the road as the Consortium NCO, “Terra! Onlus” and Altromercato. This new season will bring with it many decisive novelties: such as that of giving life, thanks to the support of Fondazione con il Sud, to a self-determined tomato supply chain. In fact, thanks to the project “Ciascuno cresce solo se sognato: per una filiera equo e solidale del pomodoro” (“Everyone grows only if dreamed: for a fair trade tomato chain”), we are making sure to realize our vision of social reuse: we have just renovated the building that insists on the Laboratory of Legality “Francesco Marcone” making it a laboratory of tomato processing. This will be the catalyst that will bring about a series of actions: the creation of a network of producers from whom the raw material will be purchased at a fair price; the creation of a network of workers from situations of fragility which will be guaranteed a regular contract, which will rotate among the various workers involved. To sanction the respect of the ethical standards, there will be the boys of the network “Humus”, a start-up from Piedmont specialized in the drafting of ethical network contracts. To this it is necessary to add that the processing plant will be managed by three female figures, also coming from difficult situations, who will be trained to manage the production of tomato puree and natural tomato-based products.
It is clear that such an ambitious project needs study and application, as well as enormous sacrifices, but we believe it is the right way to abandon particular rhetoric of anti-mafia and project ourselves into a new phase without ever losing our points of reference and our ideals.
Building from nothing, a confiscated property as a living reality, necessarily has economic costs. If others wanted to follow this example, what should they do, and how should they move? Because many times there is willingness, but there are not the required funds.
When we arrived, it was May 2010. What we had in front of us was a challenge that seemed unequal: three hectares of land that had been completely abandoned for 15 years and an exposed concrete block of about 200 square meters on two floors, with no windows and no real functionality. The first action we took was to start pruning the olive trees. Vito, the only partner with agricultural background, with his ladder and his phobics, began to prune the first of about 600 olive trees. It was at that moment that we began to write a new story for that place. From Rosario Giordano, an affiliate of the Piarulli-Ferraro clan, convicted for mafia-type association and international drug trafficking, we moved on from a collective property to a collective project. We didn’t have a single euro to invest, and we didn’t have public or private funds to count on. And yet, if I had to tell you what was really decisive for our story, I would say the strength of the group, believing in it deeply and with conviction, even when it seemed impossible. I often find myself telling you, now that we are about to start this new phase of our activity, that for about ten years to all those who came to visit us (and they were many) to the question “but what will you do here?”, I always answered in the same way: “a laboratory of transformation!”. Here now, I no longer need to answer that question, which has turned into “when do you leave?”. I believe that beyond the money, which today is much more recoverable than ten years ago, the difference is made by the vision, motivation and, let me say, utopia as a decisive spur to dream of a territory capable of freeing itself from the mafia hegemony.