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Italy claims land back from the Mafia

A volunteer works in a Libera Terra field in Canicatti, Sicily.

TEXT OF STORY

Bob Moon: 10 years ago, people in the southern Italian region of Sicily wouldn't dare talk publicly about the Mafia. Today, they're making the mob an offer it can't refuse -- they're taking over its land.

From Palermo, Megan Williams has been taking a look into a Mafia-busting movement known as "Libera Terra."


Megan Williams: The last time this store in downtown Palermo was in business, it sold clothing... and laundered money. This time round, it's as clean as it gets.

The mafia boss who once owned the shop is now in prison and for the first time in Italy, a Libera Terra business co-op is moving in.

Libera Terra literally means "liberated land." It refers to a range of organic products produced by co-ops on land that once belonged to the mafia, land the Italian government now confiscates and hands over to clean businesses.

Organizer Umberto Di Maggio calls the new store opening a kind of moon landing for the anti-mafia movement.

Umberto Di Maggio: It's a beautiful day because the state has taken away from the mafia a store that it illegally obtained and in it, products from honest, hard-working Sicilians will now be sold.

Those products come from the 30 farm co-ops and businesses in southern Italy, land that in Sicily alone now employs up to 150 young people.

Everything from the olive oil to the wine is named after anti-mafia heroes. Di Maggio says at first, fear of the mafia made it tough to hire even unemployed locals to help out with the grape harvest.

Di Maggio: But then, people began to hear that we hired people legally, that we paid benefits and insurance, that we paid minimum wage. Mafia businesses pay about half the minimum wage, so people began asking us for work. A wonderful slap in the face at the mafia.

Almost 8,000 properties have been seized in the last decade or so, but half are still waiting to be assigned to local governments, who then hand them over to co-ops or community groups. This store in Palermo, for instance, was empty for 14 years before today's opening.

Antonio Maruccia is the government coordinator for mafia property confiscated by the Italian state.

Antonio Maruccia: This is partly because the mafia undermines the process with legal challenges and intimidation, but it's also because Italy has so many conflicting laws.

A half-hour drive south of Palermo, a stone farmhouse sits on a stunning stretch of hilly land. Cows graze and bright crimson poppies dot the fields. Italian authorities seized the property from the Brusca mafia clan two decades ago. Only recently was it was handed over to one of the Libera Terra co-ops, who converted it into a charming bed and breakfast with a riding stable.

Salvatore Gibino gives me a tour of a nearby orchard where olives and pear trees and grape vines grow.

Salvatore Gibino: We are in San Civirello and we are in the confiscated lands.

Gibino greets 40-year-old Salvo Daidone, who cuts the grass under some olive trees. The men joke about how just a decade ago, neither would have had the courage to work for an anti-mafia co-op, let alone do an interview about the mafia.

Still, Daidone's frustrated at the pace of change. He points to a distance hill that the state seized from the mafia four years ago that's just been sitting there.

Salvo Daidone: The state could be doing a lot more to speed things up and keep the land in use.

When the land sits fallow, he says, some locals complain that at least when the mafia owned it, it got harvested.

But Gibino says the mentality is changing, especially among young Sicilians, that with groups like Libera Terra, it's no longer fear that's contagious, but courage.

Near Palermo, Sicily, I'm Megan Williams for Marketplace.

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