Roads & Kingdoms reports on the environmental effects of the Ilva steel plant in Tananto and the industrial hemp planted to rehabilitate the soil. The plant covers nearly three times the size of the city. It started in 1965 and doubled in size by 1970. In its most productive years it produced nearly one third of Italy’s steel.
Vincenzo Fornaro’s family known for their cheese making since the 1800 used to receive visitors from all over the world to come and buy dairy products from his farm on the edge of Taranto.
But no more…
Industrial pollution spells disaster for dairy farm
Fornaro was forced by the government to cull his live-stock as they were not fit for human consumption any longer. The toxic contamination in the animals consisted of nickel, lead and other poisonous substances. This is how his tradition of cheese making sadly came to an end.
The Ilva steel plant, just over a mile away and the largest steel plant in Europe was to blame.
Citizens were aware of the plant’s effect on the air and soil of their town and Fornaro blames his loss of a kidney, aged 20 and his mother’s death caused by a tumor directly on the toxic chemicals expelled by the plant.
A study showed that 11,000 residents of the area died between 2005 and 2012 from severe toxin poisoning. Blood and urine samples show high levels of lead and dioxins (carcinogenic compounds) in locals who live near the factory. They also showed high rates of heart disease and cancer.
The problem was that the plant dominated the economy of the town and in it’s most productive days employed 40,000 people and made up 75 percent of the town’s income. The people felt the jobs compensated for the pollution and initially the local government didn’t intervene.
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‘A choice was made to sacrifice this part of Italy’
Politician Domenico Finiguerra explained it was decided a long time ago that this part of Italy should be sacrificed for the economic future of Italy regardless of the threats to the health of citizens and the biodiversity of the two seas.
He said, Toranto is the prime example of an unsustainable economic model based on cement, oil and steel and that the poisoned territory urgently needs ecological intervention and regeneration.
In 2012 local residents took action which lead to legal action, 47 people were indicted, for charges including crimes against public safety, corruption, bribery, abuse of office, and murder and injury by negligence.
Unfortunately this does not save the agricultural sector. The thoroughly contaminated soil within a 12-mile radius of the plant was no longer safe for grazing. This led to the slaughter of thousands of animals.
Farmers use industrial hemp to defend the land.
Fornaro says he came to a crossroad and had to decide if he was going to leave or stay. He decided to defend his land. He turned to the marijuana plant, which absorbs toxins from the soil and neutralizes them. In 1986 in Ukraine after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster hemp was used for the first time to rehabilitate the environment.
Fernaro has been cultivating the controversial crop for two years on his three-hectare field with the support of CanaPuglia a startup funded by Claudio Natile, a hemp enthusiast. He says hemp is a versatile plant and has strong links with Italian tradition.
In the 1950’s Italy was the second major hemp producer in the world after the Soviet Union. It has been a major agricultural crop for hundreds of years.
Italian hemp was renowned for the most resistant fibers and was used to produce clothing. With industrialization and synthetic fibers such as nylon, hemp disappeared.
Natile says his effort is part of CanaPuglia’s work to teach people this history. He goes to schools, priests, farmers, and even the local police to explain what he is using the hemp plant for. He invited everyone on the day the seeds were planted.
In Italy cultivation of hemp is legal as long as authorities are informed that it is industrial hemp. The plant must be a variety with low levels of THC, the mind-altering chemical. Italy is also in the process of legalizing recreational marijuana consumption.
Hemp production in Puglia has increased from three hectares to 300 over the last five years. About a 100 farmers in the area are planting seeds, which brought new investments to the region. The first hemp processing plant in the south of Italy produces fiber for shoes, bags, clothes and bricks.
Saving the planet an acre at a time
Most farmers in the region, like Fornaro, are planting hemp to clear their land of toxins. Fornaro can’t sell the seeds to be ground into high protein flour but he can sell plant fibers for processing because the toxins don’t show up in the plant itself.
“We have to start giving back what we took from the environment and provide an alternative employment to our children,” says Fornaro. He now uses industrial hemp for fiber but looks forward to the day that he can use hemp for food.