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Editorial: “Supporting sustainability: perspectives on the economic and social rebirth of rural spaces”

Maria Gemma Grillotti Di Giacomo, Pierluigi De Felice et Luisa Spagnoli

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1Not just a play on words, but rather an operational programme: Supporting sustainability in the various papers collected in this special issue of Belgeo is addressed both from a theoretical-scientific point of view – with geographical reflections aimed at emphasising once again the need to adhere to territorial peculiarities – and, above all, from a political-social point of view, with precise and precious applicative indications offered to those who – in various capacities – operate in the agrifood sector.

2First of all, a preliminary and fundamental observation: those who really intend to commit themselves to fostering sustainable development must necessarily start from the analysis of agricultural areas. In fact, one cannot speak of growth – neither economic, nor social, nor demographic, nor durable – for us and for future generations – without worrying about guaranteeing to agrarian practices the adequate territories, tools and productive structures.

3The relationship between the “four As” that link water-food-agriculture-environment is symbiotic, transitive and integral, so the more virtuous the techniques of exploitation and consumption, the longer the potential and possibility of using natural resources and, with it, the capacity to populate planet earth will be preserved. In fact, we draw from the countryside the necessities for our survival and basic needs (food; raw materials for clothing and construction; energy sources) and in the countryside we find our social, cultural, ethical and aesthetic traditions rooted.

4In order to support sustainability it is therefore necessary first of all examining, identifing and protecting those agricultural systems that best guarantee the balanced agrarian exploitation of environmental resources (soil, hydrographic, biological) and at the same time best ensure the equity of social relations between operators, farmers and consumers.

5The comparative analysis in time and space of the agricultural systems present in the various areas of the world, conducted at different international and local geographical scales, has allowed to stigmatise both the process of land concentration – widespread on a planetary scale and particularly in developing countries where it generates desertification, hunger and forced migrations – and the phenomena of soil poisoning and degradation that, present in various countries of the world, in some well-circumscribed areas are responsible for serious human and environmental pathologies.

6Observing agricultural areas, therefore, the way to take to support sustainability seems clear – and even obvious: on the one hand, combating all forms of improper use of agricultural land and, on the other hand, recovering virtuous production formulas, i.e. those that respect the agronomic properties of the soil and their economic potential.

7The first action “in order to combat all forms of misuse of agricultural land” is certainly the most difficult to achieve because it involves the international and national legislative sphere: the huge take over of the land carried out in the southern world by public and private companies – a well-known phenomenon that has been denounced several times as Landgrabbing – leaving millions of hectares of land scandalously uncultivated and/or not destined for food production precisely in those countries where people die of hunger the most; just as scandalous is the acquisition of fertile land by criminal groups that use it to bury toxic waste. Both of these phenomena can only be dealt with through regulatory action.

8In order to implement the second action suggested to support sustainability, i.e. “recovering virtuous production formulas”, it is enough to start again from the original meaning of the term “agriculture”: “the art and practice of cultivating the land to obtain products to feed people and animals” and to encourage, by incentivising them, those agricultural systems and farms that today are more marginalised and far from the land speculation of economic power. Agricultural systems and practices that we paradoxically still find implemented – or rediscovered by young farmers – precisely and only in those areas considered less favourable to intensive land exploitation: inland, hilly and mountainous areas.

9In fact, it is the countryside where family farming is still widespread that has long safeguarded the fertility of the fields as an asset to be handed down to future generations; these are the areas where today it is easier to rediscover cultivation and cultural traditions handed down by agronomic and food techniques that are decidedly sustainable for both society and the environment; these are the lands where it is still possible to obtain typical quality products. In Italy, there are frequent cases of recovery of cultivars and exploitation formulas that are as ancient as they are innovative, by young “neo-farmers” who, on the strength of their preparation and experience, matured far from the fields, have decided to invest their energies in enhancing lands and places abandoned in past decades.

10With the beginning of the Third Millennium, we are witnessing a process, on the one hand spontaneous and on the other supported by the latest reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), thanks to which initiatives for the redevelopment of traditional countryside and inland areas are multiplying. A trend that has been given a strong boost by the Covid 19 virus pandemic, with the rediscovery of the quality of life offered by rural areas and the goodness of foodstuffs at km0. In recent years there has been a proliferation of tourist and residential offers that enhance the aesthetic value of historic rural landscapes produced by the ingenuity and creativity of farmers, towards which projects for the redevelopment and valorisation of territories considered, until yesterday, marginal are increasingly being directed.

