food / travel

In Sicily, Rice Farming Returns After Mussolini Had Dried Up Cultivation

First brought to Sicily by Arab conquerors, rice farming was eliminated over the past century for Italian political reasons. Now a local "farmer-archeologist" has brought it back to satisfy local desires of Sicilian star chefs.

A traditional Sicilian
A traditional Sicilian
Laura Anello

LEONFORTE - For the first time in a century, rice has returned to Sicily.

Angelo Manna, owner of the Agrirape farm in this central Sicilian town, has managed to launch an operation of archeological farming. "Rice arrived in Italy and Europe via Sicily, with Arab merchants," Manna says. "They brought saffron too. It was a precious spice and it still grows here."

Manna adds, only half jokingly: "Milanese saffron risotto, should be called Sicilian. All of it is ours!"

Despite rice's famous requirements of wet and marshy lands - not exactly common on the relatively bare and dry Mediterranean island - Manna has tracked its past presence in Sicily through the memories of elderly locals and archived landlord registers.

Now, Manna and his father Giuseppe have succeeded in growing their rice with a half-dry cultivation system, gathering the first harvest earlier this month. The land is kept always wet, as it is for vegetables, but is not flooded.

The first seven quintals produced were sent to the Calabria region where the seeds would be milled using a rice huller to remove the chaff (the outer husks of the grain). This harvest has already been almost completely sold out. Chefs cannot wait to serve up 100% Made in Sicily, arancini, the fried rice balls which are among the most famous dishes from the island. The balls of rice are stuffed with ragout or butter and prosciutto – in newer recipes even with spinach, salmon or chocolate - and then fried.

"Zero-kilometer" Sicilian cuisine

Indeed, it was Sicilian chef Carmelo Floridia, owner of the Locanda Gulfi in the town of Chiaramonte Gulfi, near Ragusa, who inspired Angelo and Giuseppe Manna. "Two years ago, (Floridia) said he would have loved to cook only with food from his land, but unfortunately there was no Sicilian rice," says Fabrizio Carrera, director of the gastronomic website Cronachedigusto. "I'm not a a fanatic of "kilometer-zero" food, but I appreciate the success in this farming, cultural and historical challenge."

Angelo Manna is proud indeed. He points to documents he received from Roberto Paternò Castello, heir of a noble family who owned vast tracts of land near the city of Catania. "In the 17th and 18th centuries, Sicilians grew so much rice that they exported it," Manna says,

Otherwise, how could rice have become the main ingredient of some of the most traditional Sicilian recipes? It is still not clear how the cultivation disappeared. According to some locals, the first Italian Prime Minister, Camillo Benso Conte di Cavour had halted the cultivation of the Sicilian rice after Italian unification, looking to avoid any competitor to the rice of his native Piedmont region in the north.

Surely, after unification, the new government forbid cultivation close to populated areas, in order to fight malaria epidemics. This decision caused a setback for Sicilian farmers who used to live near the fields. Later, Fascist leader Benito Mussolini destroyed the rice cultivation for good, when he ordered the complete drainage of the lands. Paradoxically, Mussolini himself baptized the different kinds of rice, with Fascist names: Apollo, Balilla, and Roma. The latter, in fact, has been the most successful of the various strains that the Manna family managed to cultivate in their new project.

Read the original article in Italian

Photo - missmeng

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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