The Natural Border

I am happy to announce the publication of my new monograph The Natural Border: Bounding Migrant Farmwork in the Black Mediterranean, with Cornell University Press.

Feel free to write me to obtain a 30% discount and/or ask any further information related to book promotion activities and planned events.

The book tells the recent history of Mediterranean rural capitalism from the perspective of marginalized Black African farm workers. In the book, I show how in the context of global supply chains and repressive border regimes, agrarian production and reproduction are based on fundamental racial hierarchies.

Taking the example of the tomato—a typical ‘Made in Italy’ commodity— I ask myself asks how political boundaries are drawn around the land and the labor needed for its production, what technologies of exclusion and inclusion enable capitalist operations to take place in the Mediterranean agrarian frontier, and which practices structure the allocation, use and commodification of land and labor across the tomato chain. While the mobile infrastructures that mobilize, channel, commodify and segregate labor play a central role in the ‘naturalization’ of racial segregation, they are also terrains of contestation and power—and thus, as The Natural Border demonstrates, reflect the tense socio-ecological transformation the Mediterranean border space is going through today.

Toxic Borders (1)

How farm workers are wrecked by a corporate food regime in South Italy’s migrant ghettos

This post is the somewhat longer version of a blog contribution I posted on Border Criminologies, as part a collaboration with the journal Geopolitics to promote open access platforms. The research presented here forms part of a monograph published with Cornell University Press and titled The Natural Border: Bounding Migrant Farmwork in the Black Mediterranean.

Caporalato Capital

On a particularly hot day of August 2018, I met Idrissa*. I was talking to one of my acquaintances in the ghetto of Borgo San Nicola*, a run down and abandoned ruin in the middle of the fields of Basilicata, South Italy. Idrissa, who was visibly inebriated, asked me for money to buy him a drink. I asked him to wait. I had met Idrissa a few times before: a young man from Burkina Faso, he lived in a ramshackle room on a farm in the vicinity of the ghetto. Since a couple of years, he had been working as a day labourer on South Italy’s food farms, picking tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables under the boiling sun. My acquaintance, who had come from Burkina Faso to Italy ten years earlier, asked Idrissa if he had finally decided to accept the work, he had offered him: a day of picking tomatoes in neighbouring field. Idrissa shrugged, standing aloof for a moment in the sun. Then, he answered: “my fate is in the hands of God.” Severely, my acquaintance responded: “your fate may be in the hands of God, but K. does not live in heaven, you know” – after which he left and drove off in his second-hand car. 

In Italy, there are tens of thousands of young men like Idrissa. They represent what the labour unions call Italy’s vulnerable agricultural labour force: subject to severe labour exploitation, and marginalized socially and spatially, their number has risen exponentially over the past twenty years. According to FLAI-CGIL, around 180.000 of the plus-minus 400.000 ‘foreign’ (without Italian nationality) workers in this sector meet these criteria of vulnerability and marginality; around 40 percent being refugees and asylum seekers – mostly young men from South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. These numbers by far exceed the formal hires the Italian government permits through its so-called ‘Flow Decrees’ (Decreti Flussi), in 2023 around 83.000, 44.000 of which concern so-called seasonal labour. Instead, agri-food workers are typically recruited through all kinds of mediating infrastructures that sustain the operations of contemporary supply chain agri-food capitalism: illegal gangmasters (in Italian caporali), ‘cooperatives of convenience’, and, in a growing number of cases, migrant reception centres. In Idrissa’s case, the piecemeal work was offered to him through a tight hierarchy made up of K., a Burkinabè intermediary (commonly called capo nero) and their Italian superior (caporale). 

ghetto of Boreano II – before the eviction (google earth scan)

Yet while the illegal gangmasters are often fetishized in the media and in decision-making circles as the main culprits of labour exploitation in agri-food chains, my recent research with Domenico Perrotta shows the functionality of this infrastructure as a grey space that sustains and reproduces inequalities in agri-food labour markets. Furthermore, the persistence of caporalato capitalism goes paired with a concentration of capital in what Philip McMichael calls the ‘corporate food regime’ (even if the discussion remains open on the terminology).

