• Mer. Lug 17th, 2024

Magic forests and colours of hope … Italy’s abandoned fields and forests are being brought back to life by a new generation

Nov 11, 2021
Forest Sharing

Yamuna Giambastiani, an expert in urban arboriculture and natural engineering, is frank in her assessment of Italy’s green space: “Since the depopulation of rural areas and mountains began, these places have increasingly been left without owners.”
We are talking about the post-war period, an era in which there was a major lifestyle change in Italy, partly due to the reconstruction of areas that had been bombed, but also by industrialization, with the subsequent transfer of people from the countryside to the cities for better-earning work.
“Our grandparents, as long as they remained alive, kept working the land. But then, over time, as land was passed down from father to son or from grandfather to grandson, there was no-one to care for the fields, because people had emigrated elsewhere, mostly to the big cities, and so the territory was divided up among various relatives.
“If a person had a forest of 100 hectares, one generation on there were 10 heirs with 10 hectares each, until today the owners have 2 or 3 hectares each on average, according to current statistics. The property becomes so small, it’s not worth managing it and it is let go to rack and ruin. There are even people who own a wood, the fact is recorded in the land registry, but they don’t know even where it is located.”

This scenario is the cause of the major problems that the forestry sector is currently experiencing. It means that those directly involved (the owners of small plots of land) do nothing, because calling in a technician to make an evaluation or carry out any intervention becomes hugely costly.
There is no economic return to be had and what we see is the loss of the skills needed to cultivate the land. The phenomenon is like a dog biting its own tail and the situation can only get worse without effective intervention. The loss of forests also contributes to global warming and leads to intense weather events causing landslides, floods in cities, river overflows, roads being swept away, with major impacts on our living space.

The links between living beings

A parenthesis on plants (and the interaction we have with them) is required at this point! We humans, and any animal form in general, have bonds of dependence with the plant world. Literally.
Plants allow us to breathe, nourish ourselves, heal ourselves. The very link they have with existence is so strong that if they disappeared tomorrow, the Earth in a very short span of time would become like Mars, Venus or Mercury, planets where not even the most basic form of life is present.
Even today, the most common construction material we use is wood, together with paper and textile fibers.
Then there are the invisible links, those that we still don’t fully understand, which relate to the beneficial effects plants and greenery have on our psyche, our concentration, and our health.
Just a few generations ago, our grandparents and great grandparents absorbed these good vibes naturally because they lived in close contact with the forests, with the savannahs. Today that’s no longer the case, because most of us live in ever-larger cities, where there is little greenery to contemplate. And we have not been able to find replacements for what we have lost.

The truth is we tend to ignore nature. Indeed, most of us don’t see plants at all. It is a cognitive dysfunction which is called plant blindness. It seems a paradox but it’s true. Yet plant life represents 85% of all life forms on earth, while animals, all put together, make up just 0.3%.
What has happened is this: our brain has put a sort of hereditary green filter in place, so as not to overload it with information relating exclusively to plants, because in the past, at the time when our ancestors lived in nature, it was better for them to notice if there were other animals or men nearby. These were the real danger to our ancestors’ survival, not the plants.
There are a lot of psychological tests today that prove this ‘plant blindness’. Typically what happens is that the researchers show a series of slides, all of which have in common the fact that the images are made up 95-99% of plants, with maybe one per cent given over to the animal world, whether the animal be a rooster, a horse, an insect, whatever. When people are asked what they see, 97% say a rooster, a horse, an insect, without ever mentioning the plants!

That’s such a pity because we should remember them. They are truly special. We think of them as bits of fixed real estate. But no. Their real characteristic is that they cannot move from where they live. In the three months of the mass lockdown brought on by coronavirus, we began to look at the world from a point of view that we could call a plant’s eye view. We became aware of things that were previously unimportant to us. We analyzed our homes, understanding what was missing, what had to be fixed, we were attentive to our resources, even to waste, to the community around us, we helped out our neighbor in need. This is how plants have always worked!
They are a magnificent example of mutual support. They don’t do it because they are good or ethical, but rather because it is the most efficient way to keep their particulat species alive.

These are all notions that I learned last year during a long chat with the world-famous scientist Stefano Mancuso, when I interviewed him for the release of his latest book The plan(t) of the world, published by Laterza in Italy, for Natural Style. The botanist, who directs the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology (LINV) at the University of Florence, and featured in New Yorker as a ‘world changer’ – those who are destined to change our lives – told me that plants communicate and in a truly amazing way. They are able to exchange information on the environment, on the state of the ground, on many things in detail and continuously. It was the latest discovery he had made in the laboratory.

