Migrant Lives

In Southern Italy, A City's Perfect Storm Of Populism

The populist Five-Star Movement and the right-wing League won over half the vote in the struggling mid-sized city of Foggia by promising more jobs and less immigration.

Near Palazzo Dogana in Foggia,  July 2017
Near Palazzo Dogana in Foggia, July 2017
Niccolò Zancan

FOGGIA — In front of the decaying ruins of the once-glorious Ariston theater, three people sleep on cardboard on the sidewalk. The street is lined with shuttered shopfronts and for-sale signs, and the air is filled with wasps and the stench of rotting meat. A drunk man is strewn on the sidewalk in front of what was once a clothing store, and the street's only coffee shop closed years ago.

The neighborhood surrounding the central train station in Foggia, a city of 153,000 in the Puglia region, is a forgotten land. It's five in the afternoon, scorching hot, and there are only three businesses still open: Fashion Bazar, Punjab Kebab, and a discount supermarket that advertises chicken thighs for 1.99 euros a kilo. Seeing it all first-hand helps explain how the League — a northern separatist movement turned national right-wing party — won 9% of the vote in a city where it had until recently been nonexistent, and why the populist Five Star party won by far the most votes with 44%.

It was in cities like Foggia where the alliance between the two anti-establishment parties began to take shape, at ground level, long before Five Star's Luigi Di Maio and the League's Salvini agreed to form a coalition government last month.

"The street around the station used to be our version of Rome"s Via Veneto," says Alfonso Fiore, a League representative on the city council, in reference to the Italian capital's most glamorous address. "It was the city's living room where everyone would come to take a walk, and houses cost up to 4,000 euros per square meter. It was the nicest neighborhood in town."

Those glory days are long gone, and the housing market in Foggia has since collapsed. "Now you can buy a 100-square-meter house for just 80,000 euros," he says. Fiore, who hails from a family with a long history of right-wing political affiliation, lays the blame on the arrival of migrants and asylum-seekers to the area. "I was one of the first three League representatives elected in this city, and the League will put Italians first. We're expecting a lot from this government."

Italy's breadbasket

The agricultural land surrounding Foggia was once known as the breadbasket of Italy. The city now ranks as one of the three hardest places to find a job in the country, with 40% unemployment.

To make matters worse, Foggia is home to the Sacra Corona Unita, one of Italy's least prominent mafia organizations but also one of the bloodiest. In the first quarter of 2018, the police reported 2,829 thefts, 88 robberies, and 36 extortion cases, while violent feuds between opposing clans have led to a string of killings and bombings in the area.

Local politicians have proved unable to respond. Not a single euro has been spent from a 637 million-euro fund provided by the Pact for Apulia, an investment package negotiated in 2016 by then-prime minister Matteo Renzi and Michele Emiliano, president of the Apulia region. The money was earmarked for investments in new roads, hospitals and railways, but progress stalled and the funds could now be lost.

"Nothing has changed. It's mortifying," says Fabio Porreco, president of the Foggia Chamber of Commerce. "We're a peripheral territory. We have a ruling class that has never managed to assert itself. And we risk falling into resignation."

The Ferrovia neighborhood around the train station has come to symbolize these failures. With the arrival of migrants and asylum seekers, many locals have found an easy scapegoat for the problems befalling the city.

"I don't like seeing so many foreigners," says Dino Cotoia, 49, an unemployed laborer who lives with his 80-year-old father. "My father receives a 560-euro pension and I get by foraging in the woods for asparagus and oregano. In this situation we can't think about helping others. We must think of Italians first."

The city now ranks as one of the three hardest places to find a job in the country.

Cotoia's views find a perfect home in the new coalition government. "It's our time now. I want a minimum guaranteed income and fewer foreigners," he says. "I voted for Five Star and I agree with Salvini. They are a perfect match. Now they have to change Italy."

Despite the enthusiasm of voters like Cotoia, the local branches of the two parties have a difficult relationship. In the Foggia city council, the League is part of a center-right government headed by Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, while Five Star and the center-left Democratic Party make up the opposition.

"We won't change our politics here. The League representatives in Foggia are members of other parties who jumped on the bandwagon," says Rosa Barone, a local Five Star leader. "It's wrong to blame migrants, and I happily go to the gym in the Ferrovia neighborhood every morning."

Barone believes there are more important priorities at hand in Foggia. "We need to open an anti-mafia district office and reopen the airport to serve the 2 million tourists who flock to the Gargano peninsula," she says.

After the end of their workday, the migrant workers take old buses along provincial roads to return to the informal camps where they live in the towns of San Severo and Borgo Mezzanone. They are paid just 3 euros an hour to pick tomatoes in the breadbasket of Italy, where locals are unemployed but have no desire to work in the fields.

"There are too many of them. Can't you see?" says Ester Barberis, an 18-year-old who dreams of joining the police. "Salvini is right, Italians first. I hope this government won't leave us on the street as well."

Spending time in Foggia provides a perfect summary of Italy's prevailing political climate. And it may be that Giuseppe Conte, the new prime minister handpicked by Di Maio and Salvini, will particularly attuned to that sentiment. After all, he was born just 40 kilometers away, in the small town of Volturara Appula in the Dauni mountains.

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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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