Look Down for Hope – Phytoremediation in an Italian Steel Town

This section considers the practice of phytoremediation as both a model and source of inspiration for radical hope. It takes as a case study the city of Taranto, in southern Italy. Taranto has long been devastated by the effects of toxic emissions, including high levels of dioxins, from the massive Ilva steel plant. Classified as Persistent Organic Pollutants, dioxins and dioxin-like compounds are almost imperceptible, remaining largely undetected by the unaided human or animal body where they can lead to illnesses including cancer, digestive disease and thyroid imbalance. Dioxins travel by water and air, bioaccumulate in food chains and living tissues, and thus encourage a reckoning with trans-corporeality, the “material interconnections of human corporeality with the more-than-human world” (Alaimo, 2010: 2). In recent years residents, activists and artists have banded together in Taranto and surrounding areas to combat local dioxins with a very different and yet equally transmutable, potentially transcorporeal, organic substance: hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) Through both agricultural and artistic practice, Taranto’s contemporary narrators seek to convey the potential of hemp as a detoxifying salve and means of regeneration for land, artisanal community and local economy. They promote hemp as a natural tool for phytoremediation – the use of living plants to detoxify soil and water – and as an easily cultivated crop capable of providing fiber for textiles, ceramics and more, thus reinvigorating traditional forms of productive craftsmanship. In this they frame hemp as an anti-dioxin: purifying rather than toxic and so manifestly perceptible in its overt and multi-form physicality. Their work is profoundly hopeful, and radically simple, in its premise: that a plant can simultaneously diminish toxins within the soil on which so many lives depend, and that the fiber it produces might offer an alternative model for forward growth in a community and landscape otherwise devastated by large-scale industrial production.

 How do you define radical hope?

I see “radical hope” as the purest type of hope: a deep and unshakeable belief that something positive can happen despite difficult circumstances. It is a dynamic hope often backed by actions that may run counter to apparent restrictions.

How do you see radical hope emerging or playing out in your case study?

The current situation in Taranto regarding environment, health, and employment is brutal. The massive Ilva steelworks produces approximately 90% of Italy’s annual dioxin output; farmers can no longer cultivate crops or raise feed animals within 15 kilometers of the centrally located steelworks; residents face excessive rates of cancer, lung and digestive diseases, and perinatal illness; and many Ilva workers feel they have no choice but to trade unsafe working conditions and eventual illness for a paycheck. More and more area residents, current and former Ilva workers, and environmental health advocates are lobbying for permanent closure of the steelworks, but the Italian government continues to declare that Ilva will remain open.

Should you visit the waterfront city, you might notice a fine coating of red steel dust on stationary surfaces; the blast furnaces dominating the skyline just beyond the centrally located Tamburi neighborhood, where children have been forbidden to access playgrounds in recent years; significant abandon and disrepair in the historic old town; and talk of tumors and unemployment at local bars. But you will also encounter a nascent (re)generative energy: artists, folklorists, activists and cultural operators of all sorts have begun to re-occupy neglected spaces for their creative practices, often emphasizing natural materials from land and sea alongside local artisanal tradition. Many incorporate hemp – from the artist collective Ammostro, who use the fiber in their screen-printing studio, to the socially engaged artist Noel Gazzano, who planted hemp seeds as part of her 2016 performance piece “The Unbearable Condition,” to the Fornaro family, who cultivate the plant on their large family farm directly next to Ilva grounds, seeking to simultaneously detoxify the soil and provide sustainable fiber and grain. That they take on such initiatives in the face of a massive industrial giant, and a massive crisis of both environment and economy, demonstrates the deep faith, long-term vision and empowered agency inherent to radical hope.

Readings/Resources

  • Alaimo, Stacy. Bodily Natures: Science, Environment and the Material Self. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.
  • Barca, Stefania & Emanuele Leonardi. “Working-class ecology and union politics: a conceptual topology,” Globalizations, 15:4 (2018): 487-503.
  • Fisher-Lichte, Erika. The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics. Translated by Saskya Iris Jain. London: Routledge, 2008.
  • Gutterman, Lila. “Back to Chernobyl,” New Scientist. No. 2181. 10 April 1999. https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg16221810-900-back-to-chernobyl/
  • Linger, P., Ostwald, A. & Haensler, “Cannabis sativa L. growing on heavy metal contaminated soil: growth, cadmium uptake and photosynthesis.” J. Biol Plant (2005) 49: 567-576.
  • Lonely Planet, “Taranto,” https://www.lonelyplanet.com/italy/puglia/taranto
  • Lucifora, A., Bianco, F., and Vagliasindi G.M. Environmental and corporate mis- compliance: A case study on the ILVA steel plant in Italy. Study in the framework of the research project. Catania: University of Catania, 2015.
  • Mitchell, WJT. Landscape and Power. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
  • Rodrìguez, Àlvaro Ivàn Hernàndez, “Where Can Walking Be Taking Me?” in Sentient Performativities of Embodiment: Thinking Alongside the Human. Edited by Lynette Hunter, Elisabeth Krimmer and Peter Lichtenfels. London: Lexington, 2016. 195-204.
  • Seger, Monica. “Toxic Tales: On Representing Environmental Crisis in Puglia,” in Encounters With the Real in Contemporary Italian Literature and Cinema, Edited by Pasquale Verdicchio & Laura Di Martino. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017. 29-46.
  • Seger, Monica. “Thinking Through Taranto: Toxic Embodiment, Eco-catastrophe and the Power of Narrative.” In Landscapes, Natures, Ecologies: Italy and the Environmental Humanities, Enrico Cesaretti, Serenella Iovino and Elena Past, eds. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2018. 184-193.
  • Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.
  • United Nations Environment Programme, Newsletter and Technical Publications Freshwater Management Series No. 2 Phytoremediation: An Environmentally Sound Technology for Pollution Prevention, Control and RedmediationAn Introductory Guide To Decision-Makers
  • On the Fornaro family farm
  • Phytoremediation: An Environmentally Sound Technology for Pollution Prevention, Control and Remediation An Introductory Guide To Decision-Makers
  • Farmers in Italy fight soil contamination with cannabis
  • Artist Noel Gazzano