In Europe, for example, scholars have noted a growing monopolization of food production, distribution and marketization by a few powerful players who tend to dominate the entire value chain of agri-food business. As dominant players in global food markets today, supermarket retailers typically avoid direct involvement in production. Instead, they prefer to specialise in controlling marketing and supply chains through quality standards, branding and logistics while they outsource production towards smallholder farmers who are able to diversify risks and subject their production to the conditions imposed by their clients. This has led to a steep dispossession from below: the growing concentration of farm property in the hands of private smallholders whose production is tied exclusively to the retailers’ supply chains. Recent global crises – of the Sars-CoV-2 or Covid-19 virus and the war in Ukraine in particular – have made this tendency even more visible: research by the via Campesina network, by Oxfam and by UNITE conform this tendency of land property concentration: compared to 15 million firms in 2003, only 9.1 million companies currently farm 157 million hectares of land, equivalent to 38 percent of agricultural land in the region (according to Eurostat 2020 data). Italy is a typical case of such dispossession: between 1990 and 2022, the total agricultural surface (superficie agricola totale: SAT) per agricultural firm has expanded from 7.6 hectares to 14.5 hectares, while in during 1982-2022, the number of agricultural enterprises has dropped from 3 to little more than 1 million.

Boreano II – after the eviction (google earth scan)

After having commodified the land as a resource for capital’s gain and exploiting it with ever-more insidious techniques of fertilization, seed and crop modification, global agri-food corporations are now intoxicating the planet even further through their deliberate precarization of human labour. During the pandemic, the question arose why agri-food production is not being automated more than it is today. While governments around the globe proceeded with the closure of territorial borders to prevent the corona virus from spreading and negatively affecting national economies, we all witnessed the importance of precarious migrant labour to keep agribusiness going. In Thailand, thousands of migrants from neighbouring Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos returned home at the height of the rice growing season, leaving the country’s large monocultures unattended. Australian horticulture industries saw their labour force evaporate due to Covid visa restriction. Fearing a shortage of 80.000 workers, the British farmers’ Association launched an appeal to constitute a Land Army. To support agricultural production, European agri-businesses were actively trying to recruit students and pensioners to replace the foreign labourers from Eastern Europe. Speaking of a shortage of 200.000 workers, the Italian association Confagricoltura demanded the establishment of “green corridors” to facilitate workers’ mobility. Agribusiness’ calls for assistance ultimately prompted the European Commission to include agricultural workers in the category of “indispensable workers” within its Guidelines issued on 30 March 2020.

Despite these measures, however, the vulnerability of agri-food workers continued to rise during the pandemic, As I discuss in my monograph The Natural Border, to the extent that several medical and socio-judicial organizations denounced the lack of interest in the health of seasonal workers from the part of European governments. In Italy, MEDU and MSF criticized the government’s lack of interest in the health of seasonal workers. In Germany and Italy, meat processing factories and industrial slaughterhouses became prime places of contagion because of the close proximity of migrant workers and lack of protection measures. Yet, while these contagions highlighted the vulnerability of the corporate food regime as well as our global capacities to guarantee access to food in a time of viral crisis, this narrative does not emphasize enough the toxic labour regime that channels and captures workers’ lives: in order to keep workers tied to the land and to their precarious labour conditions, agribusiness increasingly depends on the spread of toxic borders. 

My article for Geopolitics shows two complementary dynamics in this context. One of these concerns the territorial stratification of the agricultural workforce. In the context of agri-business, I note how, by this time, the political technique of territorial residency (in short: of residence papers) has become a deliberate instrument of labour disciplining and control, more concretely, to territorially stratify and carve up the labour force. This stratification often assumes a racialized gender dimension. In the context I have studied, which is the South of Italy (but for a wider, comparative perspective I refer to the project I coordinated during 2015-2018), I see two interrelated trends. 

Stratified Borders

On the one hand, migrant workers are forced to internalize the effects of their geographic segregation. In short: while agri-businesses actively exploit their labour, state governments deny workers their fundamental rights to health, to unemployment and social benefits. Concretely this means that non-EU workers (so, workers who do not have a European nationality but still make up the majority of the active labour force in this sector) are increasingly trapped between their need to have territorial residence papers renewed and the impossibility to do so outside the channels imposed by corporate capital. In Italy, informal migrant workers (including asylum seekers and refugees) who want to regularize their status as workers are obliged to demand their residence papers through their employers. This is also the main reason why a majority of working refugees in agriculture has preferred not to choose this bureaucratic trajectory (during the last round in 2021-22, only 15.000 regularization demands were filed by farm workers).

