Italian politics and the No TAV movement: the resiliency or failure of citizen activism?

The twenty year old No TAV movement in Italy that opposes the construction of a new high-speed railway connecting Turin and Lyon highlights the complexities of democratic citizen activism in the context of Italy's changing and warped politics.

Michele Monni
11 May 2012

Someone once said that democracy is never fully achieved; at best, it is an ambition, a state of becoming. Direct democracy and other forms of citizen activism that allow people and communities to affect directly a state’s policies, however, seem to be a mere chimera promoted by idealists. Such a pessimistic view about the effectiveness of citizen activism must loom large in the minds of the residents of the Susa valley, a pristine stretch of land in northern Italy’s Piedmont region. Many in this region have sought for over twenty years to oppose the construction of a €20 billion, high-speed railway line between Turin and Lyon. The project, a partnership between the Italian and French governments and the European Union (EU), represents a small piece of a much larger plan to connect eventually Lyon with Budapest and Ukraine.

An initial draft proposal, dating back to 1991, defined the project as of “strategic interest” to improving movement within the EU. Back then, the hope was to allow for easier movement of passengers and tourists, while also facilitating the integration of managers and corporate executives, between Italy and the Rhone-Alpes region of France, dubbed by Eurocrats as AlpMed. Since then, communities and cities that have been affected by the construction of the railway, such as Bologna and Florence, have formed a group called No TAV: Movement against the High Speed Railway (TAV being the acronym of Treno Alta Velocita).

According to a 1991 study by the European Commission’s High Speed Promotion Committee, half a million people travelled between Turin and Lyon each year. The Promotion Committee forecast that by 2002 passenger numbers would increase fivefold to 7.7 million. Twenty years later, another study, done by the mountain community of the Susa valley and backed by the Polytechnic University of Turin as well as the environmental association Legambiente, showed that the number of passengers on the Turin-Lyon line had not only decreased but had nearly dropped by half.  Moreover, official data on the traffic of goods between Italy and France, provided annually by the Swiss Federal Office of Transport, indicated that the flow of goods grew until 2000, but has since declined steadily. In less than 10 years, cargo shipments had fallen from eight million tons in 2000 to two million tons, decreasing to half a million tons by 2009.

According to the No TAV movement, the existing railway between Italy and France is more than sufficient to handle the present traffic numbers, although the line could benefit from some improvements. Of greater concern to No TAV members is that construction “would utterly and irreversibly destroy a huge part of the Susa valley, causing not only an environmental, but also an economic and social, disaster, with businesses closing down and villages being completely disfigured or radically changed.” Construction of the railway would involve the creation of a nearly 60km tunnel, one of the longest in the world.  The pantagruelic drilling is the main concern of the community in the Susa valley. Residents fear that the uranium and asbestos contained in the nearby mountains will be disturbed.

The recent Guardian article on this issue neglected to mention that earlier this year 400 Italian researchers and university professors signed a petition, promoted by environmentalist Luca Mercalli, senior researcher at the Department of Chemistry of the University of Siena Sergio Ulgiati. This petition, which attempts to convince the Italian authorities of the futility and danger of continuing with the project, was sent to Prime Minister Mario Monti, who probably made a paper airplane out of it, and so far continues to support the project.

In the last two years, as work has proceeded, both sides have become increasingly radicalised, permanently reshaping the politics of many municipalities in the Susa valley. It has created tensions between the few municipalities who support the project and those who steadfastly argue against it. In June 2011, police raided a No TAV camp in the valley, clearing out hundreds of protesters to allow for exploratory drilling to build the tunnel. The following month, thousands of No TAV members surrounded this site, wearing gas masks and helmets to resist police crowd control efforts. A clash ensued, leaving more than a hundred police and protestors injured. 

On August 18th of last year, fifty No TAV activists were charged with disrupting public service following a protest that numbered about three hundred (amongst them a few dozen anarchic-insurgent militants) at the Avigliana train station where people blocked oncoming trains for two hours.

In January of this year, magistrates in Turin decided to arrest 26 people for having committed various offenses during the demonstration on July 3rd, 2011. 

Tensions between the movement and the state peaked on February 27th when authorities began to expropriate land along the planned railway route in La Maddalena di Chiaromonte in the Susa valley. 

