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Women’s presence in contemporary Italy’s environmental movements, with a case study on the Mamme No Inceneritore committee

La présence des femmes dans les mouvements écologistes italiens – étude de cas du comité Mamme No Inceneritore
Rachele Ledda

Résumés

Cet article étudie la place des femmes, minime jusque dans les années 1970-1980, dans les mouvements environnementaux italiens au xxe siècle. Les premières associations pour la protection de l’environnement et du patrimoine italien apparaissent durant « l’époque libérale », une période durant laquelle les femmes sont exclues de la sphère publique. C’est avec l’avènement du fascisme que surgissent les premiers enjeux environnementaux qui mettent les femmes au premier plan. Néanmoins, après la Seconde Guerre mondiale, les activistes italiennes se battent surtout pour la conquête de droits civils et politiques. Il faut donc attendre la fin des années 1970 pour qu’une femme, Laura Conti, s’impose dans la mouvance environnementale en dénonçant la catastrophe de Seveso. L’article étudie ensuite l’écoféminisme italien, qui fait long feu, avant de présenter une étude de cas sur un groupe de femmes, les « Mamans contre l’incinérateur », qui sont représentatives du mouvement de justice environnementale en Italie.

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1In Italy, as elsewhere, environmental history and the history of environmental movements have been dominated for a long time by the idea of nature as an “other” place, far from everyday life, where the (mainly rich and white) élites would act to preserve its integrity and enjoy its beauty. Nature was conceived as a luxury, a place where to spend leisure time – hence a prerogative of the ruling classes.

  • 1 Marco Armiero “Riprendersi la primavera. Le lotte per la giustizia ambientale nell’Italia Contempor (...)

2There is a different kind of environmentalism, though: grassroots environmentalism and the environmental justice movement, the history of which, as regards the Italian case, has yet to be written. How to define this different kind of environmentalism? Following Marco Armiero’s suggestions1, in order to trace the genesis and development of such movements, we should refer to social science studies rather than historical ones:

  • 2 Ibid., p. 24.

“With the terms ‘Environmentalism of the Poor’ and ‘Environmental Justice Movement’, we mean the different forms of environmental activism where social and environmental instances mingle. Popular environmentalism does not conceive nature as an ‘other’ place, to be kept firmly secluded from human presence and activities; on the contrary, the nature we are dealing with is the same place enjoyed in everyday life, more a resource for survival rather than a place of leisure. […] Environmental risks are not equally divided among the different ethnic and social groups, because minorities and the poorest pay the others’ welfare bill. Therefore, popular ecology is a form of environmentalism where class, gender, and race do matter2.”

  • 3 The Vajont Dam is a disused dam. It was built in 1959 in the Vajont River valley under Monte Toc, i (...)

3To set the history of grassroots environmentalism in Italy, Armiero proposes three test cases as research steps: the disasters that occurred at the Vajont dam and at Seveso, and the garbage struggles in contemporary Campania3.

4In relation to the present article, it should be emphasized that in all those cases, women were very present. This is relevant when we take into account the constant paucity of women’s presence in environmental movements in Italy. In fact, their militancy is hard to track almost up to the 1970s and 1980s, when environmental battles in the country and the coming closer between the Left and environmentalist movements began to gain visibility. In this span of time, female activism itself became more conspicuous: women asserted themselves as autonomous political subjects, winning civil and political rights and spaces. While this rise of awareness took place, the environmental issue, however, did not play a main role; it was carried on rather unwittingly and seemed to lack theoretical bases.

  • 4 Unless otherwise indicated, all translations from Italian are mine.

5The present article will draw in its first part a brief historical portrait of the women’s presence in environmentalist movements in Italy between the end of the 19th century and the 1980s. The second part will be devoted to the case study of a group of mothers, Mamme No Inceneritore (Mums against Incinerator), a committee established in 2015 to oppose the building of a waste incinerator near Florence4.

A marginal presence: women in the first environmentalist movements in Italy

  • 5 It is worth emphasising the two works that helped provide a historical frame to the Italian environ (...)

6The ecologist movement as a whole in Italy has gained scarce attention by historians, a fact that can be explained by the difficulties in uncovering sources belonging to a reality that did not leave institutional archives available for further research5. Among the few works produced by researchers, the presence of women – when at all mentioned – is marginal and mirrors the historical condition of a general absence of women from public life.

  • 6 Piccioni, Il volto amato della Patria, op. cit., p. 41.

7As a matter of fact, under the Epoca Liberale (the time between the unification of Italy and the first quarter of the 20th century), the first associations for the protection of nature and of the Italian cultural heritage appeared. At that time, women are excluded from most public activities. A first movement for the protection of nature appeared and had two main features. On the one hand, it focused on changes occurring in urban life: loss of historic monuments, destruction of gardens and parks, creation of new districts seen as aesthetically ugly6. On the other hand, attention was placed on landscape and naturalistic protection.

  • 7 Joan Martínez Alier, Ecologia dei poveri. La lotta per la giustizia ambientale, (trans. Marco Armie (...)
  • 8 Meyer, I pionieri dell’ambiente, op. cit., p. 26.
  • 9 Contrary to other European and North American countries, environmental protection in Italy was init (...)
  • 10 ISTAT (Istituto Nazionale di Statistica: Italian National Institute of Statistics) did not provide (...)

8In these movements, nature was conceived as a place of leisure, acknowledging both its aesthetic value and its untouched and pristine wildness7. Its advocates belonged to the intellectual and scientific elites; they were acting in a predominantly rural nation where the relevance of environmental issues was still modest. The standard profile of a person caring about the environment in Italy between the end of the 19th and the first two decades of the 20th century was a male professional of the upper class who enjoyed leisure time and economical means8. In Italy, the first community who became aware of the need for an environmental protectionist turn was therefore the scientific one9. This explains why women’s presence was so marginal, as this was a time when Italian female graduates in natural sciences were small minority10.

  • 11 Alberto Silvestri, I verdi alla ribalta, Castrocaro Terme, Tip. Zauli, 1986, p. 15-22. Urban demoli (...)
  • 12 This Fascist initiative was simply aimed at propaganda. Furthermore, it wanted to protect the uncon (...)