11A single thread unfolds, therefore, through the appropriate reflections of the authors, who emphasise the important role played by agriculture in preserving the traditional characteristics of rural landscapes. The ongoing processes of change that have involved both societies and economies on global level have surely affected rural territories, reshaping the countryside, the relationship with cities, agricultural systems, and the very way of farming. These transformations have raised a number of issues, especially related to the preservation of ecosystems, food security, reduction of soil consumption, social inclusion, and the redefinition of certain spatial areas. New scenarios, therefore, in which agriculture becomes the protagonist, precisely because it is called upon to give answers to society and to the challenges offered by the environment and the territory; above all, to trigger new development processes in order to revive new life into those rural territories affected by emergency and post-emergency situations, as well as by the globalization of markets. In particular, the contribution by Maria Gemma Grillotti Di Giacomo and Pierluigi De Felice, “COVID-19 pandemic: warning for the sustainability of European agri-food systems”, underlines the danger arising from the process of homologation and land concentration that is spreading in Europe, contributing to erase those historical legacies sedimented in rural landscapes, that productive model based especially on the family businesses, to the advantage of agro-industry driven by little or no agronomic interests. Moreover, in stark contrast to the CAP’s transition from the sectoral productive model to the territorial model that encourage the plurality, diversity and originality of local entrepreneurship.

12A local response is also provided by the example of the two characteristic citrus groves in Apulia and Sicily (in Southern Italy), investigated by Antonietta Ivona and Donatella Privitera, “The rediscovery of characteristic rural landscapes. An opportunity to create new activities?”, which demonstrate how the renewal of ancient practices, together with the value of landscapes, can represent an opportunity for an economic development of territories.

13The recovery of rural landscapes to trigger new activities is the topic widely discussed by Giuseppe Muti with his paper “The fight against agribusiness crime and the regeneration of agricultural land confiscated from organised crime groups in Italy”, in which he speaks about the problem of “agromafie” and the reborn of rural spaces removed from the yoke of organised crime by the action of civil society, as in the case of the Libera Terra agricultural cooperatives. Along the same lines, the work by Silvia Siniscalchi, “The Terra dei fuochi in Campania. Geographical reading on an environmental disaster and its possible remedies”, which refers on the existing environmental redevelopment projects that, from a systemic perspective, could restore material and immaterial integrity to these devastated territories and their populations.

14Examples of territorial regeneration triggered from below are also fully described in the two essays by Teresa Amodio “Territories at risk of abandonment in Italy and hypothesis of repopulation” and Luisa Spagnoli “Supporting the ‘sustainability’ of inland (rural) areas in Basilicata. Tools and place-based strategies for implementing local development processes in the Lagonegrese-Pollino subregion”. The first case analyses the phenomenon of depopulation that most affects the marginal territories, including rural areas, that characterise the Italian peninsula. With respect to this situation, the author highlights how much more effective are the hypotheses of revitalisation by local communities, by regaining awareness of their own and non-reproducible territorial values and following an action in favour of a ‘consciousness of place’ in relation to contemporaneity. In the second study, some bottom-up initiatives concerning an inland area of Basilicata (in Southern Italy), the Lagonegrese Pollino sub-region, are punctually investigated in order to show how fundamental these actions are, as well as the coordination/integration between institutions and citizenship in activating territorial renewal processes, explicitly aimed to enhance the resources and vocations of the territories.

15We still remain at the condition of ‘marginality’ with the paper by Maria Cristina Cardillo and Pierluigi De Felice, “A potential example of sustainability in the Italian rural landscape: the Valle di Comino biodistrict in southern Lazio”, in which they consider the Valle di Comino (Lazio Region, Italy) which, such as all the inland areas of the Italian Peninsula, experiences systemic fragility both at the demographic level, with a constant decrease in the population, and economic, with a sharp decrease in the number of young farmers and a low rate of tourist accommodation. Faced with this situation, a new development process has begun based on the intrinsic richness of the rural landscape, whose characteristics are insightfully illustrated by the authors.

16The regional and national strategies and programming are investigated by Marilena Labianca, “Towards the new Common Agricultural Policy for Biodiversity: custodian farmers for sustainable agricultural practices in the Apulia region (South of Italy)”, who dwells on the path that the Apulia Region is undertaking, launching an important initiative called “custodian farmers” within the framework of the CAP in the two programming cycles 2007-2013 and 2014-2020 for the protection and maintenance of biodiversity.

17The reflections as a whole put into communication different geographical languages, characterised by different theoretical and methodological approaches in an open and constructive confrontation, pursuing the common goal of focusing on the issues of rediscovery, valorisation and regeneration of rural spaces in the light, above all, of a pandemic crisis that has involved societies and territories on a global level.

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Maria Gemma Grillotti Di Giacomo, Pierluigi De Felice et Luisa Spagnoli, « Editorial: “Supporting sustainability: perspectives on the economic and social rebirth of rural spaces” »Belgeo [En ligne], 4 | 2022, mis en ligne le 25 avril 2023, consulté le 31 mai 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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