The Clean Bormida Valley Association (Associazione Valle Bormida Pulita) was founded in 1987 with the aim of combating the century-old land pollution caused by the ACNA (National Dye Company) factory in Cengio, originally built in 1882 as dynamite factory.
Protests by the inhabitants, which during the long history of the factory had many precedents, were rekindled in those years due to the unsustainable environmental degradation.
The association immediately took on the task of coordinating the mobilization of the entire valley to ensure the closure of the plant and the social, economic, and environmental rebirth of the valley. During the years of the struggle, it managed to bring together a broader proactive community, which discussed new initiatives weekly, organized events, and ran a comprehensive information system based on word of mouth and on the distribution of self-produced materials, including the newspaper “Valle Bormida Pulita” (Clean Bormida Valley), directed by Renzo Fontana.
Even after the factory was closed down in 1999, the association has actively continued to follow the events related to its remediation and today preserves the memory of the first Italian environmental struggle, thanks to its extraordinary archive of documents and photographs.
Marina Garbarino and Mario Cauda, Clean Bormida Vally Association (interview transcript)
Our road, related to the reason why we exist as an association, is this one (Marina is showing the map): we are in Cortemilia, the road to Bergolo is up above us, then there are Torre Bormida, Levice, Gorzegno, Prunetto, Monesiglio, Camerana, Saliceto, and here, between Saliceto and Cengio, is where the dynamite factory was built.
Cortemilia was one of the most important places for the struggle against ACNA, because of its intermediate position for both those who came from the Alessandria area and those who came up from Savona. Gorzegno was another important town because one of the association's leaders, the founder of the Clean Bormida Valley newspaper, Renzo Fontana, was born in this town.
Instead, Saliceto is the hometown of one of the first activists, "Rosanna of the mill": a mill that had had to close because its grinders were being corroded. Then there was Bar Smile at the exit of Saliceto, run by Armando Balbo and his wife, who helped us a lot: when we were out on watch, he would come on foot or by car up to Saliceto and that was the closest place where you could make a phone call, because we didn't have mobile phones.
Whether it was night or day, even if the bar was closed, they would go down and open it up and supply us with anything we needed.
Another place that we remember was right here in Cengio, upstream from the factory, where there was Mrs. Giongo, a widow who lived alone and had a little house. She let us know that she approved of our struggles because she lived there and knew what filth the factory created. So at night, if there was any emergency, one would cross the Bormida river, trying not to be seen, and go to her home to make and receive the most important communications or also if someone didn't feel well.
At Pian Rocchetta, at the border between Liguria and Piedmont, there was the road that led to a state property area, under the walls of the factory by the river. Pian Rocchetta is also an important place because our struggles always ended up coming up there: this is where we were beaten, where we were on patrol night and day, and where we saw unspeakable things take place. This was always the major point of the barrier.
The road passes through sandstone hills - embankments – escarpments – embankments - the river, and there are no other places through which to go. Because there is nothing else. When you people from Saliceto go to Cengio, you can see that at a certain point it narrows, becoming a funnel.
The road is sunken between the hill on the right and an outcrop of rock on the left. There is a small road that leads down to the river and that is where is the police set up a blockade.
You cannot go through there because either you have to climb up into the woods, or go down into the midst of thorns, or slog through the river bed: there are no paths there, and so you had to wait until they let you go through.
This (exhibition of photographs) is the first event that we did. At that time there was no Clean Bormida Valley Association, we were just citizens who believed that there was something wrong going on there.
This is where they organized to stop us at Pian Rocchetta (shows a photograph with the police in riot gear). When we arrived at Pian Rocchetta, this was what we found. They were there, and we were here (shows a photo of protesters). One evening, the special forces of the police and the Digos (Division of General Investigation and Special Forces) came, whom we did not know and who absolutely were not from the area. At a certain time we usually took turns keeping guard, but one day we found everything had been blocked. Those who were down below couldn't get up to us and those who were up above couldn't go down, so people started arguing until we heard screams from below. Someone had managed to pass through an embankment and had joined us to warn us: "Look who's attacking us." Above the retaining wall, the workers of the factory were yelling at the police. On a bridge leading to Brignoletto, a village in front of Pian Rocchetta, we don't know if it was the workers or people of Cengio, someone was throwing stones if they saw anyone going over it to the river bank.