The impossibility to acquire a resident status outside of the overburdened asylum system de facto places such refugee workers in a state of legal limbo. Migrant workers who are neither refugee or asylum seekers, but who do want their residence renewed, however, need to show a formal employment contract to do so. This feudal system – in which not free labourers but the employers indirectly determine who has a right to residency and who has not – notoriously binds the workers not just to the land but also, and increasingly, to the hand that exploits them. It is quite significant that for refugees and asylum seekers, who – as I said – constitute a growing labour reserve in Italian agri-food firms, residence papers have acquired the status of yet another racket to deal with for these workers, besides the restrained access to housing and to employment, according to a first nation-wide enquiry approved by the Italian Labour Ministry.

border waste I

At the very minimum, these data destabilize the predominant narrative around the relation between economic and political migration: as I show in my monograph, asylum seekers and refugees are frequently forced to become economic migrants out of a sheer lack of alternatives to make a living in their new ‘host’ society. The exponential denial of asylum renewal by the Italian Interior Ministry during the past half decade (from 60 to 80 percent in 2016-2018) seems to consolidate the trend, indicated by Dines and Rigo, of the refugeeization of farm labour – a term which is meant to highlight not only a numeric shift in the composition of the agricultural work force, as I indicated earlier, but also, ad maybe even more importantly, the radically conflicting grounds upon which the stratification of labour is constructed in the context of neoliberal market reforms. Speaking more widely, this trend calls us back to observation, made by Cedric Robinson and other Black Marxists in the 1980s, that capitalism is very well capable of coexisting and articulating itself alongside other modes of production Despite many crucial differences between now and then – the replacement of slavery with other forms of unfreedom being one of them – race often remains a key factor of differentiation between worthy and unworthy lives in the contemporary after-lives of early modern plantations. 

On the other hand, in fact, I notice both a systematic externalization of the cost of labour reproduction towards workers who remain racially segregated as a consequence of the tightening grip of agribusiness on agricultural labour. In an economy that is still largely sustained by small-to-medium family enterprises, at least in Italy, famers households typically enjoy the benefits of social welfare through their formal, perennial employment. But, as my study shows, this comes at a high price for non-family members employed in the enterprise. Migrant workers instead continue to pay for their own reproduction through the expansion (both economically and geographically) of an informal economy that serves to cover the needs that are not taken care of – nor by capital nor by the state. 

border waste II

An emblematic illustration of this dynamic is the spread of the ghetto – a designation Sub-Saharan African workers use to define their temporary labour camps, constructed with makeshift materials, and usually far removed from the infrastructures of modern urbanity. In the Mediterranean context, such sites are often invoked as an extreme form of social marginality, if not as hotbeds of organized criminality. Because of their exponential growth (the Labour Ministry report estimates their number around 150, hosting around 10.000 informal migrant workers), during the past decade, such ghettos have increasingly become a thorn in the eye of public administrations who, with varying success, have started to eradicate and evict them. The solution state governments offer is a merely logistical one: in order to host agri-food’s temporary labour force, planning efforts have concentrated on the construction of tent and container camps managed through the Red Cross, Caritas, and other emergency organizations. Despite the active use of territorial residency as an instrument of labour discipline (since 2014, following the new Housing Plan, squatters get their residence papers formally denied – and seasonal workers can only renew their residence papers when they reside in a formal labour camp), a majority of migrant workers in Italy’s agri-food zones refuses to live in state containers and prefers instead to dwell in the ghetto. This is also why many ghettos across the country are temporary only by name, since many of the goods and services that are neither offered by public administrations nor by corporate capital, are operationalized here. In the ghettos I visited, a loose hierarchy of intermediaries was responsible for organizing food and sex work, alongside the accommodation and servicing of seasonal workers; transport, electricity, and water supply all were paid by the workers themselves. 

border waste III

From here on, the lesson to be learned is pretty straightforward: even if public administrators continue to designate migrant workers ghettos as free zones situated outside the perimeters of the formal market economy (and even of modern civilization) my research shows how these are quite fundamental places that bear the cost of a labour force no-one situated within these same perimeters is willing to pay for. In that way, however, migrant ghettos continue to act indirectly as a subsidy to agri-food retailers who reap the largest profits of the food crisis we are told to be living. In my view, deconstructing the toxic narrative of this crisis – as a crisis of sustenance, and thus an emergency that requires more food to be produced, at ever greater speed and with ever expanding exceptional measures – becomes a priority not only in human but also in planetary terms. This dimension, which I call natural racialization, I will now turn to in the last section of this post.

