A Town in Mourning, a Town Reborn
A visitor to the Italian town of Casale Monferrato might be forgiven for experiencing a unique tranquillity and nostalgic yearning when they chance upon this charming conurbation in the Piedmont region of north-west Italy. It appears to have everything you could want: welcoming inhabitants, a cobblestone piazza, historic buildings, ancient churches, bell towers, chic boutiques, bars stocked with sensational local wines, restaurants and delicatessens providing fresh and delicious produce. In fact, an idyllic place or so it seems.
What the casual traveller will not know is that at the heart of this community is a man-made cancer which has destroyed lives and decimated the landscape. A town betrayed by asbestos and by the greedy industrialists who foisted this carcinogen on workers and townsfolk indiscriminately; Casale Monferrato was, for decades, home to an asbestos-cement factory owned by the Eternit multinational. In return for their daily labor, employees were rewarded with wages and cancer. Decades ago, local people were aware of the fact that no one who worked at the Eternit plant lived to old age; the Mediterranean diet was not enough to save the lives of people whose work brought them into daily contact with asbestos. The provision of free asbestos-cement waste to the community ensured the contamination spread by the plant was extensive; Eternit debris was used as hard core on sports tracks, paths and farmyards.
The town did not die even though thousands of individuals did. From its shared grief, a community action group emerged which lobbied for justice, decontamination, medical and scientific research. That this movement flourished and succeeded when so many others might have faltered is a measure of the deeply-rooted motivation of its leaders, their strategic thinking and political skills as well as the heartfelt support and engagement of the entire population. A town united in sorrow but determined to call to account those who had brought it to its knees. Ongoing criminal proceedings in the Turin Court against former Eternit executives Stefan Schmidheiny and Jean-Louis Chislain de Cartier De Marchienne are supported not only by the victims and their family members but by the wider community in Italy and abroad.
The occasion of International Workers Memorial Day (April 28, 2011) and the Sixth Annual Memorial Day for Asbestos Victims (April 29, 2011) provided the opportunity for the Casale movement to convene a series of events under the banner Un Mondo Senza Amianto (A World Without Asbestos) which included an international conference, discussion groups, strategy sessions, a municipal procession and a silent vigil at the now derelict Eternit site. Delegations from many regions in Italy and France, Brazil, Spain, Mexico, the US and the UK took part. Foreign representatives shared the experiences of other asbestos-affected communities such as those in Widnes, England, Getafe, Spain and Corsica.
Having participated in these events, one impression supersedes all the others. The social disaster which Casale Monferrato has suffered has transformed the entire population into citizen-activists. Young and old, working class and middle class, everyone has been mobilized; everyone has a thirst to see justice done. Having pressed for legal redress for so many decades, the Turin trial is the focus of local attention and civic hope. Of course, any decision will be appealed, but a guilty verdict will confirm that the evil deeds perpetrated in Casale Monferrato are finally receiving the judicial attention they warrant.
Images of Solidarity and Remembrance, Casale Monferrato, April 2011
May 3, 2011