Tractors and cars with the young and the elderly departed from Bistagno, Monastero, Bubbio, Sessame, Cessole, Vesime, and Cortemilia. Once there they tried to go forward, especially the young men, so we found ourselves among the policemen who had come from Cuneo and the deployed police. At one point we heard three gunshots and then they charged and were beating us. Just as has happened in recent years in many other places, where people are beaten. We could not understand why .. we were young, old, no one was armed, and no-one had any warlike intentions. There was no reason.
(...) Because when you have to choose between leaving or staying and dying, at that point, those are the difficulties: you can lose everything or die, you have no choice and so you just take off.
(...) I like to watch the river.
Interview with Roberto Molinaro, Mayor of Cosseria
by Marina Paglieri
Cosseria is a municipality in the Savona hinterland which has 1,120 inhabitants spread over 28 villages. A reference point for those coming from outside the area is the castle that once dominated the town, at 700 meters above sea level, whereas today there are only ruins: people still preserve the memory of the battle fought on April 13-14 in 1796 during Napoleon's Italian campaign. Filippo Del Carretto, in command of 500 people of Piedmont who were forced to face unequal forces, was killed during the seige.
Above one of the southern ravines in the Langhe area, there are a parish church with a precious rose window from the 1400s, a sandstone facade, and remarkable sixteenth-century frescoes in the sacristy, a bicycle museum, beautiful scenery – it is the most wooded area in Italy and the pride of inland Liguria - and culinary events in which even truffles can be savoured: there is no lack of attractions for tourism, which people are counting on but which nevertheless struggles to establish itself. We spoke with Roberto Molinaro, the mayor of Cosseria since 2014 and a representative of Anci (National Association of Italian Municipalities) for the small towns in the Bormida Valley.
Mayor Molinaro, what does the castle represent for Cosseria?
"It is a reminder of a legendary battle with Napoleon, who came from Loano to cut off the Austrian defense which was passing through southern Piedmont: the French had certainly gotten the upper hand, but some say they lost 2,700 men, while the number of Piedmontese people who were killed was 'only' 150, including their commander Del Carretto, of the noble Aleramici family. The defenders, holed up inside a castle whose destruction had already begun in the 1500s at the hands of a gentleman of the time, - the rest was demolished by the Napoleonic bombardment - had finished their ammunition and threw stones. But they surrendered after the death of their commander. After that defeat, the Peace of Carcare decree was signed: the conditions dictated by Bonaparte brought a breath of freedom to the valley, marking the end of the almost feudal regime that was still in force."
Have the residents kept these memories alive?
"Yes, although at one time they were afraid of them, because of the ghost of Filippo Del Carretto who they said was wandering around near the castle. The previous administration was granted European funding in 2012-2013 to partially restore the ruins, located inside a large city wall. The residents participate in the events concerning the castle when these take place. They like historical pageants, although there haven't been any recently. The last one was in 1996, for the 200th anniversary of the battle, when Cosseria was filled with hundreds of people from French and Italian associations, wielding cannons and old weapons: these were really fired, not just make-believe, thereby reconstructing the three waves of the attack. But more than the Napoleonic facts, what is of greater interest to the residents are actually some less remote events, such as those related to the Resistance. Every year we choose a theme to commemorate April 25: in 2016, the choice was the role of women during the war: we know that they played a significant role, but back then they were not even allowed to join in the parade during the Liberation celebrations. To tell the truth, if you talk to the elders, you'll understand that they do not remember those years favorably, they say the partisans would steal what little they had, perhaps their milk. But there is another story that reminds us of that time."
What is that?
"At the beginning of the 1900s, a family from Genoa, Musso Piantelli, built an Art Nouveau castle surrounded by a huge farm on the border between Cosseria and Carcare, thereby hoping to obtain a noble title which he never did receive: during the Second World War the castle, still well preserved, was seized by the Germans who turned it into a weapons deposit. These are memories that have been handed down to us by the elderly. Did you know that, out of the 1,120 people here, 200 are more than 70 years old, 60 are more than 80, and 15 are more than 90? I often go visit with our senior citizens, and I do so willingly because I can see that they enjoy it, they have great respect for the figure of the mayor."
And the young people?
