High In Italy's Alps, Ancient Tradition Of Cannabis Cultivation Revived

Actually dude, cannabis plants grown in the northern region of Piedmont are quite low in THC content, which gives the high to marijuana consumption. But there are other uses. Dude.

Founders of AssoCanapa, Margherita Baravalle and Felice Giraudo.
Founders of AssoCanapa, Margherita Baravalle and Felice Giraudo.
Camilla Cupelli

BORGOSESIA — In Valsesia, a picturesque chain of Alpine valleys in northwestern Italy, cannabis has been a traditional crop for over five millennia. The first records of cultivation date back to 3,500 B.C., though the practice was largely abandoned in the 20th century. A few years ago, however, a local association named Canapa Valsesia was formed to promote the cultivation of cannabis in the valley, located in the northwestern region of Piedmont.

"It's a way to return to the earth," says Francesco Cillerai, a 27-year-old political science graduate who started one of the first growing co-operatives of cannabis sativa. The variety grown here and elsewhere in Italy has a low level of THC, the psychoactive component in marijuana, and is destined for use as an ornamental plant or for hemp products.

"We give businesses and private growers the possibility to try cultivating cannabis on their land," says Simona Brini, president of Canapa Valsesia, which is part of a larger association with members across the Italian Alps named Canapa Alpina. "We buy seeds of different varieties and give them to growers in the countryside who want to experiment with them."

While cannabis cultivation is spreading across the country, most of it is experimental and there is no real market. More than half of Italy's 20 regions have passed laws allowing for the consumption of the plant for medicinal purposes, and a proposal at the national level has garnered support in the Italian Parliament. Because medicinal cannabis can only be grown by government agencies, the changing laws will not provide a new market for growers.

We give plants and seeds for free to anyone who wants to grow themselves.

"Cannabis has been grown here since the Bronze Age," says Cesare Quaglia of AssoCanapa, another cannabis growers' association in the region. The organization was founded in 1997, the same year Quaglia began growing himself. "Cultivation disappeared in the 1940s and 1950s, but a new boom began in 2013. In 2017, the hectares grown in this region almost doubled."

Cillerai says he began growing as a way to "return to my origins." One year later, he founded Canapa Valsesia, though he still has not sold any of his cannabis on the market.

Canapa Valsesia's first harvest came in August, allowing growers to experiment further with next year's crops. "We have one hectare with three different varieties planted at different altitudes, so we can understand which is the best," says Cillerai. "We give plants and seeds for free to anyone who wants to grow themselves."

Cillerai's goal is to establish local supply chains and recover an ancient tradition. One example is B&F Holyweeds, a local business that sells ornamental cannabis plants. Elsewhere in the Italian Alps, Canapa Alpina is looking to test the production of hemp rope and kitchen products.

In the Anzasca Valley, several women have begun making traditional slippers using hemp rope, says Brini.

There are 200 hectares dedicated to the cultivation of cannabis sativa across Piedmont, according to AssoCanapa. The organization brings together 84 growers, including 80 agricultural businesses, three nonprofits, and one cooperative. "There are small growing cooperatives in several valleys across Piedmont," says AssoCanapa president Margherita Baravalle. "We've been saying for years that cannabis cultivation can contribute to revitalizing our mountain towns."

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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