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How Collaboration is Saving Rare Coastline and Ancient Olive Farms in Southern Italy

A small stretch of coastline at Dune Costeire Park. Photos by Gianfranco Ciola or Corrado Rodio. Translation by Nicole Stojanovska.

Dune Costiere Regional Park, stretching from Torre Canne to Torre San Leonardo, is a nature park covering the territories of Ostuni and Fasano. Situated on approximately 1,100 acres of land along an eight-kilometer stretch of coastline, the park connects a historic agricultural landscape dotted with ancient olive farms with a rare coastal ecosystem.

The park is in the picturesque region of Puglia in Southern Italy, where tradition and stubborn social issues slow the pace of change. Jobs are scarce and many of the region’s young, would-be changemakers have emigrated attracted by opportunities elsewhere. Despite the challenges, progress is possible as the collaboration around the park shows. The hard-won wisdom and legendary warmth of the people surely play a role in such successes.

In this context, Dune Costiere Park has become a model of sustainable development. The success is due to an innovative partnership between nearby cities, park authorities, and farmers that manages the area's natural, commercial and cultural resources in a way that benefits all stakeholders. The partnership also minimizes short-sighted exploitation by locals and the influence of distant bureaucrats who know little about the unique value of the land and its people. This collaboration has ensured that both the park’s ecosystem and the local community thrive.

I recently engaged in an e-mail discussion to learn more about this success with local hero and park manager, Gianfranco Ciola, and visionary entrepreneur Corrado Rodio, owner of Masseria Brancati, an olive farm first planted in Roman times with trees up to 2,500 years old.

Corrado Rodio (middle with the green shirt), Gianfranco Ciola (far right), and myself (between them) at the entrance of Masseria Brancati with Shareable's Neal Gorenflo and family.

How was the Dune Costiere Park community born and why?

Gianfranco Ciola: It was born through the participation of farming and tourism interests in the park. From the earliest stages, both were involved in the management of the park's natural areas, such as the wetland of the Morelli River. This collaboration included the distribution of park information, the creation of a public awareness campaign to protect the habitats of the park, and the development of a consulta to support those activities. The consulta of the park was founded as an eclectic team of board members composed of various cultural and environmental associations.

The consulta includes educational and research institutions, agricultural organisations, trade unions, and tourism operators. As a result of the consulta, the beginning of Ente Parco certification process with the European Paper of Sustainable Tourism saw the establishment of the park forum. Many companies have acquired the park brand and the European Certification for Sustainable Tourism Phase II issued by Europarc. This puts businesses at the forefront of the park. It ensures an ongoing commitment to strengthen the collaboration between operators to take care of portions of land belonging to the park.

A guided tour of Masseria Brancati.

Was it hard at the beginning? Why?

GC: There were no particular difficulties because a relationship of trust was immediately established, as well as a strong partnership with the private sector in the fields of agriculture and tourism.

What was the turning point where things started to make sense?

GC: The turning point was the collaboration with a local cultural association. For 30 years, it had been dedicated to the representation of a "living nativity." The association put together a community of farmers each year to represent the soul of the land. With them, the Slow Food Presidium (Pomodoro Regina di Torre Canne) was established. This made the park a subject capable of generating a positive economic impact through the implementation of sustainability policies and new forms of cooperation and participation.

What is the economic and organizational structure of the park? How is the conservation of the area financially supported?

GC: The park is managed by a consortium consisting of three local authorities: the City of Ostuni, the City of Fasano, and the Province of Brindisi. It has a president and an executive board consisting of three members. The assembly of the park is composed of two mayors and the president of the province. Managerial activity is supervised by a director and assisted by an officer of financial services. The park's budget is allocated to current expenses totaling in tens of thousands of Euro, which was paid in the past by the Puglia region, and in the last year through the consortium members' shares.

Management is similar to that of a public body, with all the procedures made public in a fashion that meets the standards set by public bodies. The president and the executive board do not receive any compensation, attendance fees, or reimbursement for expenses.

As the aforementioned economic resources to cover current expenses and managerial costs are scarce, many activities, initiatives, events, and small conservation projects are realised on a budget and made possible through the voluntary contribution of a number of parties collaborating in a proactive way with the park authority. This includes associations, tourism businesses, farms, schools, etc.

Who first introduced you the Dune Costiere park community idea? How?

Corrado Rodio: The idea of joining the park community was suggested by the current director, Gianfranco Ciola. I must say, considering my environmentalist vision, my openness toward collaborations, and my business approach, that it was a natural choice. It may sound strange to many, but a network of partnerships within a park creates great promotional opportunities for agricultural products.

Every company becomes "the house of the park" and promotes not only its products, but also other organized activities. Even in the low-season and mid-season, we organize walks, bike riding, and horse riding, as well as tastings of cheese, baked goods, and oils. In short, there's visibility and media coverage at no cost. In exchange? Only environmental sustainability, organic farming, and maintenance of some of the park areas.

Visitors enjoy the vistas of Dune Costiere Park.

What was your reaction? Did your friends and family agree?

