Chico Mendes has identified two forms of intervention.
First of all, on 31 October and 1 November we purchased the local currency and launched a worldwide fund-raising effort to ensure that the shopkeepers who gave credit to the project and provided the immigrants with products can recover all or most of the amounts due, restoring a constructive relationship of trust with the organizations responsible for receiving immigrants.
Secondly, by setting up and supporting small-scale business initiatives and creating a market suitable for their products through fair-trade circuits, we want to return to the original economic development plan and bring new life to the Riace experience, in view of becoming progressively less dependent on public funding. For this reason we are discussing the priorities and necessary instruments with local organizations.
It will take a few more weeks to define the steps and methods, but we are working on it.
Lucano’s arrest and the start of an administrative procedure to revoke state contributions upset an already fragile equilibrium: the immigrants in the area have been abandoned, without prospects and without any source of support; shopkeepers who hold the local currency while waiting for public funds find themselves out of pocket for tens of thousands of euro; artisan workshops have been closed down.
The repeated immigrant landings in the late 90s led Mimì Lucano and others to develop a plan for the reception of foreigners which was suitable for an area sadly affected by depopulation and economic marginalisation. This is how the Riace experience began.
Over a period of fifteen years the old village was re-built and restored, weaving, pottery, glass and jam-making workshops were set up involving the local community and creating employment. The success of this model began to arouse interest both in Italy and around the world.
After a few years of autonomous growth, by becoming part of the SPRAR system the original project was distorted. On the one hand, public funding helped reduce the need for autonomous economic sustainability for integration and finding work, while on the other, public institutions, in a permanent state of emergency, put pressure on the mayor to accept ever greater numbers of immigrants. So Riace ended up with 500-600 foreigners compared to a resident population of about 1800 (the SPRAR guidelines indicate 15 foreigners in proportion to the local population in order to realise protection projects.)
Pressure from the Ministry of the Interior and the Prefecture to accept a disproportionate number of immigrants with respect to the capabilities of the village might seem a form of recognition for the excellent work carried out. However, not only did this prevent integration projects from being put into effect, it was also not accompanied by any particular alacrity to fulfil its economic responsibilities. In fact, the amounts due from the State to the Comune and local organizations were very late in arriving , often years, leading to a situation of extreme financial strain made even worse by the large numbers of immigrants.
This situation of serious economic difficulty induced reception organizations to issue a form of local currency; the Riace euro, a sort of shopping bonus in different denominations (from 5 cents to 1, 2, 10, 20, 50 and 100 euro), given to immigrants based on the amount owed by the Prefecture and the Ministry for their daily allowance. Local shopkeepers decided to accept the new currency and it began to circulate parallel to the euro.
The arrest of Mimì Lucano in October (since revoked and transformed into prohibition of residence in Riace) and the start of an administrative procedure for the repeal of SPRAR – System for the Protection of Asylum Seekers and Refugees), brought widespread attention to Riace, creating a considerable stir and proposing immigration under a different light: not one of the regulation (or blockage) of migration, but a model for receiving immigrants, that is, of experiences aimed at building ways of integrating foreigners into local communities.
These are delicate experiences, full of humanity and symbol of the real possibility for a different kind of development which, in our opinion, should be preserved and given the support necessary to evolve and become consolidated. However this depends on the creation of a wider context of solidarity than the local one as well as a network of economy capable of generating growth.
We believe the experience of Riace can be an instrument for discovering that, besides being something positive in itself, solidarity towards foreigners can help the community to rediscover its own identity and new forms of economy and development.