FROM MEXICO TO PIEMONTE
A community grows a parcel of biodiversity
At least ten types of corn with multiple colours – black, green, yellow, purple, red, white – grow next to local and exotic plants in a garden no larger than a professional football field in Valle Varaita,a plain area in Piemonte on the slopes of the Italian Alps bordering France.“The first seeds we sowed came from Mexico”, Dulce Maria Chan Cab explains, showing a tiny dark tomato: “This is jaltomata, an ancestral fruit in my homeland”. It tastes like a sweet, juicy blueberry.
Dulce rented La Milpa’s plot in 2015 together with her husband Walter Vassallo and four friends. “The milpa itself is a traditional agricultural practice of self-sustenance in Mexico. It consists of sowing whatever one needs without separating the crops by type. In the beginning, the garden didn’t have a name, but one day, while having lunch at the garden, we realised that it perfectly described what our group was: miscellaneous people who cultivate a parcel of biodiversity”. Today the garden relies on a community of twenty people, whose ages and biographies range broadly.
Gianni is an adult man who works as an electrician and lives in a camper. “Since I joined La Milpa, I stopped buying polenta [a typical Northern Italian dish of boiled cornmeal] at the supermarket because I don’t need it, the corn we grow is enough. Farming is life-changing: once you look after the food process, your purchasing decisions change. Over the years I learned so much as a volunteer here”.
Community gardens appeared in Europe in the late Nineties, around thirty years later than in the United States. The latest data tell that in Italy they cover a surface of over 2000 square feet, that is around 2000 professional football fields. PhD Geography researcher Victoria Sachsé has studied them for years across France and Italy. She says: “What characterises them all is the need to take a piece of urban space back, managing it collectively and without any profit”.
La Milpa is surrounded by two industrial orchards, a disused furniture factory and a busy agricultural processing company. Beyond La Milpa cars and trucks flow on the state highway passing through Valle Varaita. The name of the village where the garden is, Piasco, comes from an Ancient Roman landowner and it apparently imposed its fate: the valley has become the largest agricultural area in Italy during the second half of the twentieth century. Especially in autumn the monotonous rows of apple trees and kiwifruits are filled with field hands — most of them are people with a migration background, often underpaid and maltreated. Placido Rizzotto Observatory, the main national research centre in this field, reports that a form of labour exploitation called caporalato is widely spread here, more than elsewhere in Northern Italy.
A twenty-something man from the valley claims: “I can’t understand. My friends go to France for the grape harvest every year. They cross the border, earn a good amount of money and get back to Italy. Why can’t Italy offer these people the same work conditions? I don’t have an answer, do you?”. He addresses his question to a circle of sixty people who attend the presentation of “Vite provvisorie” (“Temporary lives”), a book about the exploitation of African labourers in the area written by university tenure Marco Buttino and social worker Benedetta Schiavone. Up until a few minutes before, Benedetta was busy sorting out the festival in which the presentation of her book was included: the corn fest, which takes place on an annual basis in La Milpa. She says: “I live in Turin, which is just one hour away from Piasco, but I work with refugees here most of the time. Sometimes I commute, and sometimes I sleep over at my grandparent’s house. When I stay I’m always at La Milpa”.
On the occasion of the fest, the plot is packed with people. Many are around a table and a stove, from which a great smoke rises. Some people grind corn kernels into flour, others form thin pies by mixing the flour with water and some others cook them: everyone prepares their tortilla. "In Mexico, the corn is soaked in lime before being ground. It is a process called nixtamalization, unknown in Italy. Yet it is precisely what allows people to better absorb the nutrients of the corn and avoid a disease called pellagra", says Dulce. The inspiration for the corn harvest celebration also comes from her homeland. The group of gardeners has been organising it since La Milpa was set up, as a form to thank the earth.
In 2020 a case study at Sheffield University showed that urban gardens have the potential to meet the fruit and vegetable requirements of the population of the area where they are located. According to Sachsé: “More studies are needed to assess the real impact of community gardens on the food supply chain. By contrast, their social impact is proven. Taking over a garden is an act of responsibility, it has a very high educational value and it's an important environmental awareness tool."
In partnership with a bunch of other local entities, Milpa’s volunteers took part during the last year in a self-training project on agroecology called "Soil Keepers". Luca, manager of a large hydroelectric plant in the area, carved out the time to participate in the workshops. He says: "My commitment as a gardener at La Milpa is making me question my job. Every day I exploit natural resources, in a way that I know is not sustainable. In my spare time, I learn how to regenerate the soil and how to minimise my footprint. I live in a contradiction: should I try to change the system from within or should I reject it altogether?".
In Italy, hydroelectric plants are concentrated across the Alps and a quarter of them are in Piemonte. Walter, Dulce's husband, works in a company that draws energy from Valle Varaita’s other great resource: wood. He was born and raised in Piasco. He says: "I have known our neighbour since we were children. He used to spray a lot of chemicals on the kiwis, there was often an unbearable smell. So one day I showed him a video about the effects of pesticides on health, and then I explained to him that there are valid alternatives to them. In a while, he stopped using them". For La Milpa’s events, such as the corn fest or the screening of movies, Walter with a few volunteers built an electrical generation system based on photovoltaic energy by recycling solar panels from a company that could no longer use them because they were chipped. Today Walter is helping those people in the valley who want to build their domestic photovoltaic system, as a way to counter the sharp rises in electricity and gas prices due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Seeds of sustainability, spreading gently through the valley.
Dulce says: “Three years ago we sowed farinello (Chenopodium Album), a wild fuchsia herb whose leaves are edible. With the wind the seeds have scattered across the village, so every now and then we find a specimen in unexpected places. The garden is like this, it goes where it wants".