With contributions from Alice Toietta, Caterina Selva, Alessia Romano, Mimmo Nardozza and Giorgio Stefani
Albeit scarcely known to public opinion, the Southern Italian region of Basilicata is a European hub for oil extraction.
Complex interests have stimulated over time poor extraction practices, affecting the environment and residents’ health. For years, local people have complained about environmental contamination and human illnesses. Faced with the inaccessibility or absence of official information, some inhabitants started carrying out ‘civic monitoring’ activities to gather evidence in support of their complaints. We follow these ordinary people in their fight for environmental information.
The Interactive Maps
In the summer of 2021, we walked slowly crossing lands affected by oil extraction in Southern Italy, precisely in the region of Basilicata, a largely invisible European hub for oil production. Latent forms of contamination often escape mainstream narratives.
Our journey in Basilicata lead to the creation of interactive maps that serve as platforms for story-telling. Maps—especially if realized ‘from below’ through the contribution of local sentinels present on the territories—can be effective tools to depict the complexity of contaminated spaces and understand one’s position, at a geographical and experiential level, in spatial extensions that can be embraced from above. And so maps built using MapBox highlight how we walked in Basilicata and the ethnographic work in Basilicata.
With each scroll, you can also walk through our journey, encountering at every step resources at key locations and the interviewed sentinel with their voice captured in a video or audio. All the people met became a ‘portrait’ of a humanized puzzle, each with their individual and shared imaginaries visible here thanks to the help of a visual artist that illustrated the sentinels engaged in our study. Most of the interviews contained in the interactive maps and the quotes from the sentinels are in Italian but in the video reportage, you can view highlights from this footage with English subtitles.
Overall, our video reportage and interactive maps illustrate how the encountered communities can find in civic monitoring answers to the transformations of the territory daily experienced. The effects of climate change are visible in the daily lives of these vulnerable people. However, our inquiry also demonstrates how the sentinels are reimagining their futures and enacting their worldviews, by contributing socio-environmental information. By pooling together data that are geo-located (thus belonging to a specific territory), the sentinels transform local ‘wounds’ (situated instances of contamination) into a joint and lively map of resistance, open to anyone who shares their concerns or is just curious. This action is visible friction with the arguably ‘closed’ approach that local institutions and companies enact in governing environmental matters on their communication fora and in handling demands from ordinary people.
This ultimately questions whose knowledge is included in the mainstream governance of oil extraction agendas. Fusing a socio-legal lens of analysis with a critical cartographic approach, we situate our study in a specific place, Basilicata, to illustrate how civic monitoring, also through maps created from below, can be a form of care, an expression of both resistance and resilience in practice. By recounting our story based on a ‘walking’ journey, we stress the importance of slowness. Proceeding slowly through our fieldwork enabled us to capture nuances such as the sentinels’ emotions and expectations. The inquiry also navigates Basilicata’s history of pollution, from which sensory experiences of lived environmental and climate degradation emerge.
By stressing how (sensor) technologies may enhance the sentinels’ actions (else, using just their own senses), the role of a twin transition comes to the fore, building bridges between climate justice and environmental justice, digital rights, and knowledge commons. Indeed, while we take stock of situated instances of resistance in Basilicata, we witness a trend that potentially opens up local struggles, tying them to overarching discourses on (neo)colonialism in resource extraction and the role of local worldviews in such discourses.
The contributions of different forms of knowledge, data and information coming from the sentinels can add nuances and a more emotional, ‘thicker’ engagement with arguments that are often distant and hard to embrace by the ordinary person unless s/he is not exposed directly to environmental harm. With each can scroll, you can see a richer and more locally bound idea of environmental impacts, with the faces and voices of people both affected by and resisting extractivism.
Hopefully, this creates a safe, common space for sharing not only data and information on situated environmental harm, but also memories and imaginaries, inviting more communities to contribute, and creating an ideal map that has no borders and embraces multiple locations.
This video (in Italian but with English subtitled) captures the full inquiry, including fieldwork and restitution.
This theatrical monologue Terramara (in English) tells the story of Viggiano, a village in the Agri Valley, in which life has been completely transformed by oil extraction (from minute 35:31).
About the Author
Anna Berti Suman is an environmental lawyer, science writer and researcher. With her experimental inquiry ‘Sentinelle’, she was finalist in the Morrione Prize for Investigative Journalism. She currently leads the ‘Sensing for Justice‘ project on civic monitoring for environmental litigation and mediation. You can see more here or contact her at anna.bertisuman[at]gmail.com.