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A young Alexis de Tocqueville, just 22 and travelling around Sicily in the 1820s, wrote: “One is surprised, after crossing in almost complete isolation for eight or ten hours, to enter suddenly in a town of twenty thousand souls, without a highway, with no noise to proclaim your arrival.” These days, little has changed. About an hour from Palermo, the tiny town of San Giuseppe Jato suddenly appears from nowhere after a succession of rolling hills that reach out into the distance.
The town is the base of Francesco Galante and the team at Libera Terra, a loose web of Italian co-operatives and non-profit organisations dedicated to fighting the mafia. At any given time, this ragtag bunch of agronomists, labourers and student volunteers can be found drinking espresso in industrial quantities in their office above a petrol station, while building a small ethical tourism empire from lands seized by the state from the Cosa Nostra. They now run vineyards, farms and guest houses throughout Sicily.
Galante manages the production of the group’s wine under the brand name Centopassi. “You cannot see the sea, but it is just beyond the mountain,” he says at a vineyard five minutes away from San Giuseppe Jato, a place where the soil is so red in the sun that it looks like the surface of Mars. The grapes are tiny and nowhere near ready to be picked. “Sicily has the longest growing time, probably in the world if you include Mount Etna,” Galante sighs.
The previous owner was mafia boss Giovanni Brusca, who took over as the local capo from his father. In the mid-1990s Brusca punished a turncoat by ordering the murder of his 11-year-old son and having the boy’s corpse dissolved in a vat of acid.
Those days are over. Galante now wants these fields to produce flavours that rival any fine wine in the world. I crouch to admire the rose bushes at the ends of the rows of young vines. “They get diseases before the vines,” says Galante, explaining that the roses change colour if there’s a fungus. It’s an elegant oenological early-warning detection system; the organic equivalent of checking under your car for bombs before starting it up.
A new cantina, with soaring wooden beams and outdoor seating, welcomes tourists. As of this year, the wine is being sold in New York and London as well as Japan and Switzerland.
The name Centopassi (“hundred steps”) is inspired by Giuseppe “Peppino” Impastato, a handsome young communist who dedicated his short life to fighting the mafia. For his troubles, he was beaten, tied to a railway track and dynamited in 1978. The “hundred steps” refers to the distance that separated Impastato’s house in Cinisi from the house of Gaetano Badalamenti, the mafia boss who had him killed. Centopassi’s Nero d’Avola is dedicated to him – in fact all of the Centopassi bottles are dedicated to victims of the mafia.
More than 1,600 unions, co-operatives, environmental and human rights associations, and schools fall under the Libera Terra umbrella, including some spectacular B&Bs. I stay at the Agriturismo Portella della Ginestra near Piana degli Albanesi, once owned by Giovanni Brusca’s notorious father. It was the first mafia villa to be converted by Libera into a guest house, opening in 2005. A gregarious German gentleman, staying with his French wife, tells me they visit every year. Chefs arrive each night to prepare delicious meals using local ingredients, then leave when guests have had enough fresh food and Centopassi wine to put down a stallion. Being all alone in the Sicilian countryside could be unnerving. Its appeal to a budding Goodfella, after all, was its isolation and protected position, high up in the hills. For me, this translates into perhaps the most peaceful night’s sleep I’ve ever had.
One of Libera’s other B&Bs, Agriturismo Terre di Corleone, is deeper into the countryside and closer to the mythical heartland of the mafia. The site is more of a compound, with enough space to host a wedding. On the way in, down a steep winding road, a huge black snake slithers across the road. Galante, who is driving, comes to a screeching halt. “It could be a viper,” he says. We wait for it to cross the road.
The agriturismo is a short drive from the infamous town of Corleone. When we arrive, old men in traditional coppola flat caps are sitting on benches in the winding streets, staring. One enterprising shop owner sells posters of Al Pacino and Marlon Brando.
Libera Terra runs a store on a tiny side street where gangs of noisy, smiley schoolchildren go to listen to talks by the families of mafia victims. The shop also sells Centopassi wine and produce from various other co-ops in the group. The building once belonged to Bernardo Provenzano, the last undisputed capo dei tutti capi (“boss of bosses”), who was captured locally as recently as 2006.
As Galante and I leave the shop and the children stream out, I notice an old lady, bent over with her head wrapped, talking to a younger woman. I look at them for a moment. “That’s Bernardo Provenzano’s house,” Galante tells me, pretending to point into the distance. His family still live next door to a shop that is dedicated to celebrating their downfall, and these are likely to be Provenzano’s mother and sister. I ask Galante if we can go over and talk to them. He stiffens, and replies: “No.”
Sicilian author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote of “this secret island” where “peasants refuse to admit they even know the way to their own village in clear view”. Elio Cutrona, one of Galante’s Libera colleagues, remembers growing up here and becoming aware of the discrepancy between the lifestyles of those in the familia and the rest. “I would look and ask why all the boys had motorcycles and cars; my father would say ‘Go study’.” Cutrona, perpetually cheerful, and with wild curly hair, says the old men and women in Corleone will never talk to me about the mafia. “They say it doesn’t exist. So how can you have a conversation about something that doesn’t exist?”
During the 1980s, the Sicilian mafia began to look more like a paramilitary organisation than a secret society. “Sicily and other bits of Italy were in danger of going the way of modern Mexico,” says John Dickie, a historian and author of several bestselling books on the mafia. “The fact that it didn’t is largely down to a handful of very brave men.”
The law that allowed the state to seize mafia property and assets was passed in 1982, but it wasn’t until 1996 that more legislation was introduced, allowing the confiscated property to be given to co-operatives for reuse. In Palermo, the grass-roots anti-mafia movement has gained a new confidence in the past decade – a shift that can be traced back to 2004, when six young lawyer friends met in a bar and discussed their frustration that 80 per cent of shops in the city paid the pizzo (or bribe) to the mafia.
They came up with a slogan and plastered it on stickers that appeared on lampposts, walls and telephone booths all over town: “An entire people that pay the pizzo is a people without dignity”. It grew into Addiopizzo (“Goodbye pizzo”), a community of people determined to fight the mafia by refusing to patronise shops and businesses who paid the bribes. Those that don’t are listed on a website, and in 2009 Addiopizzo Travel was launched to help tourists find non-pizzo paying companies. Today it even runs city tours highlighting key locations in the battle against the mafia.
It wasn’t always easy. One shopkeeper who refused to pay for six months had a motorbike driven through his window. But more than 700 shop owners and 10,000 people have joined Addiopizzo, and proudly display the stickers in their windows.
The campaign changed more than shopping habits. “Fifteen years ago, this place was like the Bronx,” says Francesco, the duty manager at the Palermo hotel where I stay (though he remains reluctant to give his surname). The small piazza outside used to be an open-air drug market, but is now quiet.
Francesco says he has never been approached to pay the pizzo. And if a local tough were to come one day with a smile on his face and ask for some cash, a small amount really, nothing to be worried about, just something to make sure the hotel did not have any trouble? Francesco balks. His moustache twitches. “No. Never. I say to him: Kill me, if you have the balls.”
Kabir Chibber was a guest of Libera Terra, whose website has links to its various constituent projects: www.liberaterra.it See also www.centopassisicilia.it, agriturismoportella.blogspot.co.uk, www.agriturismoterredicorleone.it and www.addiopizzotravel.it