9With the advent of Fascism, the first environmental issues arose with the cities’ modernization process and the following realization of new quarters, but also with the autarchic political choices that induced an exploitation of the country’s resources. The territory of the Peninsula became the object of a prominent exploitation: more than three million hectares of forests were cleared just for the Battaglia del Grano (the “wheat battle” which promoted self-sufficiency) and the major wet lands of the country were drained11. However, it is precisely under the Ventennio (the twenty or so years of the Fascist regime) that the first national parks were created, notwithstanding the fading of environmental protection activities12. The protectionist movement also experienced its first setback because of the main role the fascist regime granted the humanist culture (particularly the classics that were instrumental for the dictatorship’s historical legitimation), at the expenses of the scientific-environmental one.

  • 13 The Val Lagarina case is portraited in Giovanni De Luigi, Edgar Helmut Meyer, Andrea Saba, “Nasce u (...)

10Protests against the destruction of the environment did not cease during Fascism, though: spontaneous and unorganized popular risings occured against pollution catastrophes and for the preservation of public health. One of such occurrences took place in the Trentino region, in the Lagarina Valley between 1928 and 1938, when the valley population, concerned about health issues, protested against the setting up of a new production facility by the Società Italiana dell’Alluminio (Sida, Italian Aluminium Company). Following the plant’s entry into service, the inhabitants noticed the appearance of stains on mulberries and grapevines leaves, followed by the sudden death of silkworms (one of the region’s staple rural activities), the birth of deformed bovines and the death of farmyard animals in the immediate surroundings. Peasants and farmers formed a “Comitato dei danneggiati” (Injured Persons’ Committee) and women were at the protest’s forefront. As a matter of fact, after the first appearances of ecchymosis on children’s limbs, women of the valley organized the first public rally to protest against the factory plant in 1933, followed by other mobilisations, one of which – during the following year – ended with a mass arrest of demonstrating women13.

11Women were thus the undisputed actors of this mainly rural upheaval with no backing by a real ecologist movement. This is one of the first documented struggles for environmental justice in post-unification Italy. The cost of economic development did not fall back fairly on all social strata: the highest price was paid by the rural world for which nature was not a place of leisure, an ‘other’ place to be enjoyed during leisure time, but rather the land where life took place: preserving it meant preserving one’s existence.

  • 14 In 1948, the Movimento Italiano per la Protezione della Natura (MIPN, Italian Movement for Nature P (...)
  • 15 Miriam Mafai, L’apprendistato della politica. Le donne italiane nel dopoguerra, Rome, Editori Riuni (...)
  • 16 Stefania Barca, “Lavoro, corpo, ambiente: Laura Conti e le origini dell’ecologia politica in Italia (...)
  • 17 Salvatore Adorno, Simone Neri Serneri (eds.), Industria, ambiente e territorio. Per una storia ambi (...)
  • 18 Barca, “Lavoro, corpo, ambiente…”, art. cit., p. 542. See also: Roberto Della Seta, La difesa dell’ (...)

12In the post-war period, some environmentalist associations flourished, in which women had a prominent role14. These were the years when Italian women experienced their apprendistato della politica [apprenticeship to politics]. Their militancy expressed itself particularly in the wider mass associations within major political parties and focused mainly on the conquest of civil and political rights15. During the 1960s and the 1970s, a new kind of environmentalism appeared in Italy, which “turned its attention to the environment/health nexus and to industrial risk16”. The biggest concerns were raised about the pollution produced by the chemical and petrochemical industries, and the devastating consequences their installation had on the territory17. As highlighted by Stefania Barca, the working class was the true protagonist of such transformations, linking labour struggles and environmental concerns. It is not by chance therefore that the first actors who perceived the need to elaborate a class-centred ecologist critique were those taking care of defending their interests: the trade unions, the left-wing parties, and radically oriented political movements18.

Laura Conti: a key female figure in Italian environmentalism, and the Seveso ecological disaster

  • 19 Chiara Certomà (ed.), Laura Conti. Alle radici dell’ecologia, Morciano di Romagna, Editoria & Ambie (...)

13At the end of the 1970s, during a time of major political enthusiasm, a female figure, who had already distinguished herself in Italian public life, stood out in the environmental milieu: Laura Conti. She was born in Udine on 31 March 1921, moved to Milan to study medicine, and in 1944 became a resister, joining the Fronte della gioventù per l’indipendenza nazionale e per la libertà (Youth Front for National Independence and Freedom). Interned in the Bolzano transit camp, she narrowly managed to avoid being deported to Germany. After having regained her freedom, she graduated in medicine and joined the ranks of the Partito Socialista Italiano (Italian Socialist Party). From 1951 onwards, she adhered to the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI, Italian Communist Party), and was elected as a Lombardy regional counsellor for the latter and from 1987 on as an MP. In the 1970s, she joined the Medicina Democratica (Democratic Medicine), a centre of counter-information on health and harmfulness in factories. She partook in the founding of the Lega per l’ambiente (League For the Environment, nowadays Legambiente) in 198019.

  • 20 Ibid., p. 88.

14Laura Conti was a character whose social and political action operated on many levels: as a former resistant, a physician, an activist, a writer, a politician and an educator. She did not fear being ahead in her actions and commitments, neither in her own Party nor within the environmentalist world20:

  • 21 Serenella Iovino, “I racconti della diossina. Laura Conti e i corpi di Seveso”, CoSMo – Comparative (...)

“Environment to her, especially in the industrialized North of Italy, was a matter of workers, children and women. For decades, and up to the end of her life in 1993, she was actively engaged in information campaigns on environmental and sexual education. Going from school to school, she discussed with boys and girls in the province of Lombardy on untouchable or unknown issues for the time, from reproduction to sexual identity, life of ecosystems and nuclear energy hazards21.”

15Laura Conti was nevertheless essentially linked to a crucial event in the history of environmentalism and political ecology in Italy: the environmental disaster of Seveso. On 10 July 1976, a greyish cloud with an acrid smell escaped from reactor B of the Icmesa chemical plant in the municipality of Meda, bordering with Seveso (ca. 30 km from Milan): it was made of TCDD dioxin, a by-product which develops during the processing of Trichlorophenol, which was employed in herbicide production. TCDD is the most dangerous dioxin, with persistent carcinogenic, teratogenic and toxic effects. Its toxicity does not allow to define any safety threshold because its presence in the environment, to whatever extent, is always extremely dangerous. Despite the fact that the dioxin’s danger was a well-known fact, no one living in the vicinity of the Icmesa plant knew about it. When faced with the environmental catastrophe, the political world was unable to react:

  • 22 Pietro Bevilacqua, La terra è finita. Breve storia dell’ambiente, Bari, Laterza, 2006, p. 179. Some (...)

