Sunday 26 October 2014

Sicily is no longer a five-letter word, by Carol Drinkwater

I have just returned from a brief stay in Palermo and the western coast of Sicily. Autumn at the heart of the Mediterranean can hardly be bettered. The grape harvests have been completed, the olives are soon to picked and the weather is usually absolutely splendid.

I first visited Sicily in 2005. This trip kept me on the island for a month. I hired a car and went wherever the trail took me. I was searching for stories for my books, The Olive Route and The Olive Tree. What I was intending was to discover and disclose the secrets roles the Mafia had played in the island’s olive oil history. For example, at the end of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, due to exceeding poverty and mob rule, many Sicilians fled their homeland and set sail for America. A few of these immigrants were Mafia members on the run. Once these crooks arrived in the States, they established new Mafia organisations, and these proved to be fabulously remunerative, particularly during the years of Prohibition. These gangsters, Al Capone and his cronies or his gangland enemies, for example, needed a front for their nefarious dealings to keep the law off their backs. So they set up olive oil businesses for money-laundering purposes. The quality of olive oil in Sicily in the early twentieth century was very poor. The oil could be bought for next to nothing, which suited Mafia purposes perfectly. Shiploads of olive oil was exported to the States and sold as ‘Italian Olive Oil’. Who in the United States knew anything about olive oil? Once the oil was there, an international understanding that all olive oil was Italian was born. It is only in very recent decades that both American and other consumers have become aware of a far wider market range. For those who remember, in Mario Puzo’s novel, The Godfather, Don Vito Corleone as a young man started his own olive oil import business, Genco Pura olive oil.

Another little olive oil snippet, Puzo took the name of his leading character from the hilltop town of Corleone inland of Palermo. It was from here that the grandfather of the actor, Al Pacino, emigrated.

Fiction aside, the Mafia’s role in Sicily’s modern agricultural history is not only a complex story, it was a very challenging for me to unearth. I completed The Olive Tree,  but felt that there was far more to be mined than I had succeeded in doing.

Over the course of the following years, I returned to the island regularly because I love it and because I still wanted to get beneath the surface of the place. After the two books were published, UNESCO invited me to work with them to help map a Mediterranean Olive Route and from there several television stations contacted me with interest to turn the inspiration for the books into documentary films. I was thrilled, of course. One of the bonuses was the possibility of getting another crack at Sicily.

When we came to breakdown the storylines for the five documentaries, the very first story I proposed to the television stations was 'Sicily and its olive oil history'. Naturally, the idea grabbed because everybody loves a good Mafia story. I returned to the island to recce the storyline and on this occasion the budget provided me with an Italian journalist whose expertise was in food and modern Italian politics.

Where I had been unable to gain access myself, doors would now open, I thought. Alas, it was not so simple. As soon as I hit on a name, a person who might make an excellent ‘character’ for the film and who was willing and not afraid to talk, to go public, my ‘man on the ground’, Sandro, found out their contact details, rang them and arranged a clandestine meeting. But how many afternoons did we spend sitting at roadsides waiting for the appearance of a lawyer, a land specialist, family members of --- who never showed up? I was beginning to lose heart until Sandro and I hit on a new angle to my story. Libera Terra . The name translates as Free Land. Briefly, Libera Terra  was founded by a Catholic priest, Don Luigi Ciotti, living and working in Turin in northern Italy. Ciotti is a brave and visionary man, a social activist in a country that is being destroyed by greed and corruption. He has quite literally changed the way the Italian government handles lands and assets owned by Mafia members. In the past, when a high-ranking member of the Mafia was imprisoned, their assets just sat about doing nothing. Ciotti and others of like mind raised a petition with over one million signatures requesting of the Italian government (at the time it was Berlusconi, so no mean feat), to offer the lands out to be farmed in a manner that was good for the earth and free of all fear and Mafia influence. What a terrific concept, and it has taken off

A movement of small organic cooperatives springing up all over the island to farm lands confiscated from the Mafia and to bring their produce to global markets.
I had the outline for my story: New Sicily and the unpicking of the Mafia stranglehold within the agricultural sector.

During the worst years of Mafia control of the island, people were employed for a pittance because there was basically only one employer: the Mafia. They called the shots (in every sense!). There was no social care, merely a pitiable wage. If someone else offered employment with more decent terms, the labourers refused because they were far too scared to quit and move on. They feared the threats of physical violence being meted out against them or members of their families. Tourism was almost non-existent because foreigners feared the bombings and shootings and the horror stories they saw on the news or in the movies. Who wants a horse’s head in their bed?! In any case, building permits for all construction including hotels were in the hands of who? The Mafia, of course.

In a sense, the island was becoming isolated and the young were leaving in droves in the hope of building a new, Mafia-free life elsewhere. This is an old agricultural story. When the villages and fields are emptied and only the older generation remain to tend them, the sector begins to die out. Knowledge and competence is lost.

Sicily has one of the richest histories of the Mediterranean. It has been conquered by everyone from the Phoenicians to the Greeks, Romans, Normans, Arabs, Spanish and onwards until 1860 when Garibaldi landed and integrated it into the new state of Italy. Because of its colonizers, particularly the Romans, Sicily (also other parts of southern Italy) has been at the mercy of the feudal land system for two thousand years. One of the upsides of having been invaded by so many conquering powers is that it has a multi-layered tapestry of cuisines and agricultural expertise. But if there are no young left to grow the produce, to tend the lands and livestock, to learn the ways of the land?

