On the footprints of the civic sentinels


Initial reflections on the experience in Basilicata, following the 'sentinels' who have been facing oil pollution for years

Italian version here.

It is not easy to capture in a few words the experience in Basilicata just concluded, a fascinating land, with a multitude of attractive landscapes and villages, as well as home to an intriguing local culture. As a researcher on civic environmental monitoring, I had my - maybe naïve - expectations to encounter there fierce activists, organized citizens and solid networks spread on the territory. After years of work in the Netherlands, I may have forgotten what it could mean to fight problems that are intrinsic to the system, at times forgotten and opposed by the institutions and by the public opinion. My expectations have instead clashed with a precarious situation, where activism gives way to need and daily life, where the 'civic sentinel' is a farmer or breeder who has been wondering for years about strange oil eruptions on their land or about suspicious illnesses of their animals. A reality made up of maps and official data where - in alternating phases - indicators of contamination disappear, creepy letters sent to the inhabitants by the local authorities talking about carcinogenic substances in the aquifers, complaints left unheard, forced expropriations and land sold off, and sites to be cleaned up that have been waiting for too long. On this stage of unspoken or inaccessible information, those who cultivate the land, breed animals, or simply live there are divided between those who want to denounce and those who remain silent and, captured by the system and by interests, challenge those who denounce. A farmer I met on field told me that oil companies operate the principle of "divide et impera" over local dwellers, fragmenting the social fabric to weaken and dominate it.

I did not have a stereotype of a civic sentinel. Or maybe I did. In fact, I had often wondered why many of the sentinel citizens that I met in the past were middle-aged, western, environmentally-concerned men. Maybe that was my stereotype. I often looked for 'women sentinels' or sentinels 'among non-citizens'. I found examples of them, such as the fierce Japanese mothers who responded to the Fukushima disaster by monitoring radioactivity, or the fisherwomen from Lavaca Bay in Texas who have been fighting a petrochemical company for years. However, the stereotype remained. Basilicata taught me that the first trigger to become a sentinel is the attachment to one's land, to one's animals, and a sense of care and responsibility towards oneself and the others. A farmer, with tears in his eyes, told me: "I produced ricotta and exported it all over the world, but I abandoned my production: I couldn't be a death dealer". There are those who closed their business, those who adapted and moved it elsewhere, and there are those who continue to produce in spite of everything and sell to large distribution chains, also because - citing what a breeder said - "the law does not ask to look for heavy metals in milk. If the law does not ask, why do I have to look for them?" So the breeder survives but is heartened not to have children who follow in his footsteps.

Selected pictures from firldwork

"Hand of a civic sentinel indicating an oily iridescence in the waters of a stream" - Val d'Agri, October 2020
"Hand of a civic sentinel indicating an oily iridescence in the waters of a stream" - Val d'Agri, October 2020

Although few Italians are aware of this, Basilicata is a European hub for oil extraction. The waste byproducts from crude oil is disposed of in the region, while the 'good' oil goes to the refinery in Taranto. Complex interests and an incessant need to produce and make profits over time have stimulated poor extraction practices, generating a pervasive adverse impact on the surrounding environment. For years, the inhabitants of Basilicata in the areas surrounding the main extraction poles of the region have been complaining about suspicious oil eruptions on agricultural land, waste of dubious origin abandoned in private properties, stinging smells and irritating fumes. Disturbing correlations have been found between the onset of cancers, cardiorespiratory and neurological diseases and the proximity to extractive or disposal sites. Often these harmful impacts insist on flourishing agro-food realities and on a land with great potential for tourism. One farmer said: "I want what I am legally entitled to. I already have a job: it's my land, they took it away from me", referring to how the oil company had contaminated their fields. The young generation from Basilicata, however, leave the region to go elsewhere. Therefore, the potential for development of the region, with the years and with an ageing society, fade away.

Yet there are those in the shadows who prefer not to talk about this. One day, during a visit to the headquarters of a local newspaper investigating environmental issues, a journalist told us: "Silence is the self-protection of the citizens who are afraid of losing their job, social support, or retaliation". But the journalist also agreed with me on a way out. "Recognizing the right to contribute to environmental information would legitimise the action of investigative journalists and citizens acting as informers". I shuddered, as I walked down the stairs, to see crosses that were made by unknown persons on the walls of the newspaper's headquarters as intimidation.