“Italians heard about [the existence of the dioxin] for the first time ever. In the event, above all in Seveso, hundreds of farmyard animals died, so that – after days of inaction and uncertainty – the entire population was evacuated. Many people, particularly children, were stricken by an unusual skin disease, chloracné, and the number of spontaneous abortions rose.
However, the incident did not only reveal a new dimension in the country’s industrial hazard, but also the deception and the machinations that in some cases preside to productive activities covered by secrets in order to keep populations in the dark and trample the nation’s autonomy. What was the dioxin doing in a perfume factory?
22

  • 23 Certomà, Laura Conti, op. cit., p. 16.

16Laura Conti was then a regional councillor for Lombardy, elected with the PCI. In Seveso, the municipality where the toxic cloud hit most, she found herself facing the bewilderment of a population that did not even know how to name the huge risks it was encountering, and a political class unable to act in the face of an ecological catastrophe of such significance. On this occasion, Conti experienced the possibility to “spread among administrators, population and technicians […] the simplest teachings of environmentalist thought23.” She was also in the vanguard in the battle for the right to know and for the democratic participation of the affected population.

  • 24 Seveso was a chemical industrial disaster. Italy already experienced a major accident caused by hum (...)
  • 25 In 1976, abortion in Italy was not legal yet. It was legalized in 1978 after a strenuous struggle l (...)

17The Seveso industrial disaster, the first major ecological catastrophe in the Italian industrial age, also involved, from the very beginning, a specific women’s issue24. One of the TCDD dioxin toxic effects is in fact to be teratogenic. In the aftermath of the Icmesa explosion, the possibility to concede abortion to pregnant women began to be discussed25. The controversy on women’s self-determination in the possibility to choose the termination of risky pregnancies was extreme, most of all in the area affected by the disaster, the Brianza region, where Catholicism was deeply engrained into society. As stated by Laura Conti herself:

  • 26 Marcella Ferrara, Le donne di Seveso, Rome, Editori Riuniti, 1977, p. 209.

“the very fact of having faced the issue of abortion for the women in polluted areas, the very fact of having attained therapeutic abortion in Seveso, has been detrimental, because the entire dioxin issue was reduced to the question: do we let women abort or not? The dioxin issue became a female issue, whereas it concerned the whole population26.”

  • 27 Bruno Ziglioli, “Seveso 1976. La diossina sul corpo delle donne”, Genesis, 12, 2, 2013, p. 99-114. (...)

18The discourse on abortion in Seveso took place at a time when abortion was a much debated issue. The Icmesa-generated disaster resulted in a formidable occasion of public debate among pro- and anti-abortion positions, right into a political context that was dominated by the collaboration experiment between the Democrazia Cristiana (Christian Democrats) and the PCI, both at the national and regional Lombard government levels27.

  • 28 Ziglioli, “Seveso 1976… “, art. cit., p. 101.
  • 29 Armiero “Riprendersi la primavera…”, art. cit., p. 29; Virginio Bettini, “Ecologia di potere, ecolo (...)

19As pointed out by Ziglioli, we can take Seveso as an out-of-the-ordinary event where, “in a tangle, issues that would have been debated at length in the following decades [were condensed]: defence of the environment, civil rights, issues on bio-ethics and gender28.” Moreover, Seveso stands as a real turning point in the political culture of the Italian Left: it was the time when class-driven ecologism broke into the public debate and began to tear down the traditional Communist distrust of ecology29.

The feminist movement, ecologism and the Green lists of candidates in the 1970s and 1980s

  • 30 The magazine Effe was created in February 1973 as a “counter-informative weekly for the female sex” (...)
  • 31 Laura Braccioli, “Seveso: veleno nell’utero”, Effe, 4, September-October 1976, p. 27-28; Yasmine Er (...)

20The Seveso event, in spite of its specific female dimension, was not followed by an environmentalist feminist movement. The analysis of one of the feminist movement’s most relevant magazines, Effe, demonstrates that environmentalist themes were given very little space30. The Seveso affair was reported in just three articles, all of them published in 1976, and they focused mainly on the question of abortion31. The only piece dealing with ecology, by Anna Spinazzola and Grazia Francescato, “Problema energia. ‘Madre terra’ non ha più risorse”, appeared in 1977. The authors, arguing that “the women’s movement and the environmentalist movement move in the same direction and are mutually complementary”, wished to open a debate. They denounced:

  • 32 Grazia Francescato, Anna Spinazzola, “Problema energia. ‘Madre terra’ non ha più risorse”, Effe, 5, (...)

“a cultural absence of women in the debate on energy which is more guilty and absurd the more we realize the vital importance played by the energetic issue. We have been absent from this debate, even if for different causes: we, the women […], the true and proper terminal of energy consumption […]. We, who in the obsessional ritual of domestic work, use daily electrical energy but ignore what it is, how and by whom it is produced […]. Accustomed for centuries to consider science and technology even in their minimal aspects as ‘men’s business’, we are inclined to delegate to – naturally male – experts every scientific and technological choice32.”

21In the article, specific reference is made to the Italian anti-nuclear movement. Eco-feminist suggestions are also offered:

  • 33 Ibid., p. 35.

“By freeing herself […] the woman not only liberates the entire society but also nature. The women’s movement and the environmentalist movement […] move in the same direction and are mutually complementary. Women […] have always devoted themselves to the care of life through the dense network of their daily occupations […]. Their relationship with nature is more balanced than that of men, which is driven by the desire of domination and exploitation, precisely because women in their daily upkeep of vital processes have acquired a profound respect and an intimate knowledge (not a scientific one, but a global adherence) of such processes. I do not want to say that Woman is Nature and Man is Culture, propagating a myth which translated itself into an alibi in order to reduce us to a state of inferiority – but, given the fact that the dominant culture has been and still is the male one, characterized by a negative relationship with nature, women escaped to a greater extent the need to establish such a relationship, simply by being outcasts33.”

  • 34 Françoise d’Eaubonne, Le Féminisme ou la mort, Paris, Pierre Horay, 1974.
  • 35 Grazia Francescato, “Il verde e il rosa, un intreccio vitale”, in Franca Marcomin, Laura Cima (eds. (...)