BlueBiloba staff

In Europe we no longer have primary forests

10,000 years ago there were six trillion trees, today there are three trillion, two trillion have been cut down in the last two centuries. In Europe we no longer have primary forests, that is, forests in which there has been no human intervention. In Italy, of the 11 million hectares of woods, 34% is in the hands of public authorities, 66% is owned by private individuals but 55% of these woods are untended.
The public part should be managed but often it is not. Plans for forestry tend to get left in the drawer. If the private individual has an area of less than 100 hectares, he is not subject to any rules. As Giambastiani notes, the woods are forgotten.
If once our grandparents used to go there with a pick and shovel every day, to fix a little something on their lands, today those lands lie forgotten … or they did until a new initiative offered hope.
For land owners unable to manage their terrain independently, a project called Forest Sharing is coming to the rescue. It consists of a digital platform created specifically by Yamuna Giambastiani. with six other young founding members, some from the Department of Forestry, others experts in the circular economy, who, together with technicians and professionals in the sector, run it.

Forest Sharing: a possible solution

“Five of us started working on it conceptually in 2017 with the innovative start-up Bluebiloba, a spin-off from the University of Florence,” she says. “We have everything we need to really make this work, we thought: the technological tools and calculation models learned over the years that allow us to quickly, conveniently and more economically evaluate certain parameters, such as the biomass in the woods, the impacts of usage, site systems …
“With satellites and drones we are able to monitor things in real time. We can check the progress of a construction site to quantify how much work has been done on a daily basis, but also avoid trespassing on the property of others in order not to face penalties.
“From this starting point we began to think of a business model that would work in forestry. The aim was to create a new a new way to see our forests no longer as single pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the current fragmented territory, but as if they were stitched up into a single forest, which could then be taken in hand and managed properly. We gave it the name Forest Sharing. The process wasn’t quick!
“With the arrival of Covid, we had to halt our outdoor activities and surveys and work from home, that meant we were able to focus on the development of the software and in September 2020 we debuted in the virtual world, in order to reach as many people as possible.
“We start from the presupposition that the sector is at level 0, it does not make anything for anyone or very little anyway. We have begun to introduce to this broken model, technology and new systems, but it will take some time before the wheels start to turn. That doesn’t matter. We have to start again somewhere.
“In a perfect world, the public authorities would take care of it. But that’s not happening, so we decided to start with our own resources and commitment, hoping that all this will bring us work and professional experience.”

Giambastiani continues: “The advantages are many. The owners will be able to see their forest as a precious asset in a new way thanks to a team of professionals, who will make it a place of life and growth once more. Not only that. That little parcel of land could yield an unexpected income for the owner, and will be a way to maintain a link with his or her family traditions. Forest Sharing – for its part – retains a small percentage of the value created, a model similar to Airbnb, which doesn’t collect anything until someone rents the house.
To be clear, the owner has no expenses, unless feasibility studies are requested. And a well-managed forest, it must be remembered, provides many services to the ecosystem: clean water, oxygen, protection from landslides, lowering of CO2 levels, protection of biodiversity and so on.
“Up to now we have not received any funding, neither from a fund nor from a third party. We finance ourselves with the proceeds of the work we do in Bluebiloba, because within the company we also deal with other forestry services.”

Forest Sharing: How Does It Work?

Forest Sharing works like this: The owner registers on the site for free, enters the land registry data of the forest, declares his preferred method of management, which can be based on production, recreation, fruit growing, or a protection or maintenance plan. The members carry out a preliminary analysis to evaluate and verify the options based on tree species, growth, age, type of forest, accessibility, location and conditions. Everything is translated into a form sent to the applicant.

From there, they try to stimulate interest among groups of owners of nearby terrains to develop a single project that involves companies in the sector – forest companies, trekking associations, adventure park builders, design and consulting firms – thus allowing the area to be exploited to the fullest, with a sustainable management, on the basis of objectives shared between the participants.
For example, if the owner who signs up has a forest on top of a mountain, by word of mouth he must get in touch with the relative who owns the adjacent piece of land and the one next to that, to understand what they want to do … if they intend to follow the same line, or if they have different ideas. What’s required is to manage the natural asset with an economy of scale because otherwise the costs would be too high.
The surrounding environment plays a big part in the efficacy of the project too: for example, some parcels of land can’t be ‘stitched together’ because there are little villages situated in between, or there are times when the various bits of land when all lumped together, cannot reach the necessary hundred hectares, the minimum area needed to start doing something.

A positive aspect of the project is that the forest teams expect to reactivate some supply chains, which are currently at historic lows, such as timber production. We have the trees in Italy but there are no more sawmills, so we import 80 per cent of our timber from abroad. This home-grown production can be used for slightly richer products of made from wood, and for house building and other structural uses.
“We are certainly generating a lot of interest because we managed to address a problem which was widely recognised by providing practical solutions,” adds Giambastiani.

