Commoning as a possible strategy to drive off the Mafia?

In this blog, Marco Armiero, Filippo Gravagno, Giusy Pappalardo and Alessia Denise Ferrara, whose paper ‘The Nature of Mafia: An Environmental History of the Simeto River Basin’ has just been published online first in Environment and History (1 Jan. 2019) discuss how the Mafia plays a role in the exploitation of the commons and how the practice of ‘commoning’ (i.e. the making of commons) can be an antidote to such exploitation. The Simeto River in Eastern Sicily is presented as a case of a landscape whose ecologies have been historically intertwined with the Mafia and where the re-activation of a ‘commoning strategy’ may open some windows of opportunity to drive off the control of the Mafia over the territory.


A glimpse of the Simeto River, Eastern Sicily. Source: authors’ archive.

Can we write an environmental history of the Mafia? Is it possible to uncover the Mafia’s political ecologies? Or, looking at it another way, can we actually write an environmental history of Sicily without including the agency of the Mafia? We have decided to answer these questions through looking at a specific river and the intricacies of Mafia’s interests and communities’ ecologies. Such a research project could not be anything but interdisciplinary. Indeed, our team brings together an environmental historian and environmental planners. We agreed on the fact that the Mafia produces particular socionatural formations through an inextricable hybrid of ecological and social facts (or socionatures as in Harvey, 1996). From our very first conversations, we knew that the cooperation between our disciplines could lead to a better understanding of such dynamics, from a historical as well as from a planning standpoint. Born and raised in the Italian South, we have experienced directly how the Mafia has deeply penetrated ecologies, entering into landscapes, becoming rivers and cities, sedimenting its traces into the bodies of humans and non-humans. We have witnessed how the Mafia generates ecologies made of sand that becomes concrete, of empty pipelines and water for sale, of touristic resorts on the seashore and wild construction in the urban outskirts, of sheep and contaminated pastures, of faraway cocaine plantations and local drug marketplaces.

The Simeto river mouth landscape. Source: authors’ archive.

We decided to explore deeply how the Mafia has expropriated and exploited ‘natural’ resources for its purposes, from when it appeared in Eastern Sicily (in the 1950s) to today, studying the environmental history of the Simeto River as a ‘litmus paper’ for understanding such exploitation. We discovered the Mafia’s strong ability to adapt in relation to societal transformations and, above all, one crucial feature of Mafia socionatures: the attack against commons, i.e. the attempt to subdue the (re)productive properties of human and more-than-human communities to Mafia economic interests. With the word ‘commons’, we not only intend the physical conformation of a basket of resources, or Common Pool of Resources (CPRs) as in Ostrom (1990); rivers themselves can be framed as commons (Hooper, 2005) and the definition can be extended to a broader domain. The Italian jurist Rodotà (2013) considers commons all those material and immaterial ‘primary goods that are necessary in order to guarantee fundamental rights for citizens, to be used and managed as collective’. Italian geographer Magnaghi (2012) has proposed the concept of ‘territorial commons’, defining them as ‘collective intergenerational products different from the natural commons because they are created by the very interaction between humans and the environment’.

With that in mind, we argue that the Mafia destroys commons ecologies in pursuit of its own interests. We have observed this mechanism along the banks of the Simeto River. As a matter of fact, in less than a century, the basin has been transformed into a ‘territory of Mafia’, wherein the commons have been eroded in order to create a mafio-genic landscape – that is, a landscape the Mafia both produces and employs for its own reproduction, the Mafia being deeply rooted in the social milieu whence it arises.

Concrete infrastructure along the Simeto River. Source: authors’ archive

In a nutshell, the Mafia’s transformation of the Simeto River started in 1950s with the regimentation of the water following the dramatic flood of 1951. In the next forty years, the Simeto River was heavily re-engineered, attracting the interest of the Mafia and entrepreneurs linked with it. In addition to the construction of inefficient water infrastructures, between 1970s and 1990s, the Mafia invested heavily in the business of ‘second homes’ for vacationing, which led to the construction of about 7,000 illegal buildings in the Simeto River mouth area. Then, in the late 1990s, when the business of illegal construction declined due to the economic crisis, the Mafia shifted towards other sectors, including the management and disposal of waste. Again the Simeto Valley, in fact a Special Area of Conservation located in the valley, was targeted to host one of the four waste-to-energy facilities planned by the regional government. But the communities living in the area formed a vibrant ‘Coalition of grassroots groups for the Simeto River’ to oppose the construction of the incinerator and more generally the regional plan on waste management. In 2005, an official report highlighted procedural anomalies in the planning process, with a Mafia-related enterprise temporarily included. Connections have also been highlighted between the waste-to-energy facility in Paterno and another facility nearby, in the Municipality of Adrano, where a brick factory was about to introduce hazardous waste in the production cycle. Both projects were halted between 2007 and 2008 and the regional Waste Plan was officially rebutted in 2010.

The Coalition of grassroots groups for the Simeto River marching in Adrano, 7 January 2007. Source: authors’ archive.

While the story of the construction of a mafio-genic landscape in the Simeto Valley confirms the incompatibility of the Mafia with commons (through the privatisation of water, the enclosure of the seashore and the attempt to impose a sacrifice zone), the coalition against the incinerator is a refreshing example of the resisting possibilities that commons ecologies may generate. In this specific case, not only did the actors involved in the anti-incinerator movement articulate their mobilisation in terms of commons – framing both the river valley and public health as commons – but that experience was also pivotal for the creation of the Simeto River Agreement, an experiment aiming for innovative democratic institutions toward the re-activation of a ‘commoning strategy’. In terms of Mafia penetration, the Simeto River Agreement has turned out to be a quite efficient filter in the management of the watershed, therefore confirming the positive effects of commoning experiences.

In such initiatives, we think there are seeds of hope for driving off the control of the Mafia over the territory. We therefore commit ourselves to keep investigating and supporting the defence of existing commons, as well as experimentation with commoning practices and strategies such as the Simeto River Agreement. We know that there are even more seeds to be planted on a fertile ground.

A public meeting for the creation of the Simeto River Agreement, held in Paterno, 27 September 2013. Source: authors’ archive.



Harvey, D. (1996). Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference. Malden, MA and Oxford, UK: Blackwell

Hooper, B. (2005). Integrated River Basin Governance. Learning from International Experiences. London: Iwa

Magnaghi, A. (2016). ‘Mettere in Comune il Patrimonio Territoriale: dalla Partecipazione all’Autogoverno’, in Commons/Comune: Geografie, Luoghi, Spazi, Città. Firenze: Società di Studi Geografici, p. 25.

Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing The Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press

Rodotà, S. (2013). Il Terribile Diritto: Studi sulla Proprietà Privata e i Beni Comuni. Bologna: Il Mulino, p. 461.


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