22In those words, we can trace the founding basis of eco-feminism, a term first introduced by Françoise d’Eaubonne in her work Le Féminisme ou la mort in 1974: namely the idea that important historical, symbolic and theoretical connections exist between the domination of women and the domination of nature34. The logic of domination is the theoretical basis of eco-feminism: the patriarchal society justifies the subordination of woman to man together with that of nature to human utilization. Spinazzola and Francescato’s contribution highlights some crucial reflections on the gender-nature relationship: however, the Italian feminist movement did not perceive it as one of the main issues, notwithstanding the fact that Francescato had promoted the birth of “a small group of eco-feminists” named Donne e Ambiente (Women and Environment)35.

  • 36 Elisabetta Donini, “Donne, ambiente, etica delle relazioni. Prospettive femministe su economia e ec (...)
  • 37 So far, there is only one article on the subject: Emma Baeri, “Violenza, conflitto, disarmo: pratic (...)

23After the 1986 Chernobyl environmental disaster, women began to confront “the consciousness of limits”, achieving a crossing between feminist and ecologist perspectives, while being finally joined by peace movements36. Such a convergence had been observed for the first time in 1981-83, among protest movements opposed to the designation of the Sicilian municipality of Comiso as a NATO air base hosting US nuclear warheads. The evidence of relations between gender, pacifist, and environmentalist activists seems also to be clearly assessed by the meeting that took place between the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp and the Comiso movements. More research on this event is needed37.

  • 38 Franca Fossati, “Le donne degli anni Verdi”, Noi Donne, 12, 1986, p. 33.

24After Seveso, Chernobyl was the landmark event that had an enormous resonance in Italy, even among women who did not take action in environmentalist movements. Many then considered the environmental question for the first time, especially the youngest ones who, at the time of Seveso, were still in their childhood: “Women immediately felt that there was a problem when the red cloud of Chernobyl invaded Europe. Males were thinking about tables of survey records […] and I was wondering what to feed my child and thinking about my three months pregnant friend38.”

  • 39 Apart from the Italian legislative system, the country has different administrative structures. Loc (...)
  • 40 Marcomin, Cima L’ecofemminismo, op.cit., p. 20.
  • 41 Ibid., p. 16.

25In 1986, a new experience came into being during a meeting of the Green Party, which was present, at the administrative level, in eleven Italian regions out of twenty39. Many women present for the occasion incepted a separatist place, later called the Forum delle Donne Verdi (Green Women’s Forum), where representation, abortion, genetic manipulations, peace and eco-feminist environmentalism could be discussed and debated40. This group developed within the Federazione dei Verdi (Greens’ Federation) and hence acquired a quasi-institutional value. We cannot assert that this had a mass echo. However, feminist and environmentalist associations made contact with the Forum and their joined in the experience41.

  • 42 For further reading on the history of the Italian Feminist Movement in the 1970s, see: Fiamma Lussa (...)

26Given the current research, it is impossible to provide an extensive coverage on the reasons why the Italian feminist movement did not acknowledge or develop an eco-feminist position. At the time, the environmental question was not perceived as urgent. Two main factors may also have played a role. On the one hand, the overall scarce scientific education of Italian women, due to the heritage of the first Italian environmentalist movement, has to be taken into account. On the other hand, Italian feminists had obviously urgent and short-term goals to reach in relation to women’s role in society42.

Environmental justice in Italy: the case of Mamme No Inceneritore (Mums against Incinerator)

  • 43 While completing this article, the Mamme No Inceneritore won their battle: on 24 May 2018, a final (...)

27Throughout this paper, I have so far attempted a general assessment of women’s presence in environmentalist movements in Italy, I have presented an important biographical case in correlation with one of the main chemical disasters that affected the country, and I have traced the outlines of female environmentalism in Italy at the time of the social movements between 1968 and 1977. The final section will present the case study of an environmental grassroots movement constituted in 2015 by a group of mothers, the Mamme No Inceneritore, who opposed the installation of a waste incinerator in the outskirts of Florence43.

  • 44 Marco Armiero (ed.), Teresa e le altre. Storie di donne nella terra dei fuochi, Milan, Jaca Book, 2 (...)

28This is not an isolated case. In recent Italian history, Mamme No Inceneritore is actually one of the many groups of women – especially mothers – that have been fighting against pollution and waste mismanagement, without being related to one another. Among these groups, some of the most well known originate from the region north of Naples, where illegal dumping and burning of toxic waste earned it the infamous name of the Terra dei Fuochi (Land of Fires). Research on the subject has shown the disparity between northern and southern Italy44. Geography was indeed one of the reasons I decided to study the Mamme No Inceneritore group: they operate in Tuscany, a region known worldwide for its bucolic and iconic beauty, and its stereotypical landscapes of rolling hills and cypress trees. The very presence of an incinerator seems to subvert the commonplace dichotomy between northern and southern Italy, according to which the former embodies the virtuous practices of an ordered society, whereas the latter symbolises the opposite. The existence of this group, on the contrary, shows that environmental issues – waste mismanagement in particular –are not confined to southern Italy. Another reason for choosing this group as a case study is their gender sensitivity – as its name implies –, the amount of female and male activists involved, and their significant impact on the territory. I wanted to examine the peculiarities of this group and the involvement of female activists – whom I interviewed – in their political activities, with special regard to the perception of their gender role inside the group.

  • 45 See: Joan Martínez Alier, Ecologia dei poveri. La lotta per la giustizia ambientale, Milan, Jaca Bo (...)

29Following the environmental justice movements’ assumptions according to which environmental risks are not equally distributed within society, according to which minorities and lower classes pay the bill of economic and social well-being and according to which gender plays an important role, then we can agree upon the fact that environmental struggles often consider nature not as a place of leisure, but rather as a living space, and that environmental movements in this case favour the language of social justice and rights over the language of environmental protection45. Using this theoretical framework, can the Mamme No Inceneritore be described as being part of the Italian environmental justice movement?

Origin, actions, and peculiarities

30The Atlante italiano dei conflitti ambientali (Italian atlas of environmental conflicts) is an online platform, which, by mapping the ongoing most emblematic Italian environmental conflicts”, offers an overview on the matter, as well as a typology46. Conflicts linked to waste mismanagement make up an overwhelming majority of reported cases. From northern to central and southern Italy, the whole country seems to be affected by waste storage and disposal issues.