“There is a continuous flow of people signing up. In January, when we started with the communication campaign, there was an explosion, we had a daily enrolment of 30 or 40 people. In this last period it has waned a bit probably due to the end of the lockdown, which has caused people to be able to start afresh and dedicate themselves to something else, but even so, every day new users sign up. In just a few months we have had 400 registrations bringing our total to 4,000 and with 500 hectares we are starting two new projects. One in Chianti, where the owner of a farm is trying to set up an environmental education experience using donkeys to provide experiences for children, disadvantaged people, even those with disabilities. We are giving our support so that it can develop.
“We have put together four other owners, we are working on the fifth and the idea is that in an area of about 150 hectares, previously full of oak trees woods that were used historically only to produce firewood, will be planted with new tall trees, given that the oaks have passed a certain age and can no longer be used for their former purpose.
“Another project we have is on the island of Sardinia. Here we have brought together about 15 private individuals, in two districts, to create a space of thousand hectares. Since there are cork trees, we want to set up a shared cork production project, and we even provide for a sustainable forest management certification.
“Now that the pandemic restrictions have eased, we want to get out and about in person, hoping to meet interested individuals with whom we can work. We have some initiatives and meetings with various local tourist authorities already scheduled.”

Giambastiani is on a roll: “In August we went to the Pistoia Apennine region in Tuscany to meet people who own small pockets of land who we know are in the area only at that time of the year. In that area there is a recurrent problem of black locust infestation. Our idea is to use the affected wood for eco-friendly forest hydraulic schemes.”

Time and organization are the important elements for scaling up the project.
Clearly the development of the whole process takes time and that can be an issue. Especially today, when people are used to next day deliveries after a simple click on Amazon.
“Our woods have very different life cycles and timescales to the ones we are used to and the speed at which we are used to living our lives,” Giambastiani points out.
“You cannot expect everything to be delivered at once in a forest. This can be a limitation for some. On the positive side though, if you can accept the timescales involved our method is easily replicable. Basically, just go ahead and apply it! It’s not that complicated to replicate what we have done elsewhere in the world. There are colleagues and institutions who want us to go to Greece and Croatia to help them set up projects there.”
The concept of a sharing economy, which inspires the project, is implemented not only in the development of forest management but also in the company’s own internal policies. In total there are about 15 associates. Everyone has their own skills and uses these. Links with conservationists, partner companies and the community are slowly growing.
The ‘control room’ of Forest Sharing is occupied by just four people. Lorenzo is a computer scientist, he is behind the whole internet part of the database. Guido is the front man, the one who tells clients what they do, talks to customers, and is the most experienced in the circular economy concept. Yamuna and Francesca are forestry graduates and deal with evaluations and the monitoring of on-site activities. Together they have already won a number of awards.

A strong point: more and more young people are returning to rural areas

European institutions have named Forest Sharing one of the best green business ideas of the year. Legambiente (the Italian nature organisation) has named it as the most environmentally sustainable project and selected it for a scheme to operate in Italy’s picturesque small villages. The term ‘university spin-off’, not only suggests that it is a company that prizes innovation, it’s also a guarantee of public respect.
“Above all, we have learned that you don’t go anywhere alone. To do things well you need to network,”
concludes Giambastiani. “Lately we have been noticing that some young people are leaving their jobs to return to rural or mountain areas to set up farmhouse holiday centres, vegetable gardens, trekking paths or centres offering forest bathing, a therapy that is popular in Japan. Basically, they invest their life in it.
“People are perhaps beginning to understand that taking care of the environment is necessary. This can be seen both from popular slogans and from the fact that the Government has set up a dedicated ministry for green issues. The penny is dropping when it comes to public awareness …”

Green enthusiasts also help raise public awareness when they tell their stores. Such was the case of Gaetano Zoccali, a fine writer, who recently published Natale Torre, I giardini del sole, for Officina Naturalis. It’s a book made up of words that stimulate the imagination by means of a dialogue between two friends, both plant lovers: Zoccali the author who created his Milanese garden thanks to the plants suggested by Torre and the words of Torre himself whose biography emerges from the pages.
After studying agriculture in Turin and specializing in tropical and subtropical agriculture in Florence and collaborating with the Experimental Institute of Fruit Growing in Rome (linked to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests), Torre gave up his university career to preserve his freedom as a ‘plant hunter’, without ever interrupting his research.
The book’s dialogue is the result of a few days spent in three key places in the life of the protagonist: his plant nursery – home and shop – in Milazzo, a little town in Sicily; the adjacent Giardino del Gelso, a place dear to his childhood; and the Botanical Gardens in Palermo, where Torre has been the supplier of some of the rarest subtropical flowers and fruits.
It’s a wonderful journey in which the reader cannot help but grasp the fact that the future is green .. the colour of hope.

English translation by Ronnie Convery

Barbara Majnoni
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