‘Leave the gun, take the cannoli’, the iconic quote from The Godfather reflecting the relationship between food and the Mafia that is a continuing reality in Italy. This blog explores the Mafia’s control of the food system in southern Italy, along with the rise of the anti-mafia land movement, providing a fascinating example of how food can be a key instrument for positive change.
The Mafia’s control of the Italian food system
Food is a basic human need, a fact that the Southern Italian Mafia have not failed to capitalise upon. Investing money into food and farming is generally considered a ‘safe investment’, and has resulted in the four Mafia networks in Italy making approximately $14 billion a year from agriculture, along with up to 15% of farming in Italy being linked to organised crime. The Mafia use pizzo, or protection money, to bring territories and businesses under their financial control. Industries include the building trade, refuse collection, and the food industry. Once you buy into the system, the store owner, their products, and their customers are controlled by the Mafia. Ultimately, food is a tool of power, with the residents of southern Italy literally relying on the Mafia for their daily bread.
Through bypassing environmental and legal controls, Mafia-controlled food is also cheaper. Various stories have emerged about backstreet bakeries and unlicensed food factories. Stores have been selling cheap fruit and vegetables laden with pesticides and even E.coli. Bakeries have been using expired flour, and pizza ovens have been fuelled by planks from exhumed coffins. Alongside the obvious health costs, the environmental costs are severe, with the term ‘ecomafia’ coined to describe the Mafia’s degradation of both urban and rural environments.
The rise and success of the anti-mafia land movement
Resistance to the Mafia is long-standing, with the Day of Memory and Commitment held annually on the first day of spring, remembering the 842 victims of Mafia organised crime since 1983. In 1996, Law no. 109/96 came into force, allowing for third parties to formally acquire land confiscated from the Mafia by the Italian state. The land had to be used for social development goals, reducing public debt, or to pursue emergency environmental action. This legal progress, combined with political will, gave a novel opportunity for the anti-mafia land movement to emerge.
Aiming to restructure southern Italy’s food system, local cooperatives organically cultivate food and drink on confiscated land, alongside educating both producers and consumers on anti-mafia philosophies and the land movement’s mission. The hope is to create an environmentally sustainable, legal and ‘pure’ food economy and culture.
One key example is Libera Terra, which translates to ‘Free Land’. Founded in 1995, the organisation was one of the key sponsors of Law no. 109/96. Since the law passed, over 4,500 properties in Sicily, Calabria, Puglia and Campania have been handed over to cooperatives, creating an ‘opportunity for people to create a future free of violence and corruption’. Organic methods are used to cultivate produce that is intrinsically linked to the local ecology and culture, including olive oil, red wines, lemons, durum wheat, pasta and honey. Sold in cooperative shops, each product is stamped with the Libera Terra slogan ‘La Terra Libere Dalle Mafie’, some even bearing the name of a mafia victim, helping to conjure moral reflection and create a compelling story behind the food.
Another is the Casa dei Giovani community run by priest Padre Lo Bue, farming on land confiscated from Matteo Messina Denaro, one of the Mafia’s most violent and wanted killers. This specialist organisation sells only high quality olive oil, and helps to rehabilitate drug addicts via employment. The dual aim of reviving the environment and the community is also seen in the Lavoro e Non Solo. This cooperative employs people with mental distress, helping increase levels of social engagement with nature amongst marginalised members of Palermo’s community.
Targeting the power of the consumer, Palermo’s Committee Addiopizzo encourages what they call ‘critical consumption’ via the slogan ‘a whole population who pays pizzo is a population without dignity’. Founded in 2004 by five grad students, their progress is inspiring; in just three years from 2004 to 2007, over 9,000 consumers and 210 traders chose to buy at ‘pizzo-free’ shops. Great examples include the launch of Punto Pizzofree in 2008, a pizzo-free supermarket in Palermo, along with the restaurant Ancient Focacceria San Francisco which promotes the slogan ‘Free the Future’. Branching out from local consumer society, Committee Addiopizzo recently established Addiopizzo Travel, raising awareness amongst tourists to Sicily, of the anti-mafia land movement through tours of farms, fields and pizzo-free shops.
Rebuilding Italy’s food system: hope for the future
As with any growing movement, there are still obstacles to overcome. Agricultural workers play an integral role, however many continue not to identify themselves with the anti-mafia movement’s principles, simply wanting ‘the pocket’ (the contracted pay). Challenging the urban consumers’ desire for cheap food is also a barrier. Theodoros Rakopoulos, also contributed to Food Activism: Agency, Democracy and Economy on anti-mafia activism in Sicily, quotes an activist Luca, who bluntly concludes that ‘Income, culture, social status are in such a condition that the only thing, when it comes to food, that matters to people is the price.’
However, these obstacles should not detract from the successes, nor potential for the future. As captured by the bold slogans adopted by the anti-mafia land movement, food is not simply a commodity, but intimately connected to taste, morals and ethics, culture and the environment. The movement continues to merge organic production, ethical consumerism and civic engagement together, challenging the Mafia’s monopolisation of the food economy and culture of southern Italy. What is striking is how strongly intertwined the anti-mafia land movement is with the Slow Food movement’s philosophy of opposing the ‘standardisation of taste and culture’ and promoting ‘good, clean and fair’ food. Now an internationally recognised movement represented in over 160 countries, it is important to remember that the Slow Food movement emerged from a demonstration outside a McDonald’s in Italy in 1986. Slow Food’s humbling and inspiring example of positive change gives even more hope to the future of the anti-mafia land movement’s mission and progress.