Migrant Lives

After Mayor Is Arrested, Italy’s “Refugee Town” Fights Back

Nemesis of Italy's anti-immigrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, Mayor Domenico Lucano of Riace was placed under house arrest for his pro-refugee policies.

Mayor of Riace Domenico Lucano (2nd from right) on June 24
Mayor of Riace Domenico Lucano (2nd from right) on June 24
Niccolò Zancan

RIACE — On October 14, 2016, Riace Mayor Domenico "Mimmo" Lucano took to the stage at the Rendano theater in the city of Cosenza. He was there to accept a prize from a local foundation, awarded for his policy of welcoming migrants and refugees to revitalize his small southern Italian town.

Thrilled by the size of the crowd that had gathered to hear him speak, Lucano thanked those in attendance for recognizing his work. "I don't know if I deserve it," he said. "Maybe, one of these days, they'll arrest me."

At 6:30 a.m. on October 2, 2018, five officers of the Italian Finance Police knocked on the mayor's door at his home next to the town hall, waking him up. Lucano opened the door in his pajamas.

He explained to the officers that he'd already clarified everything, and testified voluntarily. "I don't understand what you're doing," he told them.

At a time of rising xenophobia in Italy and throughout Europe, Lucano's efforts are a marked contrast to the anti-immigrant policies of his fierce critic, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. After Lucano's arrest, Salvini urged a deeper examination of the mayor's practices.

Mayor Domenico Lucano in Riace — Photo: Carlo Troiano

The previous investigation into his pro-refugee policies had lasted 18 months and resulted in Lucano being placed under house arrest. The public response from his supporters was swift: thousands of people took to the streets of Riace in a show of solidarity with the mayor.

The protest was attended by many locals as well as prominent Italian politicians, but Lucano's fiercest defenders are the very people he helped to remain in a country that wanted to expel them. Saibou Sabitiou, a 44-year-old immigrant from Togo, was in tears the day after Lucano's arrest.

"It's an injustice," said Sabitiou. "Targeting him doesn't make sense. We will never abandon him."

I owe everything to him.

Sabitiou used to work in the agricultural fields around the nearby town of Rosarno, notorious for their awful working conditions and violent acts of racism. "It was 2010, and I was riding home on my bicycle when I was shot at from a passing car," he said. "I spent 15 days in the hospital. It was a racist attack."

He showed a photograph of himself smiling beside Giorgio Napolitano, after the then Italian president of the Republic came to visit him in the hospital. "Then Mimmo came to see me, and he brought me to Riace," said Sabitiou, referring to Lucano. "I owe everything to him, my job and my right to live in peace. I was so happy here, it's not fair."

There are 430 refugees in Riace, making up just under one-quarter of the residents. Initially, they didn't understand why television crews kept showing up in this small town of 1,900. Eventually, they understood they were there to ask about the mayor.

"He's a very kind man, he's like a father to us," said Favour Owunso, a 26-year-old from Ghana. "He always gave us something to eat. He would take money from his own pocket to give to us. He never did anything wrong."

During the protest, Lucano opened the window on the second floor of his home to greet the crowd and raise his fist in defiance. He and his family maintain that he has done nothing wrong: While he technically broke the law, Lucano claims he never profited from his policies and that he was unaware they were illegal at the time.

Oct. 2 protest in Rome in solidarity with Lucano — Photo: Patrizia Cortellessa/Pacific Press/ZUMA

"My brother always said that you must do what is right," said the mayor's brother, Giuseppe Lucano. "The law is not human."

The police investigated his finances for evidence of graft, but all they found were irregularities in a contract for waste management services. The judge overseeing the case upheld the allegations of widespread malpractice in the mayor's office — but he also issued a scathing critique of the police investigation, calling it vague and riddled with errors. One of the major pitfalls the judge found was that the mayor was interrogated by officers in the absence of his lawyer.

What the police did find lies at the heart of Lucano's model of integration: a manipulation of existing laws to allow migrants to legally live and work in Riace. In one case, the mayor engineered a wedding to grant Italian citizenship to an Ethiopian woman. He even created a parallel currency for migrants, which they could use to access local services when the government failed to provide their allowance on time.​

Lucano is a 66-year-old divorced father of three children. Before entering politics, he was a chemistry teacher, working at schools in small towns throughout Italy. He's always admired far-left revolutionaries, from Che Guevara to anti-Mafia activist Giuseppe Impastato. A mural in the center of town bears the words of the Mexican rebel leader Emiliano Zapata: "If there is no justice for the people, let there be no peace for the government."​

Lucano was first elected mayor of Riace in 2003, and was re-elected three times. He had first gotten involved in local politics in 1998 when 300 Kurdish refugees landed on the shores of the nearby Ionian coast.

This is a region where two opposing worlds can coexist.

"Mimmo thought that welcoming them would have been good for everyone," recalled Giuseppe Lucano. "Good for them because they were homeless, and good for the town because it was de-populating."

The arrival of the Kurdish refugees marked the birth of the "Riace model", which attracted attention from around the world. The legal pushback began two years ago, when he was summoned by the Italian interior ministry for an investigation into alleged irregularities in his management of the town's funds. When the ministry proceeded to block the funds, Lucano went on a hunger strike.

At the Meeting Cafe in central Riace, local opinion is split. "If he made a mistake, he should pay," says one. "Why should we feel bad for him? It's not our fault if they caught him," says another.​

Riace lies in Locride, an area that forms the toe of Italy's boot in the southern region of Calabria. This is a hardscrabble land of mountaintop hamlets, where the mob continues to dominate and street signs are pockmarked with bullet holes. This is a region where two opposing worlds — the Riace model and the ‘Ndrangheta organized crime syndicate — can somehow coexist.

As rain poured down on Riace, three German tourists from Dresden roamed the town's narrow streets. "We came because we saw a TV program about the town of refugees," they said. Lucano may be under arrest, but his Riace model is alive and well.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!