Wasted Lives

Natural racialization refers to the process through which migrant labour infrastructures are actively ‘naturalized’ as places of Blackness that stand outside the perimeters of white, European civilization. This process involves two complementary dynamics: after having transformed the land into a resource for capital’s gain, state governments and corporate capital actively marginalize the remnant space as either a form of ‘pristine’ and ‘untouched’ ‘wildlife’ that should be cherished and protected (usually through new forms of commodification) or, on the contrary, as a devalued margin, a jungle, a dangerous place that remains impenetrable for modern civilization. In the margins of the corporate food production regime that tends to dominate the Italian countryside, migrant workers proceedingly occupy this marginal space as a kind of fugitive site: a place to recast connections in a world that is characterized by brokenenness and disruption, and a place from where to invent oneself anew in a context of constant denial and marginalization. Not by surprise, in fact, the term Jungle (broussemacquis) figure prominently in migrants’ designation of these occupied places as a kind of open frontier, where outcomes become unpredictable and the contours of new life worlds being are traced. 

At the same time, government planning efforts tend to further intoxicate migrant’s life worlds through an active politics of dispersal and destruction. In Basilicata and Puglia, where I carried out my research, five large ghettos have been evicted in the past four years by state security forces, leading to the displacement of an estimated 1500 people (on top of the 1500 calculated by MSF in its 2018 report). Strikingly, this has not led to a formalization of workers’ employment or accommodation, on the contrary: the same makeshift dwellings usually re-appear within a matter of weeks, typically at the start of the new agricultural season. This constant cycle of eviction and resettlement thus contributes to a further precarization of already detrimental conditions. Next to the acute health problems farm workers face as a result of the long working hours and unhygienic living conditions (in its 2019 report on the Calabrian plane of Goia Tauro, a global centre of orange and citrus production, the medical charity MEDU observed widespread tract inflammation, mainly related to climatic conditions and the impossibility of staying in healthy environments, followed by osteoarticular pathologies associated with carrying out particularly strenuous work, digestive pathologies, in particular esophagitis and gastritis, and skin pathologies like mycosis, allergic dermatitis, and dermatosis due to a major exposure to pesticides), migrant farm workers’ living environments are frequently exposed to hazards, like fires (which have caused several deaths), mudslides and floods (as a result of rainfall and erosion). As contemporary archaeologists Hicks and Mallet note for the Calais Jungle, the naturalization of migrant lives (intended here as second-order nature) thus tends to produce a hostile environment, which, as part of Europe’s repressive border politics, functions as a debilitating mechanism, a form of slow violence that actively deforms the characteristics of migrant’s reduced living spaces and, de facto, makes these places unliveable. 

border waste IV

Towards an Immersive Geography

Contemporary archaeology offers a potentially fertile place from where to make sense of this emerging political ecology of toxic border regimes. In collaboration with MIC|C, a small, anonymous collective whose work I describe in the Geopolitics article, I have tried to pinpoint the logic of dispersal that sustains the expansion of an ecological border regime in Italy’s agrarian landscape since 2014 – the results of which we present on this website. The result is an immersive geography of farm workers life worlds that are connected through trajectories of acute marginality and labour extraction.

Scavenging through the piles of waste of evicted ghetto settlements indeed makes one acutely aware of the violent intoxication that characterizes Europe’s current border politics in the rural margins. The scaled toxicity produced through this spatial marginalization in my view indicates a stratigraphy of power that is not highlighted enough in contemporary research on territorial borders. Paraphrasing Marco Armiero, I could say that the relationship of wasting migrant life worlds produces migrant workers as a racialized group located outside the contours of formal industrial development, while including them into the techno-stratigraphy of wasted matter that piles up at the end of a deliberate process of extraction, of the land, and of the labour that brings it into fruition. Thinking of borders through waste in my view thus has the potential to foreground wasting as a socio-ecological relationship that both creates and reproduces wasted people ad wasted places in the context of contemporary supply chain capitalism. 

border waste V

COVID19 and digital extractivism

Following up my earlier posts on COVID I’d like share a long interview (in Chinese and Italian) with Zheng Ningyuan on the website sconessione precarie, a web platform of precarious workers based in Italy. Ningyuan is a Chinese artist and co-founded founder of the WUXU group. During the current crisis he founded the 4xDecameron project to share reflections and thoughts on the quarantine between Italy and China.

