The last twenty years have witnessed a worldwide trend towards drastically reduced public involvement in economic and social activity, driven by an ideology which regards state intervention as damaging for collective welfare. Unbridled individualism and a wave of privatizations across all sectors are profoundly changing societies round the globe.
If we look at the rural area, there has been a whole string of measures and legislative changes aimed at dismantling the commons –– in order to remove any constraints preventing it from being sold off. Italy still has a lot of land held for public benefit, as well as natural resources managed by a community according to complex rules. This land is usually managed by the local authority, a group of families, parish organizations, neighborhood groups or associations. Their rules are varied and include requirements that benefit the community, providing for appropriate land use and suitable products, with specific constraints placed on use. They are long-standing institutions going back to the first municipal organizations.
It is not only the state that is disposing of these properties: for example, the church authorities of Alba were recently taken to task by the grand old man of Barolo, Bartolo Mascarello. He felt they had cheaply sold off to private interests historic vineyards, which had been held for collective benefit and produced some of the top Langa wines. We can basically talk about two types of collective ownership: farming land (there are five cases of this type in Emilia, for example), where rights are handed down to descendants for their individual agricultural use; or the more widespread public land (marginal land, reclaimed land, woods, pastureland or plantations), where cultivation has never been possible but regulations govern the harvesting of resources (grass, wild berries, wood etc).
These traditional institutions have always had the merit of preventing land speculation, maintaining the ecological health of the land, preserving existing biodiversity and not compromising hydrogeological resources. They are also crucial for maintaining areas of significant natural value. In some cases, as with the Emilia holdings, the land was permitted for individual use and for agriculture. While it was not spared the problems associated with modern agricultural methods, it did enjoy good economic growth, with emigration being curtailed (anyone leaving lost the right to use the land) and the traditional landscape being maintained.
These “commons” are gradually being lost, and with them all their values and benefits. But that is not all: we are also foreclosing future possibilities, such as adopting new agricultural models or teaching people how to use the land and its resources. This public land could be protected and sustainably used, and also constitute an excellent resource for introducing new educational projects.
Why not ask our local authorities for this land, which is often of good quality, and give it to retired people to look after? They could set up small vegetable gardens and show young people how to grow food and recognize products. We could even think about urban agriculture on publicly-owned marginal land which is not currently being productively used.
We should insist on legal recognition being restored to these traditional forms of collective ownership: what value does the land still have? We need to be proactive, I think it is crucial to keep this public land and create more, possibly using associations or foundations committed to purchasing land for collective purposes. But not out of nostalgia for an ancient model: it is the principle that counts, seeing future trends hidden in something old and reviving it for the needs of today. We are living in times when the land, like agriculture, is having its ancestral value destroyed and there is an ever more urgent need, almost a psychological drive, to return to the land.
First printed in La Stampa on April 25 2004
Adapted by Ronnie Richards