Saturday, May 30, 2009

local Politics:Left, Right and Wrong- Part 1

We are currently in the midst of a local election campaign to see who will run the municipal government of Baschi, a comune of about 3000 residents spread over a large area of mountains, forests and hilly farmland. Our “mountain zone”, about 24 km from the main town of Baschi, contains three villages of 200 or so, plus two smaller villages, all within a radius of about four or five kilometers.. The center left and center right coalitions will compete and the center left will probably prevail, as they traditionally have for decades. There’s little ideology involved. Everyone wants better roads, more tourism, school improvements, better lighting, etc., and the Comune struggles to do its best with limited resources. They’ve done a pretty good job considering the difficulties.

However, one proposal of the ruling coalition is controversial. More than controversial, it’s just flat wrong. The zoning map calls for a new “artisan zone” down the hill from Collelungo, on the road to Todi. In the winter landscape at the top of this page, the two villages of Collelungo and Morre sit atop the hills, and the proposed industrial site is the light green area to the right of the big tree.

Some 15 years ago, a similar proposal for an industrial zone on this site was heroically fought by the late Nino Cordio, an artist who lived next door to the site. He took the fight through the Department of the Environment and the high courts, with the industrial zone eventually being declared unconstitutional, as I recall, because it had been conceived for the exclusive benefit of one family. This family has a saw mill in Collelungo and wanted to expand down the hill where the trailer trucks bringing large logs would not have to navigate the extremely steep and winding road up to the village. The owners subsequently opened a new mill in a flat industrial zone some 25 km to the south.

What brought on the new assault on the environment I don’t really know. Some cynics say that the mill owners still want to expand locally and they have “invested” a lot of money in approvals and demand payback. My own understanding is that EU rules reward local government with subsidies for establishing industrial zones, and the Comune doesn’t want to lose the money. However, the official line is that there is a need to stimulate the creation of local jobs, and that tourism is not enough. This is short-sighted nonsense!

First of all, the beauty of Umbria resides in the fact that its medieval villages are compact and surrounded by lush countryside. Towns, villages and cities are by definition, places of human life and activity. They need new activity at times and workshops would be welcome additions, but not at the cost of despoiling the surrounding countryside. This region was abandoned en masse by its tenant farmers after their post-WWII liberation. Starting in the 70’s the empty farmhouses were bought and renovated by writers and artists from Rome, later joined by an influx of foreigners, all attracted by the quiet unspoiled beauty of the place. The local people who remain derive most of their income from providing services to the outsiders. Many are builders who do their renovations and additions, others clean their houses, tend their gardens and pick their olives. There is also tourism, given that many houses are rented, and restaurants, staffed by locals, are mostly supported by outsiders.

Local natives may hope their children can find work near home but when they send them off to a university, their aspirations are not to see these sons and daughters return to work in some mechanic’s shop in the woods. There’s a huge demand for electricians, plumbers and construction workers here but few local youth seem to be interested in these trades. Construction firms resort to getting workers from Eastern Europe and North Africa. I’m told that a few local businesses do hire trainees at a minimum wage and get government subsidies for doing so. When the training period ends, so does the work, until the process can be started again. There’s little protest, as the workers are typically foreigners and come and go like migrant birds. More can always be recruited.

When I mentioned the dubious nature of the hoped-for jobs to some aspirants to the Town Council the other evening, they said, oh, but there could be good jobs such as web site designers. Wonderful! Such activities are carried out now in nearby Todi and could easily be accommodated in any of the local villages. They don’t require a shack in the woods! Most of our roads are hilly, narrow, curvy, and full of potholes, which the Comune struggles in vain to fill. The last thing we need is a growing flotilla of oversized trailer trucks to service new industries of questionable viability.

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