Italy’s Blood Oranges

The shell of a burned-out car stood outside the gates of the abandoned Opera Sila factory. The disused olive processing plant is the last place where traces of the “rebellion” at Rosarno are visible. On 7 January 2010 this Calabrian agricultural community, with a population of 16,000, saw riots after Ayiva Saibou, a young seasonal migrant worker from Togo, was wounded by a shotgun blast. He was on his way back from the orange groves, where 900 of his fellow workers lived in crowded, unsanitary conditions.

“We’d had enough, so we rebelled,” said one. “But some of the local people turned against us.” On 10 January, shocked at the violence (sticks, iron bars and Molotov cocktails), the government ordered the emergency evacuation of over 700 immigrants to holding centres in the towns of Crotone and Bari. Why did riots only break out in 2010 when the foreign workers’ economic and living conditions had been a problem since the late 1990s? The Italian and international press talked of a xenophobic reaction and The Guardian described Italy as “a country united by racism” (10 January 2010). But was that enough motive for such unbridled violence? (According to the Italian news agency Ansa, whose figures are based on those published by the Reggio di Calabria prefecture on 26 April 2010, the final toll was 53 wounded (21 immigrants, 18 members of the law enforcement agencies and 14 local residents.)

At first glance there is nothing to distinguish Rosarno from other regions with intensive agriculture (for example Andalusia.) Calabria’s Gioia Tauro plain has 1,600 farms averaging 1.8 hectares. According to Guiliana Paciola of the National Institute of Agrarian Economics (INEA), seasonal workers are a structural factor in this model of agriculture, and “in Calabria, 95 per cent are employed illegally”. In 2009, over 10,500 Ghanaian, Senegalese, Ivorian, Nigerian and Malian migrants, with and without visas ? and others from eastern European countries that had recently joined the EU ? worked in the area, compared with only 800 in 1989. (In 2009 alone, their numbers increased by 30 per cent.) Most of the African migrants have entered the country illegally, have no contract of employment, and are paid ?20-30 ($14-21) a day, half what legally employed local workers earn. They work from dawn to dusk. The capo (boss) who hires them by the day takes a share of their earnings. As the middleman between the landowner and the agricultural worker, he is the lynchpin of an employment system dominated by organized crime, with which he often has links, especially on big farms that employ a substantial proportion of the African braccianti (agricultural labourers).

Orange prices down

In 2008-09, while the workforce, exploited by the Calabrian mafia ? the ’Ndrangheta ? in the Gioia Tauro plain was still growing, there was a crisis in citrus farming. “The steady downward trend in the price of industrial grade oranges used to make juice (which account for the bulk of production on the plain) accelerated sharply; the price fell as low as five cents a kilo,” said Antonino Inuso, head of the Province of Reggio di Calabria branch of the Confederation of Italian Farmers (CIA). “In the second half of 2009, the average income of farmers in the plain fell by 25 per cent.”

The worldwide fall in the price of oranges, strong competition from imports (especially from Brazil) and the end of guaranteed prices under the EU common agricultural policy all contributed to a decline in the profitability of citrus farming. According to Giuseppe Mangone, the regional president of the CIA, about 4,000 out of a total of 32,000 hectares of citrus cultivation is under threat. “It’s become difficult for honest farmers in the plain even to pay the braccianti,” admitted Inuso.

Francesco Bagnato, the government commissioner for Rosarno, received us in the mayor’s office: the town has had no mayor since 10 December 2008, when the town council was dissolved for 18 months under anti-mafia legislation. The same has happened in a dozen other municipalities. Bagnato explained: “We were appointed when it was proved that the council was under the control of criminal organizations.”

Taking control of local administration and local public services companies, and rigging the election of mayors and councillors, are traditional mafia activities. In the citrus sector, the ’Ndrangheta sets the price at which producers sell their fruit and controls all processing, transport and distribution. The entire system is distorted by the mafia monopoly. “The farmer sells table oranges to the trader at 50 cents a kilo,” said Bagnato. “The mafia control distribution and the market, and they set the price. Nobody can sell their produce at any other price: that’s just how it is. Eight cents out of those 50 are the cost of labor ? four if it’s black market labor. At the end of the line, a kilo of oranges can retail for anything from ?2.00 to ?2.50 in the supermarkets.”

And that’s not all. Giuseppe Creazzo, a veteran of the anti-mafia campaign and public prosecutor attached to the Palmi tribunal (whose jurisdiction includes the Gioia Tauro plain) listed the methods the ’Ndrangheta uses to divert public funds ? regional, national and even European. “In the agricultural sector, especially in olive and citrus farming, their monopolization of the land is an indication of their greed. Acquiring land and getting people to farm it allows them not only to launder their capital but also to obtain public funding, principally from the EU.” This has been highly lucrative. In 2007 an Italian parliamentary inquiry identified 451 cases of fraud in Calabria, involving EU and Italian government funds, a total of ?125m ($164m).

Change in EU subsidies

Two years ago, the EU revised its subsidy criteria. The basis for payments changed from size of harvest to size of farm and number of orange trees. “This transformed Rosarno’s economy and society,” said Giuliana Paciola. “One hectare can yield nearly 2.5 tonnes of citrus fruit. Before 1 January 2008, the EU paid ?10 per 100kg. So medium-sized farms of one hectare could receive nearly ?2,500 or much more if the farmers made fraudulent claims. Now, each farm gets only ?800-1,200 and there’s no way to cheat.” Some of the recently arrived workers became redundant.

Farm workers in Calabria who have worked 51 days or more in the course of the season are entitled to unemployment benefit for the rest of the year. The mafia and some small landowners are exploiting this system too: they declare people as farm workers when they are not (falsi braccianti), and get others to work in their place.

With 135,000 farm workers registered with the National Social Security Institute (INPS), 75 per cent of whom are on unemployment benefit, Calabria has the highest ratio of claimants in Italy. However, Paciola said: “The INPS has come out of its torpor and reviewed its list of claimants. Since 2008, the list has been halved. And there are more checks, now. Before, it was worth people’s while to pick oranges, just so as to be able to claim unemployment, and then work elsewhere while continuing to receive the payments.”

“The general economic crisis,” said Paciola, “drove many migrant workers south. These were people who had the proper permits and were working in industry, in the north, but suddenly found themselves jobless just when the demand for labor in the citrus groves of the Gioia Tauro plain fell so drastically.” Bagnato said: “After January, the police established that 50 per cent of the foreign seasonal workers evacuated to the holding centers actually had visas and had come down from the north, after losing their jobs. The shortage of work encouraged these seasonal nomads to settle here.” After 2008, four factors came together at Rosarno, to increase social and economic tensions: the crisis in citrus farming, which led to a fall in local production and affected farm incomes; the revision of the EU’s subsidy criteria, which made orange growing less attractive to the ’Ndrangheta; the changes made by the INPS, which have deprived part of the population of their fraudulently claimed benefits; and the first effects of the international economic crisis.

These factors as well as racism brought the tensions between the different social groups ? especially the small farmers and the migrant workers ? to flashpoint. But the ’Ndrangheta still keeps its grip on the region, and continues to make money off everyone.

Translated by Charles Goulden

CHRISTOPHE VENTURA is a journalist.

This article appears in the January edition of the excellent monthly, Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.