The local inhabitants feel no resentment towards those who decided to work for the oil companies, or towards the oil companies themselves. Instead, they are disappointed by the State that has not protected them and their land. "We are a people without a father: the institutions use the system to hide the situation or just remain silent", said a farmer sadly. I was able to experience this feeling myself when - after hours of being tailed by the private security of an oil company - a public armed force stopped us as we observed an anomalous leak of what seemed to be crude oil into a local stream. We were on public land, carrying out research and information activities. Yet, in that moment, we felt treated as if we were doing something forbidden. The armed force did not register that anomalous spill which could have represented a danger for the public. A journalist who was travelling with us told me: "They treat us as if we were terrorists, even when we are only doing our job of providing information". A couple of shepherds we met a few days later said with frustration: "The police forces here are playing the strong with the weak and the weak with the strong". A fierce farmer a few days later added: "I could persevere in my battle because I have no family". That intimidating climate accompanied our journey, and made me reflect on the importance of not letting the civic sentinels isolated from society and of having experts with legal skills supporting them. Society needs the civic sentinels to monitor and report local problems, but they need support from the public opinion to persevere in their actions.

"Breeding centre once famous for the production of ricotta, now in a state of abandonment for the detection of carcinogenic substances in local waters and soil" - Pisticci Scalo, October 2020
"Breeding centre once famous for the production of ricotta, now in a state of abandonment for the detection of carcinogenic substances in local waters and soil" - Pisticci Scalo, October 2020

The trip to Basilicata had other surprises for me, in addition to the beauty of a magical land rich in history and fascinating landscapes. In the words and actions of the people we met, I noticed a surprising trust in science and research. Despite the many studies and analyses that have been carried out in the region, the local people were keen on helping us to collect samples of water, soil and even livers from sheep and cattle, which will be analysed by a team of biologists and chemists to assess presence of heavy metals in the environment and organisms. Their willingness and curiosity, as well as their expertise on the subject, impressed me. One day a farmer stacked an incredulous pile of papers in front of our eyes, containing studies based on analyses from independent laboratories, which had demonstrated high levels of heavy metals in his land. Yet, he told us, the competent institutions often get different results, often showing lower levels of contamination.

Another surprise was to discover that the local sentinels still seem to have faith in justice, despite all. Many have told me that they understand little about the law, but have relied on competent lawyers who - courageously - confront the oil giants in the courtrooms. A lawyer I met on the trip, when asked what prompted him to get involved in the defence of citizens, replied that the Encyclical from Pope Francisco "Laudato si'" prompted him to "do something for the people and do it well". On their side, the citizens have not fully 'delegated' their demands for environmental justice to the lawyers. They also monitor that, tenaciously. One farmer told me that he is actively following the process in which he is involved as a plaintiff, step by step, with his lawyer helping him to understand the more complex aspects of the law. An activist from a local organisation told me about appeals to the ombudsman and numerous consultations of the European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (E-PRTR), a register of emitted pollutants by industrial facilities, created in implementation of EC Regulation 166/06, indicating a proactive use of the tools offered by the Aarhus Convention on access to environmental information.

Finally, I was amazed by the knowledge and trust that some local people had in 'Europe'. I heard a farmer talking about carbon credits that could be earned through European funds if Basilicata preserved its trees and the unexplored potential of ecotourism. "I had found an alternative to oil, but they wouldn't listen to me," he said disconsolately. I saw his eyes lighting up when he heard that I was developing my project at the European Joint Research Centre, and he asked me to talk about it, to talk about his story, to talk about it to Europe, almost in the hope of overcoming the realities of local mismanagement or the lack of interest from the local institutions. He knew the European Court of Human Rights and the various European environmental commissions, and he hoped that - one day - these realities would deal with oil in Basilicata. The breeder in question has been fighting with cancer for years, and had to close his farm because of the contaminants found in the milk of his animals and in the water that irrigates his land. He told me: "Chemistry, how far does it go into human beings? In recent years, I have realised that we just can't destroy it". A study that will start soon to search for heavy metals in the hair and blood of some inhabitants of Basilicata will perhaps give an answer to his question. Meanwhile, the sentinels are waiting - always on alert - for an alternative to the reality that they are experiencing.

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