  • 47 World Health Organization, Ambient Air Pollution: A Global Assessment of Exposure and Burden of Dis (...)
  • 48 This committee is not affected by the NIMBY syndrome, and proposes alternatives to the incinerator, (...)

31One of the active centres of protest against waste mismanagement is headed by the Mamme No Inceneritore committee, established to oppose the building of a waste incinerator in the plains near the city of Florence. The area had already been provided with an incinerator in 1973, which was closed down in 1986 after the detection of a high concentration of dioxin in the soil exceeding legal levels. The construction of such a plant was opposed by local inhabitants because, among its negative effects, it would increase the risk of children and adults developing pathologies; furthermore, it would also affect greenhouse gas emissions with the consequent acceleration of global climate change. Building the incinerator would impact the resident population in a 25-km radius; in addition, the incinerator was planned only 8 km away from the Duomo (the Cathedral in Florence), an area of high population density which – according to the World Health Organization (WHO) – is among the areas in Italy most affected by fine particles47. Many associations and committees have been fighting the incinerator since February 2000, when the project was included in the Piano provinciale di gestione dei rifiuti urbani (Urban waste management provincial plan) and adopted by the Consiglio Provinciale di Firenze (Florence Provincial Council). The Mamme No Inceneritore committee was established on 12 February 2015 by a group of mothers who were worried by the toxic, irreversible effects that an incinerator would have on the health of the Florence Plains inhabitants, and the environment. The committee, which soon became the main municipal movement opposing the plant construction, stated as a primary goal the deepening and promotion of waste management knowledge, as well as the increase of citizens’ awareness. It used various kinds of initiatives, aimed at learning and popularizing alternative methods for waste management and disposal48.

  • 49 Patrick Novotny, Where We Live, Work and Play: The Environmental Justice Movement and the Struggle (...)
  • 50 The area to be affected by the incinerator includes a number of municipalities. In Sesto Fiorentino (...)

32As mentioned above, environmental justice movements focus on the protection of the environment intended as a living space – “where we live, work and play49”– one in which gender, race, and class interact. Female activists in the committee come from various socio-economic backgrounds. However, they did not succeed in involving the inhabitants of the working-class districts and, most of all, the immigrant population who makes up an important percentage of residents50.

  • 51 Franco Ferrarotti, “La città come fenomeno di classe”, in Franco Martinelli (ed.), Città e campagna (...)

33Class is indisputably linked to the space where the struggle takes place: a space beyond the periphery. The case of the Mamme No Inceneritore reveals not so much the opposition between city and countryside – a historically structural feature of Italian national culture: it rather unveils the one between city and “non-city”, a middle land that is not yet the city, but that is unequivocally not the countryside, either. The Florence Plains figure as a sort of appendix to the city’s greater metropolitan area, an “anti-city” which reaches beyond the periphery, where, apart from fields, there are industries, production plants, as well as major public projects such as the Florence airport and a high-speed railway51. In such a “non-place”, gender issues play an essential role, as many grassroots environmentalist movements all over the world show. This kind of specific wasteland reifies a zone, a front line where to defend one’s daily life, as well as the rights to make decisions about land management and health – an ancestral role traditionally endorsed by women.

  • 52 See Karen Bell, “Bread and Roses: A Gender Perspective on Environmental Justice and Public Health”, (...)
  • 53 Celene Krauss, “Women and toxic waste protests: Race, Class and Gender as Resources of Resistance”, (...)

34Different theories try to explain why women are more active in environmental justice struggles. Some scholars maintain that individuals who are not represented in power structures are more aware of the system’s flaws, and are more likely to change it52. According to others, women activists in environmental justice movements do not, in fact, make a link between gender and environmental issues: they seem not to be aware of specific gender issues53.

  • 54 Between September and December 2017, eight women and two men, who were the founders and most active (...)

35The group activists that I interviewed are women who had no previous experience in feminist or general political movements, except for a few of them54. During our conversations, they described the life they had led before being involved in the committee as being “normal”. Many declared they had had “another life”, which “became complicated after discovering all the environmental issues surrounding us”. Very frequently, they defined themselves as “normal housewives”, who had suddenly realized they were in charge of a protest group, and had become a reference for local environmental issues.

  • 55 The Riflusso nel privato or Riflusso is the general political ebb experienced in Italy in a context (...)

36Although this feeling of extraneousness to precedent political militancy is characteristic of environmental justice movements, in this specific case, I believe that the generational factor should also be taken into account. In fact, the majority of activists were born in the 1970s. They grew up with the Riflusso, which invested Italian society between the end of the 1970s and the 1980s55. As a matter of fact, the activists who have a more active political militancy past (in trade unionism or in environmentalist and pacifist movements) are also older. By their own statement, the committee’s political strategy wants to evade traditional party-based militant practices, for example by using a different language in order to reach out to more people. Instead of protest demonstrations, they organise walks through the city; time-consuming meetings are replaced by flash mobs, while – at times funny – video projections ensure high-impact communication.

Mothering and care practices

  • 56 Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva, Ecofeminism, London, Kali for Women, 1993.
  • 57 Carolyn Merchant, Earthcare: Women and Environment, New York, Routledge, 1996.
  • 58 Mary Mellor, Feminism and Ecologism: An Introduction, New York, New York University Press, 2000, p. (...)
  • 59 Joni Seager, Earth Follies: Coming to Feminist Terms with the Global Environmental Crisis, New York (...)

37When discussing the relationship between environmentalism, environmental justice movements and gender, the recurring question is: are women “naturally” more connected to nature than men? Many scholars, particularly eco-feminists, have attempted to give different answers, introducing a link between two concepts of “care”: care of other people and care for the environment. They imply that “care” is a way of living on the earth, rather than a way to look at it. For example, Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva propose a “female principle”, stating that women, when they care for the environment, are simply doing what they always did, i.e. surviving capitalist patriarchal and colonial developments56. Other authors, such as Carolyn Merchant, stress the ethics of a partnership with environment, thus also including women’s daily caring practices. Such ethics are based upon the idea that human beings are collaborating partners (with one other and with nature), and that both are equally important in this relation57. According to Mary Mellor, “women are not closer to nature because of some elemental physiological or spiritual affinity, but because of the social circumstances in which they find themselves58.” On the same note, Joni Seager argues that women’s bigger involvement in – sometimes spontaneous – environmentalist movements, has to be ascribed to social context and socially assigned gender roles, thus transcending race and class59.

