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On Seized Mafia Land, a Harvest of Good Food

Agriculturalists in Sicily have formed co-ops and taken over fields once held by gangsters. They see their niche produce as an anti-crime effort.

August 05, 2004|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

SAN GIUSEPPE JATO, Italy — Antonio Castro, a young agronomist with mud on his boots and sun in his skin, says he can't let himself think too much about the previous owners of the land he farms: Sicily's most ruthless Mafia bosses.

If he spent time worrying that the owners might get out of jail and return to kill him, he wouldn't be able to get his work done.

But after dark, when he settles in for the night at the newly renovated stone villa (and future bed and breakfast) that was seized from convicted gangland murderer Giovanni "The Butcher" Brusca, Castro is not alone.

"I say I'm not afraid," he said, "but I sleep with three dogs and a gun."

Castro and his agricultural co-op are part of a consortium that is farming thousands of acres of Sicilian land confiscated from Mafiosi and then marketing the fruits of its harvest -- pasta, vegetables, wine, olive oil -- under a label that proudly declares the products' crime-fighting provenance.

The seizure of Mafia assets has long been an important weapon in Italian authorities' arsenal, but only in the last couple of years has legislation allowed the transfer of property to groups such as Castro's.

It's not a big business yet, but the Libera consortium, the umbrella of 800 anti-Mafia organizations, including Castro's co-op, says the project is attracting notice from followers of the Slow Food movement and similar boutique foodies. Libera products can be found on the shelves of one of Italy's major supermarket chains.

More important is the symbolism: Turning the land against its onetime owners shows the possibility of breaking the Cosa Nostra's hold on at least one aspect of its considerable economic power, advocates say. The act is both redemptive and cathartic, bringing life and bounty from a land stalked by gruesome death and terror.

Castro's co-op -- named after Placido Rizotto, a union activist killed in 1948, presumably by gangsters -- is housed, appropriately, in the police station of this small town about 15 miles southwest of Palermo. The co-op chalked up about half a million dollars in sales last year, when it produced more than two tons of pasta; so far this year, it has corked 13,000 bottles of white wine.

When they started out, Castro and his fellow agronomists met resistance and chilly stares from residents of the Sicilian towns that were once the dominion of assorted dons. It was difficult to recruit workers for the land, Castro recalled. But now laborers seek him out, he said.

Castro, 31, studied in Florence but was always intent on returning to his native Sicily. He hated the fact that, everywhere he went, his home's name was associated with the Mafia.

These days, he traverses the island's sharp, golden valleys and lush green hilltops in a beat-up blue Fiat Uno, clocking more than 2,000 miles some months.

Down one rutted dirt road, in a sun-parched 15-acre field just outside the town of Corleone, Castro and his hired hands are grafting sprigs of the well-regarded Nero d'Avola red grape to vines that have gone unworked for two years. (The combination makes a more resistant, higher-quality grape, Castro explained.) This patch belonged to a nephew of Salvatore "The Beast" Riina, notorious "boss of bosses" for years until his arrest in 1993.

One of the farmhands said he was not afraid to till such blood-steeped soil, though he would give only his first name, Antonio, and Castro later confided the man's nephew quit out of fear.

"We are here to sweat," said Antonio, 54, pausing to chat and leaning on his hoe. "If we don't work it, someone else will."

A few miles away, the co-op is raising grain, lentils and chickpeas on a 150-acre farm confiscated from Riina. Durum wheat is milled into semolina and hauled to a pasta maker in Corleone, the town made famous by author Mario Puzo in "The Godfather."

At the shop's entryway, a poster painted by schoolchildren takes up the Libera spirit: "Where there were bad plants from the Mafia, now there are grains of freedom. Free pasta for free people."

Corleone and seven other towns in the area have agreed to participate in the land-confiscation project and help the agricultural co-ops with equipment, housing and verbal support, no small thing in this still-suspicious region.

Up the road, the stone villa that once belonged to Brusca sits above a breathtaking valley covered in yellow and lavender wildflowers and freshly planted cherry and plum trees. Cows can be heard mooing in the distance, as hawks fly overhead. The initials of the Brusca family still hang in wrought iron above the heavy wooden door of the main house.

With about a quarter of a million dollars from the European Union, Castro and his co-op have renovated part of the building and installed a restaurant, though they are awaiting permits to open it to the public. With more refurbishing, they plan a bed and breakfast.

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