Ningyuan’s interview offers a spectrum of how COVID may transform people’s lives fundamentally in the shadow of currently adopted containment measures. One important aspect concerns what Biao Xiang, in another article, calls the deep transformations to our current “mobility economy“. In line with previous observations about the rising oligopoly of retail businesses and the current global re-dimensioning of commodity trade (particularly of food products), Ningyuan reveals a few rarely highlighted aspects of the Chinese crisis response. Rising difficulties in the food supply chain during the lockdown have inspired the Chinese government to stimulate digitalised buying platforms like (Alipay) e Tencent (WeChatpay), for example. On the one hand, such online distribution has compensated the perceived inefficiency of physical retail shops and centralised logistics. But it also generates an acceleration of control mechanisms over people’s everyday mobilities through increased web surveillance. Finally, it leaves millions of non-resident citizens such as informal migrant workers and homeless people, literally, off the grid. During this current epidemic, for example, the Chinese government has strengthened the so-called “health code (健康 码)” system in order to monitor the biological status of individual citizens in order to avoid possible threats to public health. This system can directly limit our very sense of being mobile, Ningyuan concludes, because it further blurs the boundary of who and what is determined a risk to the preservation of biological life as an object of government intervention.

One of the major challenges ahead is exactly to foresee how the biological governance of post-COVID life will further enhance this digital extractivism of our everyday mobilities – in which China is observed to be prime developer and commercial leader. In line with Ningyuan’s interview, Biao Xiang writes how the COVID-19 epidemic and the subsequent responses are particularly impactful because they abruptly halt what we may call a “mobility economy” -while also transforming it in different ways. Comparing the Chinese government reaction to the 2003 Sars crisis and the current COVID epidemic, he concludes that that the control of mobility is no longer specific to controlling the chain-like mobility of rural-urban migrants and the way they are presumed a risk to society. Today, the government is consolidating what Xiang calls a serious of grid reactions: residential communities, districts, cities and even entire provinces act as grids to impose blanket surveillance over all the residents, minimise mobilities, and enforce isolation. Such reactions are following a trend of proliferating labour mobilities, whereby people are constantly moving between homes and jobs -a situation that is pushing this differentiation, rhyzomatic government response. Several autocratic governments are already experimenting with social network technologies today to control mobility in the post-COVID phase. it remains an open question how these technologies will also include the “off the grid” informal workers and non-residents who remain or do not remain valued as key assets to maintain current levels of welfare.

Sars-CoV-2 and (mobile) food (producers): who cares?

One of the interesting – and worrying – dimensions of the corona (officially COVID-19, or Sars-CoV-2) containment measures has been their reliance on food retailers. Despite all the social distance measures and mobility restrictions nation states are now imposing across the world, people still need food. And retailers have been crucial, sometimes even the only legitimate resorts to get it. But is anyone asking which consequences this generates for those who are producing it? In this post I am asking what is happening to agricultural labour at a time of corona crisis across the Mediterranean, which for some time now has gained the status as one of the most important provider of fresh food to European markets.

In Italy, the corona crisis is producing significant effects not only on retail businesses, but also on agricultural labour. In 2018, for instance, the federation of food producers estimated, about three quarters of fresh and packaged agri-food products were sold to large retail chains. One of the important measures taken by the Italian government has been to centralise food consumption during the current crisis. In annex to the Ministerial decree, signed on 11 March, a list appears of what the government regards as legitimate food retailers. Interestingly, these include supermarkets, discounts and grocery shops -but not food markets nor acquisition groups. This unique reliance sounds strange at a time when food supply networks may come under increasing pressure. Without much consultation, several mayors have univocally closed down weekly food markets in their cities. This has generated an even closer dependence of their citizens on large-scale distribution networks. Despite the governments’ explicit call not to hoard prime necessities, every decree has been accompanied by a systematic assault on supermarkets and a rapidly emerging crisis in commodity supplies.

two effects of COVID-19: hoarding, and empty food shelves

A direct consequence of this dependency on supermarket distribution has been a rising nervousness in the agricultural districts. In rare agreement, labour unions, agricultural entrepreneurs and voluntary associations have been ringing the alarm bell to denounce the lack of assistance and call for preventive safety measures. Ironically, the agricultural sector has been designated as ‘essential’ to keep the country going in the latest Ministerial update, alongside transport and logistics -but assistance to workers has been structurally lacking. Not coincidentally, these sectors represent a labour force of predominantly foreign origin. In the province of Cuneo (Piemonte), the Capitanata (Puglia), in Castel Volturno (Campania), the Vulture (Basilicata) and in the Piana di Gioia Tauro (Calabria), where thousands of foreign labourers work to pick fruits and vegetables for Italy’s home-staying citizens, NGOs and labour unions are currently assisting workers in the margins, pending institutional support. Worries are now rising that a COVID contagion may spread in these districts like a fire.