"Well, there is a positive aspect: the school in the center of the town, which seems as if were made with Lego blocks, has increased the number of children enrolled there, from 38 it has now become 125. Some of them come from other municipalities, their parents enroll them here because they are drawn to a structure that works well and is also beautiful. This year we also opened a nursery school. Then there are many sports clubs, including for football, basketball, volleyball, and cycling, which are almost a sort of antidote to what plagues of the territory, such as drug usage. However, the young people tend to go away, due to the severe unemployment crisis. After the failure of the industrial base, a vacuum has been created here: there is neither a national strategy nor a policy of incentives in this regard, and furthermore, there are fewer services. There is no problem of refugees here: in the valley there are about 15 or 20 per municipality, but there is not even one in Cosseria. But we have opened a section of Caritas (a charity organization) and are helping six families in difficulty."
What do the residents of Cosseria do?
"Once there were the chemical factories: there was the ACNA factory in Cengio, originally a dynamite factory that was producing 60% of the nation's weapons in its good years, which later became a factory of dyes, unfortunately resulting in everything we know about the environmental pollution drama, as evidenced by the risk of closure of the Tirreno Power Plant in Vado Ligure.
Then there is the Ferrania factory, which was once considered the Fiat of the Bormida Valley, and now has only 100 employees, compared to the 5 thousand it had precedently. The ACNA factory closed in 1999, but even before that, in the late '80s, the hospital in Millesimo had closed its doors: so if someone around here was ill, they had to go to Savona, which is not exactly around the corner. Now what do they do? They can aim for tourism, perhaps open a bed & breakfast, which can be somewhat successful here in this valley full of woods that are ideal for hiking. Then there are animal breeding and some factories, for example, those that make window frames and armored doors. There is also a printing press here in Cosseria, the Spirito Brothers from Savona."
What are tourists looking for when they come here?
“Mostly nature activities, especially hiking. But they also like the various museums, such as the Glass Art Museum in Altare and our own bicycle museum, which altogether had 10 thousand vistors in 2015. However, there are no facilities for tourist reception, not even an info point. We should offer a package of initiatives, organize ourselves, especially now that we are really suffering unemployment problems. There is a request to define the Savona area as an area of industrial crisis, just like what happened in Piombino."
How do people get here and where do they come from?
"There are travel agencies and tour operators, but there is a lack of any strategy. Shall I give you an example? The sanctuary of Our Lady of the Desert in Millesimo is the destinationof many pilgrims who go there especially in September, and organized groups that depart from Alba, for example: but when they arrive here they are not met with a suitable welcome or any tourist attractions, so it all ends there. Despite attempts to create a network, the museums in the area have also been left to cope on their own. When ACNA closed down, a professional school in Carcare, the IAL, received 180 million lire (the former Italian currency) of European funding to create a course for nature guides, and 120 km of connecting trails were also created, 5 of them in protected areas. But those materials were lost and there are still no maps. In 1991, "Bormida Nature" was founded, bringing together the municipalities of the Ligurian area. Now there is the Carretteschi Trail that covers the 140 km of the Del Carretto property from Finale Ligure to Santo Stefano Belbo: we are also involved in this, and our stretch, which is under construction, is the third stage. The Dutch, who arrive here in a single day from their country with their bikes in tow, know about it but nobody here knows. The northern Europeans like the 'wild' nature found in these parts. Here they can visit the beech woods of Osiglia, the caves of Bardineto, and do bird-watching in Rocca Vignale: but then there is the language problem, because the locals do not know English."
In the end, can tourism be an asset?
"There is no lack of ideas, from festivals with the typical dishes to concerts: in Cosseria in 2013 and again in 2014, two musicians of the former group Iron Maiden actually came to play. We set up parking lots and we would have liked to be able to have the Tour of Italy bicycle race start from here, but we would have had to pay €50,000 for that. In short, we need to have a lot of people who come to re-discover this Bormida Valley, which is in Liguria, but not at the seaside and therefore something in its own right. The resources are there, we just need to get organized."
Alone or in a network?
"Look, doing it alone is not going anywhere. We are trying to create a common strategy for museums: we made a brochure that includes all of them, and people can also do a "museum tour" by bike. The tourists are there, but we must manage them properly. We'll get there, possibly with a "non Ligurian” welcome, if you get my drift, but with a smile. If I see people who haved stopped in a roundabout, I'll approach them with a brochure in my hand: after the Napoleonic era, this is the contemporary battlefield."
Do you like being the mayor?
"On the one hand, I like it a lot, for the relationship with the population. On the other, it is exhausting, for the economic hardship which makes everything so difficult. This my first administrative experience: I come from the world of tourism, where I had worked before. There's a big commitment on my part, also in order to overcome the resistance of those who are reluctant to join forces: you have to make it clear that if tourism is to become a resource, it has to be managed well."
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