38While interviewing the Mamme No Inceneritore, I addressed matters related to mothering and “care” on many occasions. The name chosen by the Florentine committee (“Mums No Incinerator”) obviously conveys the magnitude of the role assigned to mothering. Here we have a group of mothers who join their forces in order to find a solution to an issue that will affect the future of their sons and daughters in particular, but that will also have a deeper impact. An activist of the Mamme told me that being a mother goes further than the biological meaning. “Mother” is not only synonymous with “biological mother” – a “mother” is whoever takes care of somebody and something, in this specific case the health of the entire community:

  • 60 Mamme No Inceneritore, “Una storia di donne e anarchia”, A. Rivista Anarchica, 412, December 2016–J (...)

“Mothers […] are those who keep an umbilical cord with life. They are the ones, women, or even men, who develop a strong identification with the other […]. Mother is a category of the soul, of course often well spread among those who themselves are mums. But inside the Mamme No Incenertore Committee, [the term] was adopted by everyone60.”

39Though a minority, male activists do partake in the committee’s actions. They explained to me how activism in a group of women changed their own self-perception and allowed them, little by little, to dismantle the androcentrism that permeates society, starting right from their calling themselves mammi (plural of mammo, informal: a man who has the role of a mother) and using the feminine case when talking collectively (as in other romance languages, in Italian, plural forms of mixed gender normally take the masculine form). Furthermore, male activists learned to take a step back in the committee’s public representation: they “learned to be taught by women”, and discovered a “caring” role that was traditionally assigned to women.

40The name chosen for the Committee attracted criticism by some feminists who did not belong to the movement and who blamed the activists for reproducing the patriarchal image of the woman as mother. Actually, in the own words of an interviewed activist, becoming Mamme No Inceneritore has paradoxically led these women, who had until then been “just mothers”, to leave their homes, and to become active citizens. Another activist concurred with this idea: she told me that, although she had never thought about gender before and did not feel part of a mostly female association (something confirmed by all interviewees), since she started militating in the Committee, she did not feel “only” as the mother of her son, but rather as a mother who takes care of a generic “other”: society or public health.

Conclusions

  • 61 As a matter of fact, “class” has not been an issue in Italian public debates for decades. It is the (...)

41Regarding this particular case study, I believe that it can be included among environmental justice movements, although it displays specific Italian characteristics. Class and race have no great relevance in the present case and this seems to coincide with two current Italian specificities61.

  • 62 Living in the city centre in Florence (as well as in many other Italian cities) goes far beyond the (...)

42As a matter of fact, if garbage struggles in contemporary Campania exposed the connection between environmental risks and subalternity and/or social marginality, it is less obvious in the examined group. Here the divide is between city and non-city inhabitants, at a time when the gentrification of city centres enables the former, who can afford to live there, to avoid environmental problems, while dumping those issues on nearby populations62.

  • 63 Nancy Unger, “The Role of Gender in Environmental Justice”, Environmental Justice, 1, 3, 2008, p. 1 (...)
  • 64 Marco Armiero, Giacomo D’Alisa, “Rights of Resistance: The Garbage Struggles for Environmental Just (...)

43Therefore, if the Mamme No Inceneritore committee can be connected to environmental justice movements, it is because of the massive and almost hegemonic presence among its members of female activists with no former political, environmental, or feminist militancy experience63. This lack of political awareness can be easily detected in environmental justice movement narrations64. When these women become engaged in grassroots environmentalist struggles, they suddenly experience active citizenship. The socially imposed care role they assume becomes part of their militant action – it is transferred from the private to public sphere and reinvested in the struggle for environmental issues.

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Notes

1 Marco Armiero “Riprendersi la primavera. Le lotte per la giustizia ambientale nell’Italia Contemporanea, 1950-2012”, Zapruder, 30, 2013, p. 22-37.

2 Ibid., p. 24.

3 The Vajont Dam is a disused dam. It was built in 1959 in the Vajont River valley under Monte Toc, in the municipality of Erto e Casso, 100 km north of Venice, Italy. On 9 October 1963, during the initial filling, a massive landslide caused a man-made tsunami in the lake: 50 millions m3 of water overtopped the dam in a wave 250 metres high. This led to the complete destruction of several villages and towns, and to 1 910 deaths. For further reading, see Tina Merlin, Sulla pelle viva. Come si costruisce una catastrofe – Il caso del Vajont, Milan, La Pietra, 1983.

4 Unless otherwise indicated, all translations from Italian are mine.

5 It is worth emphasising the two works that helped provide a historical frame to the Italian environmental movement: Edgar Helmut Meyer, I pionieri dell’ambiente. L’avventura del movimento ecologista italiano. Cento anni di storia, Milan, Carabà Edizioni, 1995; Luigi Piccioni, Il volto amato della Patria. Il primo movimento per la protezione della natura in Italia, 1880-1934, Camerino, Università degli Studi, 1999. The history of Italian environmental movements can obviously be written using other sources. I want to emphasize the general absence of institutional archives left by environmentalist movements, which would have provided a deeper insight.

6 Piccioni, Il volto amato della Patria, op. cit., p. 41.

7 Joan Martínez Alier, Ecologia dei poveri. La lotta per la giustizia ambientale, (trans. Marco Armiero), Milan, Jaca Book, 2009, p. 10-22. I consider the concept of “wilderness” unsuitable to the mentioned case. One must take into account the profound differences between the immense wild spaces of the North American continent and the long history of high anthropization experienced by the Italian territory.

8 Meyer, I pionieri dell’ambiente, op. cit., p. 26.

9 Contrary to other European and North American countries, environmental protection in Italy was initially pursued by natural scientists. The aesthetical drive towards Nature, so typical of “Northern” Romanticism, remained marginal in the peninsula.

10 ISTAT (Istituto Nazionale di Statistica: Italian National Institute of Statistics) did not provide gender classified data for national graduates until 1901. The first record was given for 1901-1910, with an overall aggregated 822 female graduates in all academic areas, on a total of 26 301. ISTAT, Sommario di statistiche storiche dell'Italia 1861-1965, Rome, Istituto Poligrafico IEM, 1968. See also Paola Govoni, “Donne in un mondo senza donne. Le studentesse delle facoltà scientifiche in Italia”, Quaderni storici, 44, 2009, p. 213-247.