Luca Abbà, a farmer and No TAV activist, breached a police blockade before climbing a power line pylon, warning police that he was ready to touch the electric cables if they followed him. Abbà kept climbing as two policemen tried to reach him.  He touched the cables before falling ten metres to the ground. In the ensuing days, there were additional clashes between the protesters, who occupied railways and major highways passing through the valley, and police forces. Despite the continued clashes in the Susa valley, Prime Minister Mario Monti on March 2nd of this year once again reiterated his commitment to continue construction.

Ever since the first protests, the media, like Italy’s political parties, has depicted the No TAV movement as a group of extremists infiltrated by violent anarchists and troublemakers. Only a few prominent journalists and activists such as Curzio Maltese (La Repubblica newspaper) and blogger Beppe Grillo have openly criticised how the state has handled this matter and the excessive use of force by the police. They have called for a serious, fact-based national enquiry about the utility of this project and the possible risks of an environmental disaster.

What is really peculiar about this saga is that every government over the last twenty years (right or left) has shown scorn and little interest in the complaints raised by the No TAV movement. Every Italian political party (with the exception of a small group of MPs from the left) has labeled the No TAV movement as a backward group of people who are against progress and full of troublemakers and extremists, and they continue to do so. This is far from accurate. Rallies or protests organised by the movement have seen on its front lines families with children, members of civil society, grandfathers and grandmothers and a scattering of hardcore, but peaceful, environmentalists. “Normal” people then, if normal is a term applicable to citizens concerned about their community and the future of their children. 

One reason behind this cohesive media/political wall certainly lies in the huge amount of money that contractors will receive. Most of the construction companies have ties to the major political parties. According to some people, these companies have made a huge lobbying effort, and may even have used less orthodox and legal practices, to convince politicians to support this project. 

Public television (RAI) has openly backed the TAV project given the huge political influence that the government still has on the public broadcast company. Only a few independent and investigative news programmes have raised questions, and they of course have been labeled as supporters of the “extremist” mountaineers. And let us not forget to mention Mediaset, the other giant media company that is owned by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and who played a decisive role in the continuation of the project. (For more general information on the state of Italian politics, see openDemocracy's "Street Politics in Italy.") But that’s not all. Piero Lunardi, the minister of Infrastructure and Transport during Berlusconi’s 2001-2006 government, was accused of having a conflict of interest when it turned out that he was both encouraging the government to support the construction of the high-speed rail network while also facilitating firms, such as Rocksoil which is formally owned by his wife and other members of his family, to get contracts for the work. The Mafias, of course, have also been active. In its annual report (2011), the National Anti-Mafia Bureau (DIA) established that the Piedmont region has the third highest rate in terms of penetration by the Calabrian Organized Crime (‘Ndrangheta). A ruling of the Italian Supreme Court recognized the municipality of the Susa valley town of Bardonecchia as "a direct emanation of the ‘Ndrangheta.” In a recent article, author Roberto Saviano wrote: “Everybody is speaking about the TAV, but first of all we should consider mere facts: in the last twenty years the high speed railway has become a tool for widespread corruption and organized crime, a successful model of business.”

The No TAV Movement is far from defeated. It has, however, perhaps been irreversibly isolated from the rest of Italian public opinion and discourse. As a result, the movement's attitude towards the media has changed radically. No longer trusting traditional media, they have organized themselves through blogs, social networking sites and local radio broadcasts. Lately, instead of staging big rallies where the physical confrontation seems inevitable and media reports will surely depict them as the cause of the troubles, they prefer small and rapid demonstrations, blocking for only a short time motorways and main roads. Examples of these new tactics include the March 17th blockade on the A32 Turin-Bardonecchia motorway and the “peaceful” storming of the headquarters of Italy’s prominent newspaper, Il Corriere della Sera, on April 10th where leaflets were handed out to journalists. Members of the movement have also started a hunger strike in support of the activists arrested after the clashes with the police. 

The clash between organised citizens and the State captures some of the oldest questions concerning how democracy should work. Is it legitimate and socially acceptable for people to challenge the authority of the “leviathan?” Is the notion of a social contract at risk when citizens are considered a mere commodity, a disposable entity without name and face to entertain with panem et circenses (bread and circuses) if they follow the rules, and to crush them if they dare to differ? From their patios and villas, the Italian elites and ruling class are unable to understand why someone would not agree with a project that would bring the “light of progress” to an area where people value a tree over a cell phone. From their intellectual ivory towers, it is inconceivable to them that a community would fight back, organise itself into committees and discussion groups to explain to the state and their fellow citizens their opposition to this railway project.

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