CR: Our reaction has been positive, even if some of my colleagues warned me about the constraints that the park management would have caused in the territory. I think that today everyone has changed their minds and many have asked to be a part of the park. The same goes for the monumental trees: The park has promoted the census of these historic olive trees so, while in other towns, the technicians who took care of the census were threatened and removed, here farmers have even asked to do an autocensimento (DIY census).

How was the park before and after the sustainability project?

GC: Before the regional law of the park was founded in 2006 and the constitution of the board team implemented in 2010, the park was represented by 23 beach operators stretched out along the coast. They started their businesses in past decades without any form of regulation or legal authorisation in an improvised, and in most cases, destructive manner.

In the internal rural areas, hunting was practiced and waste dumping and pollution occurred. After the identification of the SCI area in 1997 (Sites of Community Importance), the City of Ostuni has regulated the management of the whole area. Having said that, it is the involvement of the local community in the park activities that has ensured governance of the area.

The involvement of private players was huge, to the point that some of them who were operating illegally wanted to become legitimate, both economically and otherwise. Because of this, the park was identified as one offering the best solutions for the launch of new business activities with the least possible environmental impact. Moreover, the relationship with Italian Protezione Civile for monitoring the environment conditions, and the Corpo Forestale for surveillance activities, ensured the integrity of the rural areas. The same can be said of the collaboration with ARIF (Agenzia Regionale Irrigua e Forestali) which saw the development of maintenance of trails, signage, and the most fragile natural areas along the coast.

Today in the park, activities and initiatives are flourishing. The launch of new services by cooperative participants have enhanced the skills and awareness of the local youth in recent years.

Tell us about the the olive tree preserve in the Masseria Brancati.

CR: I'm very biased as the monumental trees of the Masseria Brancati are my life and my passion. Puglia is full of splendid olive trees, but those of my farm have something special. It may be because the ground is covered by an unusual amount of grass for this cultivar, or it may be that I refused to join a European call for mass plantation and, thereby, preserved the beauty and the health of these authentic sculptures of nature, but it’s the presence of unique specimens such as the Giant, the Shack, the Tree of Adam and Eve, and the Old Man (Grande Vecchio) that excites so many people.

The Old Man is bent and twisted three times around itself, and rests on a column of stones just like an old man with his walking stick. However, it’s not all about the beauty of the trees. These plants, which are about 2,000 years old, still produce olives from which we can extract wonderful olive oil that is certified by Secular Olive Trees from Puglia. Thinking about it, the loss of economic contribution and intensive production -- because I refused to accept the European plantation funds -- is immense, making my decision at the time brave and possibly even insane. Today, though, that decision is the reason for the attractiveness and the prestige of my property.

The Old Man, a 2,500 year old olive tree that still produces olives, though it has slowed down a bit lately.

How did the Dune Costiere park community project affect the olive tree preserve?

CR: The most important effect was the enthusiasm and the desire to move forward. Despite taking the path of ensuring quality controlled oil, there was a time when I was discouraged and did not see a future for my business. Gianfranco’s advice to focus on the organic aspect was decisive in ensuring success, along with our combined activities to promote the oil.

Among other things, we came up with the educational tasting of olive oils. It wasn't solely to make oils of excellence known, but also to teach the benefits and drawbacks of the different oils, make their classifications known, and offer advice on how to properly store oil and complement oil with food. For the past seven years to this day, the educational oil tasting is a regular event that takes place every Wednesday of the mid-season and high-season.

An olive grove planted in Roman times at Masseria Brancati. Unlike the tightly-packed, irrigated olive groves of today, the Romans planted olive trees far enough apart so they could live on rainfall alone. This ancient pattern creates a beautiful landscape and a rare historic asset that would face development pressure if not for the park.

How can we make social innovation happen? Would you give Shareable readers a few practical tips based on your experience?

GC: It's vital to have a respectful approach to those that have been working in the area for years, such as farmers and local operators. It’s important to have a great capacity to listen in order to build trust and credibility with those who represent the park authority and to demonstrate with little concrete actions (such as maintaining trails, cleaning waste, caring for signage, and promoting local products) that the park authority is an active, real subject operating on the territory. Cooperation is also incredibly important in order to improve the quality of the territory, and it’s generated by demonstrating a benefit for all businesses that operate in it.

This forms the basis for building bridges of cooperation with private players, associations, and other entities through which innovative elements can thrive and be distinguished by their entrepreneurial capacity. It's okay if a few players capture the innovation; however, their entrepreneurial activities must demonstrate general models and examples which are transferable and replicable, stimulating other operators.

That demonstrability of general models is partly why the innovation between the public and private players who took on the challenge of innovation in the early stages, was so efficient. Also contributing to it was the fact that the park felt committed to giving visibility to those operators who took up that challenge -- visibility, both in terms of production processes and in terms of their relationship with the territory. That visibility had a positive economic impact that showed that protecting landscape, biodiversity, history, and nature, brought an economic advantage. It also showed that it is useful to involve other players by communicating with them that the opportunity to innovate and network enhances the exchange of experience and expertise.

Bikers ride through the dunes.

Can you tell us the story of Ciccio Lido un euro?