11 Alberto Silvestri, I verdi alla ribalta, Castrocaro Terme, Tip. Zauli, 1986, p. 15-22. Urban demolitions in the Fascist era are covered by Antonio Cederna, I vandali in casa, Bari, Laterza, 1956.

12 This Fascist initiative was simply aimed at propaganda. Furthermore, it wanted to protect the uncontaminated land that was far from inhabited areas, where the exploitation of the soil was not necessary or difficult. For further reading, I recommend the issue of Modern Italy, “Fascism and Nature”, 19, 3, August 2014, and particularly: Wilko Graf von Hardenberg, “A nation’s parks: failure and success in Fascist nature conservation”, p. 275-285.

13 The Val Lagarina case is portraited in Giovanni De Luigi, Edgar Helmut Meyer, Andrea Saba, “Nasce una coscienza ambientale? La Società italiana dell’alluminio e l’inquinamento della Val Lagarina (1928-1938)”, Società e Storia, 67, 1995, p. 75-109.

14 In 1948, the Movimento Italiano per la Protezione della Natura (MIPN, Italian Movement for Nature Protection) was founded, and in 1955 Italia Nostra (Our Italy) was established. The Italian branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) opened in 1966.

15 Miriam Mafai, L’apprendistato della politica. Le donne italiane nel dopoguerra, Rome, Editori Riuniti, 1979.

16 Stefania Barca, “Lavoro, corpo, ambiente: Laura Conti e le origini dell’ecologia politica in Italia”, Ricerche Storiche, 41, 3, 2011, p. 541.

17 Salvatore Adorno, Simone Neri Serneri (eds.), Industria, ambiente e territorio. Per una storia ambientale delle aree industriali in Italia, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2009.

18 Barca, “Lavoro, corpo, ambiente…”, art. cit., p. 542. See also: Roberto Della Seta, La difesa dell’ambiente in Italia, Milan, Franco Angeli, 2000; Catia Papa, “Alle origini dell’ecologia politica in Italia. Il diritto alla salute e all’ambiente nel movimento studentesco”, in Fiamma Lussana, Giacomo Marramao (eds), L’Italia Repubblicana nella crisi degli anni Settanta. Culture, nuovi soggetti, identità, Soveria Mannelli, Rubbettino Editore, 2003.

19 Chiara Certomà (ed.), Laura Conti. Alle radici dell’ecologia, Morciano di Romagna, Editoria & Ambiente, 2012.

20 Ibid., p. 88.

21 Serenella Iovino, “I racconti della diossina. Laura Conti e i corpi di Seveso”, CoSMo – Comparative Studies in Modernism, 10, 2017, p. 196.

22 Pietro Bevilacqua, La terra è finita. Breve storia dell’ambiente, Bari, Laterza, 2006, p. 179. Some investigations highlighted the hypothesis that Icmesa chemical materials were probably destined to the USA where they were then processed as the infamous Agent Orange, the herbicide used by the US Army in Vietnam. See also: Daniele Biacchessi, La fabbrica dei profumi. La verità su Seveso, l’ICMESA, la diossina, Milan, Baldini & Castoldi, 1995. However, truth has still to be disclosed on the Seveso affair. See: Laura Centemeri, Ritorno a Seveso. Il danno ambientale, il suo riconoscimento e la sua riparazione, Milan, Bruno Mondadori, 2006. Bruno Ziglioli also gives a historical reconstruction: La mina vagante. Il disastro di Seveso e la solidarietà nazionale, Milan, Franco Angeli, 2010.

23 Certomà, Laura Conti, op. cit., p. 16.

24 Seveso was a chemical industrial disaster. Italy already experienced a major accident caused by human intervention on nature – which had a huge impact on public opinion – during the previous Vajont episode on the 9 November 1963 (see footnote 2).

25 In 1976, abortion in Italy was not legal yet. It was legalized in 1978 after a strenuous struggle led in particular by the feminist movement. Therapeutic abortion was provided, but only in the case of risks for the mother. Teratogenic effects on the foetus were then not considered as risk factors for the expectant mother. For further readings on the political debate leading to the Act that made abortion legal (Legge 194/1978), see: Isabel Fanlo Cortés, “A quarant’anni dalla legge sull’aborto in Italia. Breve storia di un dibattito”, Politica del diritto, 4, 2017, p. 643-660.

26 Marcella Ferrara, Le donne di Seveso, Rome, Editori Riuniti, 1977, p. 209.

27 Bruno Ziglioli, “Seveso 1976. La diossina sul corpo delle donne”, Genesis, 12, 2, 2013, p. 99-114. The matter of the collaboration between DC and PCI, the two main political parties of Italy then, was named Compromesso storico (historical compromise). It was meant to resolve the Italian Cold War standstill which kept the PCI out of power. This encounter, which could have radically transformed the political history of the country, was opposed to the Strategia della tensione (Tension Strategy). It culminated in 1978 with the abduction and execution of the Christian Democrats’ leading figure, Aldo Moro.

28 Ziglioli, “Seveso 1976… “, art. cit., p. 101.

29 Armiero “Riprendersi la primavera…”, art. cit., p. 29; Virginio Bettini, “Ecologia di potere, ecologia di classe nel caso Icmesa”, in Barry Commoner and Virginio Bettini (eds.), Ecologia e lotte sociali. Ambiente, popolazione, inquinamento, Milan, Feltrinelli, 1976; Giorgio Nebbia, “L’ecologia è una scienza borghese?”, Lavoro politico, 1, 2001, http://lavoropolitico.it/lpnr1nebbia.html

30 The magazine Effe was created in February 1973 as a “counter-informative weekly for the female sex”. In November of the same year, it became a monthly magazine. For a decade, it would voice ideas, elaborations, researches, analyses and the struggles of the Italian feminist collectives and groups.

31 Laura Braccioli, “Seveso: veleno nell’utero”, Effe, 4, September-October 1976, p. 27-28; Yasmine Ergas, “Abortirai con orrore”, Effe, 4, September-October 1976, p. 28-30; Gruppo Femminista per la medicina della donna, “Seveso: la scelta non esiste”, Effe, 5, November-December 1976, p. 38-39.