An extra source of stress for those who are already struggling to work for the day is the limited freedom to move around. In the informal settlements of Rignano and San Ferdinando for example, where up to 500 people permanently reside without access to basic services, humanitarian organisation INTERSOS and EMERGENCY have set up mobile monitoring units to assist mobile workers. Other organisations like the RED CROSS and CARITAS, who previously managed official labour camps, are struggling to meet governmental criteria. The result has been a rising informality among workers who already remain invisible to state institutions.

To reach West-African workers active in the agricultural sector, EMERGENCY has now produced a video in pidgin English that informs them about possible anti-COVID precautions.

Similarly to Italy, the continuous arrival of Syrian refugees in Turkey has led to a refugeeization of the agricultural labour force. Basically, this means that refugees now take on the precarious day jobs that domestic and other migrant workers would usually do. Of the 3.57 million Syrian refugees present in Turkey, only a small part live in official refugee camps. In turn, a growing majority has been filling the ranks of farm workers on the countryside, while trying to find a living in livestock production, greenhouse cultivation, and the harvesting and processing of various crops (like olives, cotton, hazelnuts, tea, pistachio, citrus fruits and stone fruits, vegetables). While relations between domestic and migrant workers have generally remained peaceful, recently there have been sporadic violent incidents against migrant residents. Now that Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan is rising its pressure on Syrian refugees to leave the country, the conditions of Turkish agriculture may soon face an unexpected downfall as its labour power is siphoning towards Europe.

In the meantime in neighbouring Greece, where migrants have been supporting the agricultural economy since decades, the patrolling of Europe’s Southern border is now rapidly turning from repressive, to violent. Before sealing its border completely in response to the global corona outbreak, Greek government forces have been caught repeatedly in violent anti-migrant actions (in one such event on the Greek-Turkish border, one man was allegedly killed by either Greek soldiers or ‘armed locals’ who actively assist them in their task – as the research group Forensic Architecture documented in the attached video). Urged by European governments, Frontex is planning to send more guards to the region now, together with vehicles, ships and surveillance technology provided and financed by European member states.

While anti-migrant violence is arousing protests among human rights groups and advocates, the question how rising border repression may affect the current Sars-CoV-2 outbreak remains so far unanswered. In Turkey, Greece, and Italy, farm production depends ever more significantly on the effort of flexible, precarious labourers who, at rising rates, are recruited among refugees who are either blocked or killed at the border. While the corona virus has certainly made the world aware of its intense interconnections, this may be yet another, important question to figure out in the near future.

(c) Beatrice Clippa-Muti (FLAI/CGIL)

Felandina eviction

Two days ago, the mayor of Bernalda, Domenico Tataranno, officially announced the imminent eviction of the migrant ocupation La Felandina, located in the industrial zone of Metaponto. The building has been occupied since a year by approximately 600 migrant workers, a majority of which are in possession of regular residence papers, according to official police sources. The migrants offer their labour to agricultural enterprises in the area. Since a few years the Basilicata and Calabria coastline has effectively become Southern Italy’s grocery garden: from the famous strawberries harvested in early Spring to the fruit and vegetables that are cultivated here over the Summer and Autumn, production continues throughout the year. Farmers sell their produce under often unfavourable contracts to the big distribution networks through intermediaries located in Puglia and Campania.

Speaking at a public meeting, the mayor said he took his decision after a long series of meetings with the Prefecture, Town Hall, and competent authorities – notwithstanding the acknowledgement, by the territiorial prefecture, that migrant workers who come to the area have difficulty finding alternative forms of accommodation. “It will be up to the State, through the security forces, to implement the eviction in practice. We will try, with the collaboration of those poor people, to find the best solution from a logistic point of view,” Tataranno concluded.

