The city of Benevento, in Italy, is surrounded by hills that seem to go on as far as the eye can see. The area is famous for its vineyards that stretch down the slopes of the hills as if attracted by a secret force.
A few kilometres away, the vineyards suddenly disappear to be replaced by wheat fields, bright green in spring and golden in the summer. Driving from the countryside towards Benevento, the change in scenery is striking. Benevento is, like most cities, very grey in comparison with its surroundings.
One of the few exceptions is the urban gardens managed by Lentamente Cooperativa Agricola, a social farming cooperative and ILC member that has been giving new life to abandoned public land in the area by doing social farming activities with the local community.
“Urban agriculture allows us to involve the local community and engage with them, which is significantly harder in rural areas,” explains Donato De Marco, Founder of Lentamente.
For the past four years, 30 families have been using the plots in the urban garden to grow fruit and vegetables organically. They also keep the area clean and organise social events for the whole community.
The gardens are next to a cafè owned by the Consortium Sale della Terra, of which Lentamente is a member. The space is a lively gathering restaurant with beautiful outside gazebos where students come to study and where older people usually spend their afternoons playing cards, reading and chatting. “While the land on which the cafè was built is owned by the Consortium, the urban gardens next to it are on public land which was given to us by the city council specifically for this project,” says Donato.
“The problem is that, just like it was given to us, that same land can be taken away.”
Finding available land is not hard in Benevento, explains Donato, what’s hard is convincing whoever owns it to let Lentamente and the community use it: “Land owners often prefer to keep their land, even if they don’t use it in any way, just because they are waiting for someone to buy it and build a parking lot or apartment blocks. The potential financial return is more important.”
And even when they do agree, chances that one day they will take it back and sell it are high.
Real estate speculation threatens the existence of places like the urban gardens, which don’t have an immediate financial return and are therefore considered less of a priority.
“The city council needs to understand that urban farming is not only about growing vegetables - it’s about community,” says Donato.
“Until having a happier, healthier, and more inclusive community is worth less than a parking lot, urban farming won’t stand a chance.”
But Donato is still optimistic. The community that Lentamente has build around this project is feeling a growing sense of belonging towards it.
“My hope is that what we are doing will still have a long term impact, even though it might end at some point. There are so many different things that could be done on unused public land, I wish the city would see it.”
The International Land Coalition is working across the region and globally to protect the land rights of small scale farmers and land and human rights defenders. The Torrecuso declaration, signed by ILC’s members in Europe, Middle East & North Africa commits to working across the region to prevent dispossession of common land, conflict, and the potential wide-ranging impacts of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), among others.