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Italy's Former Mafia Estates Become Productive Working Farms - 2002-08-12

Former Mafia estates in Sicily have started to become productive as working farms. But farmers are reinvesting all their earnings so it will take some time to gain profits from the land and properties that once belonged to feared Mafia bosses.

An Italian law approved in 1996 allows assets confiscated from the Mafia to be used for the good of society. In the first four years of the law, more than 850 pieces of property and other assets worth around $120 million were repossessed from the Mafia.

Libera Terra is a grouping of anti-Mafia associations, some of which have taken advantage of the asset confiscation law. One of these, the Tempio del Monte Iato cooperative, is farming the land that once belonged to Mafia boss Romualdo Agrigento, who is now serving a life prison sentence.

The cooperative began its work four years ago when it was assigned the land, in the area of Monreale, for an indefinite period of time. Today, a crisp white wine - their first anti-mafia product - is being made from the vineyards and sold all over Italy as well as abroad.

In addition, cherries, olives and tomatoes are being grown on the land. Honey is also being produced.

The cooperative, made up of 11 members, has more plans for the land.

"The land has all been confiscated from the mafia, 43 hectares, and on a section of 23 hectares there is also a house," said Giuseppe Randazzo, director of the cooperative. "The house will be used as a restaurant, and the cooperative plans to create the first country hotel on the lands of the Mafia."

The restaurant will be opened in September, the country hotel next year.

Mr. Randazzo also said that with their work, the cooperatives have created new jobs in areas where the levels of unemployment are notoriously high, up to 20 percent.

"Thirty to 40 people will be working on the cooperative's land, adding that efforts are made to employ local people," he said. "We are making these lands productive."

Another cooperative, Placido Rizzotto, has similar plans. Made up of 10 members, it was assigned 180 hectares of land confiscated from the mafia in December of last year. Wheat, melon and grapes are being grown on the land that belonged to a number of mafia bosses including the boss of bosses, Toto Riina, who was arrested in 1993.

The wheat recently harvested on the land will be turned into hand-made pasta in the nearby town of Corleone and sold under the Libera brand name. Gianluca Faraone, who runs this cooperative, says he has even had requests for the pasta from abroad.

He said his cooperative plans to convert several buildings on the land into a winery, agricultural center and country hotel. The cooperative's members are trained in various disciplines, he said, to be able to manage a wide-ranging business operation.

"Their experience is varied," Mr. Faraone said. "Some are experts in agriculture, others in finance to deal with administrative aspects and the sales of the products, as well as the management of the cooperative."

But it has not been easy for either group to work lands that were once the property of the Mafia. In the early stages, some workers were afraid to turn up for their jobs. A wooded area on the land managed by Mr. Randazzo's cooperative was burned. On the land managed by Mr. Faraone's cooperative, the machine needed to harvest the wheat failed to arrive.

Despite the difficulties, the efforts made by the people working these lands are slowly being rewarded. And Gianluca Faraone says the government has done the right thing entrusting former Mafia lands to cooperatives that want to make an honest living.

"Money accumulated by leaders of organized crime damaged the people as a whole," he said. "Individuals who were in the way of organized crime and the Mafia paid with their lives. It is important, that the people be compensated for this damage."

Giuseppe Randazzo agreed.

"We are giving young people an example, in the hope that they will understand the positive and honest side of what we're doing," he said. "We are giving an example because not all of Sicily is Mafia. There are also honest people."