In March this year, the head of Basilicata’s Migrant Policy Coordination, Pietro Simonetti officially promised a temporary reception facility for 150 seasonal migrant workers, which so far has not been concretely defined. In the meantime, therefore, migrant workers have no other alternative other than occupying a new site.

Migrant tent camps in Metaponto, March 2018

It is not the first time it comes to such tensions in the area of Metaponto. Already in 2018, the mayor of Bernalda ordered the clearance of various tent camps located under the town’s bridges and in the many abandoned warehouses in the area. Like much of Basilicata, the area continues to be affected by a progressive abandonment, driven by a lack of institutional capacities and employment opportunities. Specifically, the 2018 eviction followed an open letter in which Metaponto’s residents denounced the, in their view, “disproportionate” presence of immigrant citizens who come to the area to work. Declaring a state of emergency, they asked the mayor to restore law and order in the area. 

The same year, two agricultural entrepreneurs and one gangmaster based in Metaponto had been officially indighted for illicit labour recruitment, which has become an offence under the new anti-racket legislation. Altogether, these events reveal once more the paradox of the current legislative context, which regards migrant labour intermediation as a criminal offense, but at the same time refuses to address its root causes beyond a mere logistical perspective. 

La Felandina (c) OMB

Moukef

Reading my regular reports on Italian tomato plantations, a colleague who attended a seminar on migration & agriculture in Agadir recently (pdf here) alerted me to an accident involving several ‘moukef‘, or informal workers, in Morocco. The accident caused the death of 14 women and 30 serious injuries in the plain of Kenitra, in the north of the country, which is famous for its strawberry production.

The ‘moukef‘ involves a form of informal employment for thousands of – predominantly female – workers who find temporary jobs in agriculture: not just in Kenitra but also the hothouses of Morocco’s Chtouka Aït Baha province. The province is covered with hundreds of burning plastic tunnels, where a modern form of slavery unfolds at the service of the country’s increasingly booming industrial export agriculture.

The ritual of labour recruitment appears to be similar to other plantation economies in Europe and the Americas: every day a handful of women who gather on an open labour market are selected by a ‘cabrane’, an informal recruiting agent whose mission is to bring them to the agricultural estates. The journey on board of the pickup trucks is full of danger for these women, who regularly become victim of road accidents.

The accident of 3 April is not an isolated case. Numerous times both local news outlets and agricultural workers associations have denounced the conditions of these workers.

Only last Summer, a similar accident involving 4 African day workers had caused a national outcry in Italy while their van crashed into a truck close to the city of Foggia, leaving the load of tomatoes spread out on the road pavement.

Appointments with ‘legality’: Italy’s slums


Another tragedy has affected African labourers in Italy’s plains this month. On 6 March, bulldozers demolished the San Ferdinando workers’ ghetto, located in the centre of Calabria’s orange plantations and Calabria’s Ndrangheta organized crime stronghold. The ghetto, which has claimed the lives of three people over the last year, had become a thorn in the eye of Italy’s Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, who has ordered the erection of a tent camp as well as a restoration of public order in the area. 

In 2011 the research team Bitter Oranges recorded living conditions in San Ferdinando in this video.

The eviction of San Ferdinando (close to Rosarno, which has been termed one of Italy’s new slavery sites) forms part of Italy’s interior minister’s promise to move “from words to actions.” Matteo Salvini is also the head of the right populist League party, whose members are currently establishing an institutional alliance with the European Far Right. Since his election he has repeatedly declared his intention to “raze to the ground” Italy’s shantytowns, including Rom and refugee settlements. Over the last year, more than a dozen such camps have been demolished, including the Baobab Experience in Rome, which hosted over hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers, as well as various Sinti and Rom settlements around Turin, Pisa and the Italian capital.

The official motivation for the eviction has been one of insecurity and a lack human dignity. But the Caritas settlement does not appears to offer much of an alternative. On 22 March, another person died in its tent camp situated only a few meters away from the old ghetto. The victim’s name is Sylla Nouma, a man in his thirties. “We hoped not to deplore situations like this any more,” the mayor Andrea Tripodi declared to the press. “It was an unexpected tragedy,” Vincenzo Alampi, the local Caritas director added. Although the causes of the fire are still be ascertained, a possible reason might have been a short circuit departing form the electric wires located in the corner of the tent.