GC: The history of Franco Nigro (Ciccio Lido un euro) is a cautionary testimony to perils of uncontrolled park activity. Ciccio went from an illegal parking valet to the guardian of the coastal park habitats.

For roughly 20 years, the valet worked in the area with an illegal carpark operating behind the dunes in a zone once occupied by reeds and moisture. Every summer, we would be baffled by the sight of a sea of flaming metal sheets, where we would inevitably find Ciccio and his ramshackle trailer. Ciccio would collect one euro for each car located between the dunes and the wetland. Under his own authority, Cicco's fief built up years of legal infringements that no one had ever questioned.

In 2012, after the owners of the land reached an agreement, Ciccio's access was blocked off by large stone boulders. He was unable to understand who and what had caused his illegal activity to cease operation. With the imposing size of the blockage, and the boldness of a man with little to lose, Ciccio began to hunt down those responsible for the closure of his carpark. We experienced weeks of tension.

When the opportunity for another space for cars situated away from beach, dunes, and wetland was presented, Ciccio reluctantly moved his operation to a desirable area of the park authorized by the City of Ostuni. The surprising resolution is that Ciccio went on to provide a valid receipt for those using his carpark. This time, the cost of parking was valued at two euro. One euro contributed to national taxes, and the remaining euro went to Ciccio.

This newfound legality has not changed Ciccio’s revenues, but indeed awarded him with a sense of pride and dignity. He is able to work under the sun as a valued member of the park. He is able and urged to suggest improvements, combat illegality, and scold those who leave waste on the street or behind the dunes. Ciccio now wants to wear the t-shirt of the park in support of its conservation and has named his parking operation "Save the Dunes Parking."

Ciccio clears discarded garbage bags from the roadside and, in an effort to prevent further abuse of the law, Ciccio has built a wooden fence around his beloved carpark out of his own pocket. Ciccio waters the budding plants of Mediterranean bush as planted by the Forest Regional Enterprise. He has revalued areas that were formerly degraded and upkeeps signage at his own expense in parking areas of the park. In short, Ciccio went from an enemy of the park to one of its greatest assets.

If a park can function as a sustainable development lab, the recovery of habitats and endangered species threatened by extinction is as important as the social and economic recovery of the people that live, work, and dream of a better future there.

To restore legal integrity, the park recently adopted a territorial plan and a set of park rules to bring order to the many carparks in protected areas of nature. They are to cease operation on the coastline and the fragile dune system. We are at the forefront of change. A new value-added tax has been introduced in the area when as recently as 2014 it was occupied by a corrupt and exploitive carpark. Nature is taking its course. The sun has begun to shine on the natural environment that has finally taken the place of Ciccio's former carpark, and new reeds are beginning to sprout.

Food in Italy is not just about nutrition, it’s also about lifestyle, culture, and sharing. Tell us about it and what olive oil means in this context.

CR: Extra virgin olive oil is the main food of the Mediterranean diet. If genuine, it is a blessing to our health. I think we all know the benefits of its antioxidants, vitamins, and so forth. We all know the millennial history of the olive, olive oil, and the symbolism of the olive tree as a token of peace and immortality, as well as the sacredness of oil in religious ritual. I would like to focus on something different to this: I want to share a story that is close to my heart which was passed on to me by a worker.

Ottaviano was the naghiro (director) of an olive oil mill, and he used to prepare the meal to be consumed by his workers there. Normally, there was one large dish they shared food from, containing different kinds of beans with vegetables and peppers at its core. Ottaviano used to drizzle the dish with the oil, simulating the sign of the cross, and very often he would let out in Ostuni dialect, “Va chian ‘ttaviano” (Go slow, Octavian), as if to say, “Do not drop more oil than needed!” This makes us understand and appreciate how precious and deserving of respect the oil is. And all this within an olive oil mill, where there was no shortage of availability.

The ancient olive mill underneath Masseria Brancati.

What’s next? How can people get involved in the project?

GC: In future, we hope to organize an economic system composed of farming, tourism, and other services existing within the park. The objective is for these operations to autonomously promote and organize local tourism that is based on sustainability, and arrange travel packages to promote and assist in the park system.

This is included in the spirit of the CETS (European Paper of Sustainable Tourism), which in Phase III sees the certification of a local tour operator employed to promote a system of tourism and culture linked to the history, nature, and economy of the area.

Under approval from the region, another objective is to close the Paino Park and establish certain defined rules. Our goal is to create a positive environment for the many local players who wish to establish new businesses in conjunction with the protection and proper use of the park.

A final element is to undergo an extension of the perimeter of the park to include more farms within the area and additional tourism agencies along its coast and surroundings, such as in Cisternino. Cisternino intends to assign a significant part of its territory to the protected natural area.

The last and most important of our goals is to engage with all private entities that operate, work, and benefit from the park, to contribute financially to the organization and life of the park. In this way, the park’s financial sustainability can be generated exclusively through private contributions. This frees the park from the constraints of public bureaucracy.

It’s important to have a park where "public" means it is supported by the local community, rather than just meaning that it is a public entity. Above all else, this helps individuals increase the sense of responsibility, care, and love they have for their territory.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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