Malles – impatience or patience

A municipality in Italy has banned the use of pesticides and insecticides throughout its territory. The municipality is that of Malles Venosta, which is in South Tyrol about 70 km from Bolzano. Although it is in Italy, it is very close to the borders with Austria and Switzerland.

The story is quickly told: it is one of the realization of the risks posed to human, soil, animal and plant health by the indiscriminate use of pesticides and insecticides, especially in the growing of apples for which this region is well known. Thanks to a movement involving almost all the residents of the municipality and its outlying areas, the new mayor and council were able to impose municipal regulations that strictly limit their use based on: i) a ban on the use of the most toxic chemical pesticides (known as T+ and T); ii) pesticides may only be used up to a minimum of 50 metres away from the boundaries of neighbouring properties; iii) organic farming will be supported and encouraged throughout the area covered by the municipality.

This municipal regulation was made possible in part thanks to the results of a referendum held in the Municipality in the summer of 2014. 69% of those eligible voted in the referendum and 75% of these were opposed to the use of pesticides. This was despite the opposition of farmers’ associations and of the provincial and national political authorities. The result has received attention nationally but above all at the European and global level. It is an example of citizens’ direct democracy that has succeeded in countering the dominant industrial model of farming. This industrial model destroys biodiversity, damages human health, reduces food sovereignty and has a negative impact on climate change.

The result of this referendum did not come about by chance. It was the result of sustained effort and commitment on the part of what was initially a small group of people who were keen to safeguard their local organically farmed produce. Subsequently other local groups and individuals became involved, from doctors to the pharmacist, the hairdresser and homemakers, not to mention groups of farmers concerned about the potential loss of their organic certificates as a result of contamination.

Accounts in the Italian media, however, do not provide any details about how this group of people succeeded in imposing limits on the giant food companies. This story is told in a recent book written in English, “A precautionary Tale” by Prof. Philip Ackerman-Leist. The author, along with a number of his students, followed closely the way in which the people of Malles became aware of the risks posed by pesticides and the action they took as a result. The book, which has just been published, is easy to read because it is written almost like a novel. The various “characters” are presented in their context, the history and heritage of the inhabitants of the Valle Venosta are described, and their story is told. With an eye for telling details, the author manages to present and explain the elements that allowed this little “David” to defeat “Goliath”. On the basis of the experience of the people of Malles, the professor identifies and summarizes 5 ways to prevent pesticides from coming into the places where we live and the food we eat:

1) Always give objective factual information, especially on the risks that pesticides present to health.

2) Invite the best experts in the world (on the environment, medicine, toxicology) to give public lectures.

3) Get the best lawyers involved.

4) Attract local farmers to your cause.

5) Present a development project focused on health, social problems, ethics and ecology.

The action taken by the citizens of Malles has not ended and must continue. It contains the elements for turning into reality the vision of a development based on quality of life and safeguarding of the environment. The people of Malles are not impatient, because they know that patience is their greatest asset. The words of the Director of WWF International in 1997 reproduced at the top of this newsletter can come true.