In 1992, tragedy struck but it brought about a new seed of hope. In 1992, two shocking Mafia murders took place. Two leading Sicilian magistrates, colleagues and friends, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borselino who had vowed publicly to rid the island of its Mafia poison, were both murdered, one after the other within the space of a matter of months. The island reeled. It was grief-stricken. These men had been heroes, now they were martyrs. No one could now deny that the Mafia would not go to any lengths to protect its own system. For our film, we bought newsreel and archival footage of these assassinations and their two public funerals. It is very moving material. Sheets were hung from balconies offering prayers, promises to remember, the streets were flooded with waves of flowers. Thousands and thousands followed the funeral corteges.

Out of these grotesque deaths, came the seed of hope. Father Ciotti in Turin and others elsewhere on the mainland but most importantly the young of Sicily cried, ENOUGH, BASTA. It was the seed of regeneration. In 1995, Libera Terra  was founded along with one or two other organisations such as Addiopizzo, meaning ‘goodbye to extortion monies’.

Several godfathers were arrested in quick succession and their assets were handed over to be used for organic farming and agroturismo. During one of my visits, I stayed in a Mafia hideout. It was very well concealed, sitting off a goat track high in the mountains, as one might expect for a hideout. Today it is rented out as a chalet to tourists. The monies earned from the rentals and sale of the organic food produced, particularly wine and olive oil, help to pay the working people decent wages. 

There were setbacks. An entire, newly-planted olive grove was set alight one night as a ‘warning’. But Ciotti retaliated, and loudly. He organised a massive campaign all across across Italy. Pop stars, young people, celebrities flew to the island and replanted the groves on camera for the various news channels. We have a clip of this also in our film. It is very uplifting to see such courage and hope.

By the time we had finished our film, I believed that the island had broken free of its chains. There are indeed many signs of growth and there are many young who have returned to work where they were born and where they can today expect to be paid a living wage and feel secure that health care will be available and that their lives are not at risk. Tourism is on the ascent. Sicily is, in my opinion, producing some of the finest olive oil in the world. And it is not just oil from one or two isolated farms. Consistently, it wins awards internationally and the farmers, the producers, are setting themselves high standards. The quantity is not enormous but it is very fine.

But history is a slow mover, and the grip of an organisation as powerful and as invasive as the Mafia does not let go easily. It takes fearlessness and tenacity to push against a system that has snaked itself in and around every sector, to build reform, to take back what has been stolen. Italy’s financial crisis (in part due to corruption) is critical. Sicilian unemployment is running at twenty per cent. This last week in and around Palermo showed me that there is still an on-going struggle to be fought. Still, I like to think that this page – one hundred and fifty years old, at least – might be turning and that before too long these islanders might be able to hold their heads high and celebrate the land wealth that is theirs and very hard won.

PS: The five films in The Olive Route series are available on DVD (US and international formats) at


Sue Purkiss said...

Really interesting to hear more about Sicily - my knowledge is almost entirely from the Montalbano books. (I'm not knocking them at all, they tell you a great deal!) And also very interesting to hear about the process of putting together a documentary - thanks, Carol!

Penny Dolan said...

So good to read about positive changes in such frightening "political systems", Carol, and to hear about The Olive Tree experience. The bravery of all who have stood up to the Mafia is unimaginable, especially all those who feared they would be another silent story.

Jacqui said...

A great job in pulling together a rather complex and long history on this subject. I learned a lot. And as always Carol, not only is what you write so interesting but it's so well written that the reader is easily sharing your adventure vicariously.

Kate Lord Brown said...

How fascinating, thank you. Love the idea of all those ill gotten gains being used for agri-tourism and organic farming now!

suechef said...

Great blog - we loved our time there a few years ago, exploring all round, although based on the Eastern coast.

My late mother's late partner was one of the first over the bridge when the Allies invaded Sicily to free it. The British, coming up the Eastern coast, had many casualties - there is a very peaceful cemetery near where they landed - however the Americans coming in from the west had very few. Driving officers around, he was reliably informed that their few casualties were down to releasing Mafia capos from jail and bringing them over to negotiate directly with the Italians etc! The Sicilians and Italians were too scared of potential Mafia retaliation to fight so the US had a relatively bloodless campaign. Fascinating - I never found out whether they were returned to jail when the campaign finished or allowed to stay, although I suspect the latter.

Carol Drinkwater said...

Suechef, my understanding is that the Mafia jailbirds were given their freedom in return for strategical information such as flight paths, safe mountain passes etc.

suechef said...

Yes, that's rather what I thought. Thanks. I'd love to go back, preferably via a return trip to your cottage (Sue V-T)but it's Puglia this year - not the trulli but nearby. Will fit in a visit to Nice this time - actually missed it when we were with you. Not many olives there but we'll find some.

Keep up the blogs - lovely!

Clare Mulley said...

What fascinating history Carol, thank you. I love the circle of the mafia using oil to wash their money, as it were, and now the mafia wealth being put back into the oil.