The government-directed evictions, which Matteo Salvini systematically calls “appointments with legality”, particularly appear to target precarious workers’ settlements located in the heart of Southern Italy’s vegetable and fruit plantations nowadays. After the forced eviction of Rignano Garganico and Boreano last year (both situated in the tomato districts of Foggia and the Alto Bradano), the bulldozers have started moving to the South now. Last May local authorities destroyed the informal labour settlement of Campobello di Mazara, in Sicily –leaving workers no choice but to occupy new buildings: while 128 inhabitants were haphazardly hosted in a camp managed by the Red Cross, others have started to erect smaller settlements in the periphery of neighbouring Castelveltrano, in the heart of Sicily’s olive plantations. A similar fate now awaits San Ferdinando’s settlers. At the time of the eviction, the local prefect estimated the number of slum residents at 1.592 people, according to the Repubblica newspaper. While 200 were immediately transferred to official migrant reception centres, around 900 found temporary accommodation a new tent camp managed by Caritas. Local authorities have announced 30 housing units to accommodate future migrants coming to the area. But the mayor has repeatedly warned against housing migrants without also providing for local residents in this area stricken by poverty and criminality. In the meantime, the Interior Ministry has promised 350.000 euro’s to “restore liveability” in the area of San Ferdinando.

The official motivation for the eviction has been one of insecurity and a lack human dignity. But the Caritas settlement does not appears to offer much of an alternative. On 22 March, another person died in its tent camp situated only a few meters away from the old ghetto. The victim’s name is Sylla Nouma, a man in his thirties. “We hoped not to deplore situations like this any more,” the mayor Andrea Tripodi declared to the press. “It was an unexpected tragedy,” Vincenzo Alampi, the local Caritas director added. Although the causes of the fire are still be ascertained, a possible reason might have been a short circuit departing form the electric wires located in the corner of the tent.

An unexpected tragedy? Fire in Rignano Garganico January 2017

Because of pervasive uncertainty and a lack of consideration by official policies, more and more migrants now have started to move to other vegetable and fruit plantations in the area. Last month, some West African migrants already found refuge in a previous industrial plant in the plains of Metaponto, in neighbouring Basilicata, where the strawberry harvest is currently happening at full speed. Local associations are currently assisting the squatters with social and health services in the absence of official lodging facilities. Most likely, the slum will experience the same fate in a couple of months, when strawberries will have been picked, and the tomato planting season will begin once again in Foggia and Basilicata

La Felandina squat in Metaponto (c) OMB

Congo: Power to the Margins paperback

I am glad to announce the appearance of the paperback version of my book Violent Capitalism and Hybrid Identity in the Eastern Congo with Cambridge University Press. The book comes at a time of great turmoil in Congo’s north-east, where the end of armed conflict is not at all in sight, as recent reports from Ituri and le Grand Nord reveal. Reading through the detailed colonial and postcolonial history of this region makes one aware of the underlying dynamics of this armed conflict, which finds its origins in a series of intricate relations between regional politics, cross-border economies and capital accumulation. As Janosch Kullenberg writes in a recent review: the book moves beyond the “stereotypical and simplistic understandings about state failure and chronic violence in central Africa [which] have not led to great insights about either the mechanisms at work, or the emerging orders.” Instead the recent reports about continued violence in Eastern Congo make it worthwhile to approach this “constant crisis” through the long-term consequences of every day decision-making through a “ethnography of critical life worlds”.

New Plantation

With less than one month to go, I gladly announce here the closing event of the New Plantations project, in Brussels on 14 December. For the last two years our international research team from Switzerland, Belgium and Italy has analyzed migrant work conditions in Europe, focusing on dynamics of illegalization, racialization and labour exploitation in the contintent’s agricultural sector.

Directed by a group of activists, artists and academics, the event will highlight the forces at play in the European horticultural industry. Rather than a classic presentation-based conference, the workshop will be pinpointed around several interactive tables, each of which will address a specific theme. The event will be closed by a short theatre show by Cantieri Meticci, whose members have been active participants in this project.

Anyone who is interested in participating, please send a confirmation email to project director Timothy Raeymaekers (timothy.raeymaekers@geo.uzh.ch) by November 30th.  More information on time, place and logistics of the event can be found on our facebook page and on the attached flyer. The language of the event will be French.

https://snis.ch/project/new-plantations-migrant-mobility-illegality-racialisation/

https://www.facebook.com/events/1768416089866523/

171114_Brussels flyer final