The Cooperativa Co.R.Ag.Gio (Cooperativa Romana Agricoltura Giovani) and renewed uses of public farm

Author: Mauro Conti, University of Calabria

1) Objectives and highlights

The Cooperativa Coraggio campaigns for a better use of public land while also developing a pilot project on 22 ha belonging to the municipality of Rome. This exemplary project associates social, organic, multifunctional agriculture by young people and capacity development facilities. It aims to showcase the positive effects of opening access to resources and true generational turnover, with economic and administrative support from public actors. Benefits also include rural-urban synergies, by cultivating 'proximity' agriculture next to large urban centres and making green spaces a new resource for a “liveable city, far from the logic of building speculation, a city once again capable of producing the goods necessary for its survival, aiming at self-sufficiency”.

2) Stakeholders involved

Local authorities involved

  • Municipality of Rome

  • Regional government of Lazio

  • Arsial (Regional Agency for Rural Development)

Other stakeholders involved

  • The Cooperativa Coraggio

  • Citizens’ committee (supporting the Cooperative’s advocacy work)

  • NGOs (Terra!, Crocevia) and environmental associations: political support, technical support, funding

3) Context and levers

In Italy, the land market is not differentiated, in terms of regulation, between agricultural land and land for urbanisation. The municipalities can decide freely on the use of land as the law on land consumption has been blocked in the parliament for many years. Moreover, the financial capital of the agro-industry is spreading over the land market. This creates a context of high land prices that make land acquisition a challenge for new farmers. Some challenges regarding renting land also exist. There is a lack of schemes in Italy to incentivise investment in rented farms (lease contracts do not allow recovering the investments made by the farmer to improve the land and farming conditions if the contract ends before the agreed date).

In this situation, public land can present opportunities for access or rent through a mechanism of assignment which considers different factors, including sunk costs by the farmers. In Italy, there are 715,000 ha of utilised agricultural area (UAA) of public land, of which 380,000 ha belong to the State Property Agency alone. The process of assigning public land, by tender and lease, is slowly taking off with the Sibater project (institutional support for the implementation of land banks), led by ANCI (National Association of Italian Municipalities). Rome is one of the largest agricultural municipalities in Europe and the largest in Italy. Following the advocacy work of the members of Cooperativa Coraggio, in 2015, the municipality decided to assign 100 ha of public land in four agricultural areas, while the Lazio Region assigned another 300 ha in seven areas.

4) Actions led

In 2013, after the Cooperativa Coraggio launched the awareness campaign #publiclandtoyoungfarmers with the support of local NGOs and citizens, the Rome municipality published the first open tender to access abandoned public lands. The municipality and Lazio Region availed a total of 400 ha of land, of which 22 ha were awarded to Cooperativa Agricola Coraggio in Borghetto san Carlo. The Borghetto San Carlo land is located in Lazio's fourth largest natural park, the Parco di Veio, which is bordering the city and populous metropolitan neighbourhoods. Since 2015, the cooperative has developed a pilot project on this land, demonstrating the possibilities of multifunctional periurban agriculture on public land.

The cooperative accommodates young members of different socio-economic, professional and educational backgrounds, provides agricultural services to the Borghetto San Carlo community and connects the local youth with a broader network of social farming cooperatives. The cooperative's pilot farm produces organic food and provides social and environmental services for citizens, including: an orchard and vegetable garden of local biodiversity; the cultivation and reproduction of rare or experimental cereals; artisanal product processing; educational farms and training for adults; an open-air agri-restaurant and picnic area; social farming and hospitality; beekeeping; proximity products sales point; a recovered wooden play area. In order to generate additional incomes and more support at the municipal level, the Cooperativa Coraggio is also organising concerts, food events, organic markets and trainings for new entrants in agriculture.

In parallel, Cooperativa Coraggio has continued its advocacy activities, which include work and dialogues with municipal governments, and negotiations for public financial support. It has collected 10,000 signatures to demand compliance with a building compensation agreement passed with a private construction company. This should provide for the restoration of abandoned farmhouses, at a cost of almost 3 million euros, for the benefit of the municipality of Rome. In the last period, Cooperativa Coraggio has assumed a prominent role in the Food Policy discussion for Rome.

5) Limits and perspectives

The practice of Cooperativa Coraggio is mainly originated by acting on public land. The awareness campaign generated a new policy at the regional level for the assignment of public lands (400 ha). The actions described are building a new rural-urban continuum through public policies. This contrasts with the 'environmental discontinuity' that used to take place and contributes to making green spaces a new resource for the city.

The limits of the practice are related to the lack of infrastructure to develop the multifunctional activities, which are limiting the profitability of the pilot project. Indeed, in the local context (but also more generally at regional and national level), there is a lack of rural extension services and food processing facilities such as mills, laboratories for vegetable processing, slaughterhouses, etc. This hampers the maintenance of viable farms and secure access to land in the long term. In addition, the Regional agencies for rural development in Italy have been weakened, dispersing considerable professional competencies, such that training in agriculture is now mostly in the hands of the biggest private farmers organisations (e.g. Coldiretti, Confagricoltura). This results in the lack of public services for agricultural training at Italian level.

New perspectives are generated by the progressive restoration of abandoned farmhouses. The assignment of farmhouses together with the public land is opening an opportunity to integrate restauration and catering services into the farming activities, creating the conditions to add value to agricultural production. This opportunity will strengthen the new rural-urban continuum created through the recent public land policies.

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