32 Grazia Francescato, Anna Spinazzola, “Problema energia. ‘Madre terra’ non ha più risorse”, Effe, 5, November 1977, p. 34.

33 Ibid., p. 35.

34 Françoise d’Eaubonne, Le Féminisme ou la mort, Paris, Pierre Horay, 1974.

35 Grazia Francescato, “Il verde e il rosa, un intreccio vitale”, in Franca Marcomin, Laura Cima (eds.), L’ecofemminismo in Italia. Le radici di una rivoluzione necessaria, Padua, Il Poligrafo, 2017, p. 72.

36 Elisabetta Donini, “Donne, ambiente, etica delle relazioni. Prospettive femministe su economia e ecologia”, DEP Deportate, Esuli, Profughe, 20, 2012, p. 1-13. For further reading, see: Elisabetta Donini, La nube e il limite. Donne, scienza, percorsi nel tempo, Turin, Rosenberg & Sellier, 1990. According to Elisabetta Donini, the “consciousness of limit” refers to the experience of the limits of science in the face of nature.

37 So far, there is only one article on the subject: Emma Baeri, “Violenza, conflitto, disarmo: pratiche e riletture femministe”, in Anna Scattigno and Teresa Bertilotti (eds.), Il Femminismo degli anni Settanta, Rome, Viella, 2010, p. 119-168.

38 Franca Fossati, “Le donne degli anni Verdi”, Noi Donne, 12, 1986, p. 33.

39 Apart from the Italian legislative system, the country has different administrative structures. Local authorities are organized into a three-tiered (bigger to smaller) Regione-Provincia-Comune (Region-Province-City Council) system. Though numbers have changed over time, this accounts for twenty Regions, more than a hundred Provinces and almost 8000 City Councils.

40 Marcomin, Cima L’ecofemminismo, op.cit., p. 20.

41 Ibid., p. 16.

42 For further reading on the history of the Italian Feminist Movement in the 1970s, see: Fiamma Lussana, Il movimento femminista in Italia. Esperienze, storie, memorie, Rome, Carocci, 2012.

43 While completing this article, the Mamme No Inceneritore won their battle: on 24 May 2018, a final appeal against the previous ruling out by the Regional Court of Justice of the proposed plan was rejected by the Italian highest authority, the Consiglio di Stato (State Council).

44 Marco Armiero (ed.), Teresa e le altre. Storie di donne nella terra dei fuochi, Milan, Jaca Book, 2014.

45 See: Joan Martínez Alier, Ecologia dei poveri. La lotta per la giustizia ambientale, Milan, Jaca Book, 2009; Ramachandra Guha and Joan Martinez Alier, Varieties of Environmentalism. Essay North and South, London-New York, Earthscan Publications, 1997.

46 http://atlanteitaliano.cdca.it/.

47 World Health Organization, Ambient Air Pollution: A Global Assessment of Exposure and Burden of Disease, Geneva, 2016. See also European Environment Agency, Air Quality in Europe, Luxemburg, Publications Office of the European Union, 2017.

48 This committee is not affected by the NIMBY syndrome, and proposes alternatives to the incinerator, for example with the Rifiuti Zero practice (Zero Waste: http://www.zerowasteitaly.org/).

49 Patrick Novotny, Where We Live, Work and Play: The Environmental Justice Movement and the Struggle for a New Environmentalism, Westport (CN), Praeger, 2000.

50 The area to be affected by the incinerator includes a number of municipalities. In Sesto Fiorentino, the migrant population for the year 2016 consisted of 9,3 % of overall figures, 15,6 % in Florence and up to 20 % in Campi Bisenzio.

51 Franco Ferrarotti, “La città come fenomeno di classe”, in Franco Martinelli (ed.), Città e campagna: la sociologia urbana e rurale, Naples, Liguori, 1981, p. 393-400.

52 See Karen Bell, “Bread and Roses: A Gender Perspective on Environmental Justice and Public Health”, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 1, 2016, p. 1-18; Gwyn Kirk, “Ecofeminism and environmental justice: bridges across gender, race and class”, Frontier, 18, 1997, p. 2-20.

53 Celene Krauss, “Women and toxic waste protests: Race, Class and Gender as Resources of Resistance”, Qualitative Sociology, 16, 1993, p. 247-262.

54 Between September and December 2017, eight women and two men, who were the founders and most active members of the group, were interviewed. Exception for one, they were all born in the 1970s.

55 The Riflusso nel privato or Riflusso is the general political ebb experienced in Italy in a context of disillusionment after the vibrant period of commitment and militancy in the years 1968-1978. It was characterised by a widespread political and social disengagement, and the retreat into the private sphere.

56 Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva, Ecofeminism, London, Kali for Women, 1993.

57 Carolyn Merchant, Earthcare: Women and Environment, New York, Routledge, 1996.

58 Mary Mellor, Feminism and Ecologism: An Introduction, New York, New York University Press, 2000, p. 114.

59 Joni Seager, Earth Follies: Coming to Feminist Terms with the Global Environmental Crisis, New York, Routledge, 1993.

60 Mamme No Inceneritore, “Una storia di donne e anarchia”, A. Rivista Anarchica, 412, December 2016–January 2017, p. 17.

61 As a matter of fact, “class” has not been an issue in Italian public debates for decades. It is therefore difficult to give a class connotation to this kind of struggle. It is clear, however, that the economic conditions of those who live in the areas where the incinerator was planned are indeed relevant.

62 Living in the city centre in Florence (as well as in many other Italian cities) goes far beyond the economic possibilities of the middle class. As a consequence, traffic, waste disposal and other issues are to be dealt with by the suburbs and neighbouring municipalities.

63 Nancy Unger, “The Role of Gender in Environmental Justice”, Environmental Justice, 1, 3, 2008, p. 115-120.

64 Marco Armiero, Giacomo D’Alisa, “Rights of Resistance: The Garbage Struggles for Environmental Justice in Campania, Italy”, Capitalism Nature Socialism, 23, 2012, p. 52-68.

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Rachele Ledda, « Women’s presence in contemporary Italy’s environmental movements, with a case study on the Mamme No Inceneritore committee », Genre & Histoire [En ligne], 22 | Automne 2018, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2019, consulté le 17 février 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/genrehistoire/3837

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Rachele Ledda

Università degli Studi di Napoli L’Orientale. Courriel : rledda@unior.it

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