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Life on the Land: Landowners Associations in the Italian Alps

27 Nov 2017

  • Author(s): Cristina Poncibò

Life on the Land: Landowners Associations in the Italian Alps
This contribution is published as part of the UNRISD Think Piece Series Linking Resilience Thinking and Transformative Change, launched to coincide with the Resilience 2017 Conference, Resilience Frontiers for Global Sustainability, hosted by the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Resilience Alliance in Stockholm, Sweden in August 2017. In this series, experts discuss examples of policy reform and their potential to foster transformative change and social-ecological resilience for sustainability. The series contributes to a better understanding of the political processes underlying a range of policy approaches and reforms, and aims to inform global policy debates about the kinds of change processes that promote sustainability and resilience. It complements the UNRISD panel organized at the conference.

As the rocks collapse and mountainsides crumble into sometimes deadly landslides because of decades of neglect of the land and people leaving for the towns, small groups of mountain villagers in some parts of the Piedmont Region of the Italian Alps are quietly trying to improve the situation. This think piece shows how voluntary local initiatives for unified land management, supported by helpful public policy, are helping to improve sustainable rural development and the social-ecological resilience of mountain regions in Italy.

Cristina Poncibò is Professor of Comparative Private Law at the Department of Law of the University of Turin, Italy, and also lectures on Comparative Animal Law and Policy at the Department of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences. Cristina is currently participating in an international research project on the socio-legal effects of landowners associations.

Socio-environmental challenges in the Italian Alps

Land erosion, floods, and landslides are becoming a major issue in Italy. The most important driving forces behind them are unfavourable soil and climate conditions coupled with poor and improper land use, planning and management. In particular, the highlands of the Italian Alps have suffered as agriculture there has been abandoned: high-altitude villages have been depopulated and the young people who used to maintain the land have left because of a lack of job opportunities. The landscape consists of hectare upon hectare of unused and often unclaimed land divided into very small plots as a result of a land tenure system which divides inherited land between the heirs. Consequently it is difficult for any young aspiring farmers to access land. As one land-owner from Carnino, a small mountain village in the province of Cuneo, Piedmont Region, Italy, put it:
    "For over 15 years Carnino pastures were not used. The last local farmer was my father, who left in the summer of 1994. One of the main problems is excessive fragmentation: there are plots of a few dozen square meters with owners who cannot be located, and plots that have more than one owner. It’s a situation that does not allow for long-term planning." [original in Italian]

When land is abandoned to this extent, it compromises the usability of the land, the landscape and quality of life for residents.

Grassroots solutions: voluntary landowners associations

One solution to these problems is landowners associations, a model for the collective management of land born in France and introduced to Italy thanks to the commitment of mountain villagers, local municipalities and researchers in collective land management. The first to pick up the challenge, in 2012, were landowners in Carnino, and since several other small municipalities in Italy have begun to follow their example. Their efforts also benefit from state recognition and support. The Piedmont Region has endorsed these initiatives by passing a statute (Regional Law no. 21/2016) that provides economic incentives for the creation of landowner associations, known as associazioni fondiarie in Italian.

Public or private landowners join the landowners association voluntarily, while retaining ownership of their plots. The objective is to group together abandoned agricultural and woodland areas to make them economically viable and productive. Members also have the right to withdraw from the association. The economic returns of the associations are used for land maintenance and promotion, rather than being given to the members. Sometimes, associations may also decide to fund specific projects in local communities.

The association prepares and implements a management plan for the land in which the best technical and economic solutions are identified, with the goal of pursuing good agricultural practices, hydrogeological equilibrium, environmental and landscape conservation; in short, efficient land management. In practice, these associations have the following main tasks:
  • They work to identify the "silent land" (with unknown or untraceable owners) and to recover it.
  • They lease the land to members of the association, or non-members, usually young farmers living on the land, who use it for agricultural purposes or as pasture in accordance with the said management plan.
  • They provide ordinary and extraordinary maintenance of land by using the income from the leasing fees.

The president of the Carnino landowners association in Piedmont described the benefits like this:
    "By bringing together almost all the owners, it was possible to create the basic conditions for leasing land to a farmer with a five-year contract and precise land management rules, which was impossible before because the farmer would have had to deal with 20 to 30 different people." [original in Italian]

Do landowners associations contribute to building up community and land resilience?

Landowners associations are a good example of a new economic dimension that provides increased space for spontaneous collective initiatives, where the pursuit of the common good of the group transcends the direct economic interests of its individual members and, on the other hand, automatically produces benefits and positive externalities. For example, although the individual landowners do not earn returns from membership of the association, the value of their land increases thanks to the maintenance of the land provided by the association. Thus, the association benefits individual members, local communities and land resilience.

The advantages of reinvigorating mountain farming go beyond guaranteeing the economic competitiveness of the agricultural and livestock enterprises arising from land reunification. The presence of agricultural and livestock enterprises in hilly and mountain areas can allow a seasonal integrated management among farms in different environments, with positive social outcomes, such as an increase of resting periods for the farmers integrated in a collective system of management, which is not possible under traditional single farm management.

More importantly, the presence of a primary economic activity (in this case agriculture) in hilly and mountain areas is pivotal for secondary (agricultural and forest product processing) and tertiary (selling products and tourism) economic processes, with remarkable economic returns. Nowadays, sustainable management of agricultural and forest land is only possible when an adequate area of farmland is available. Thus, the development of more efficient models of collective land use can favour the recovery of primary, secondary and tertiary activities, with the development of new farms and the promotion of green tourism.

Economic, social and environmental benefits

To conclude, landowner associations are instruments for productive landscape restoration of mountain and hilly regions. At the same time, they improve the social and economic conditions of farmers and local communities, allowing them to remain on the land.

From an economic point of view, the association’s main aim is not to make a profit and redistribute profits to members. Associations established so far have decided to allocate management revenue to land improvements and community-based interventions. Through the association, young farmers have been able to start or expand their activities or to make them more effective.

Creating an association normally has a positive impact from a social point of view. It is an opportunity to rebuild a sense of community and belonging to the land, and to promote debate about strategies for effective land management within the community. It can also encourage people to combine their individual interests with the benefits of a collective vision. They are thereby likely to contribute to sustainable rural development and the social-ecological resilience of mountain regions.

State law has often failed to reach these economic and social goals. Indeed, these experiences show that community-driven initiatives, developed at the local level, may be more effective at reaching them because associations focus on community mobilization. Thus, State and local law has a necessary, but limited, place in such initiatives by providing an effective legal and regulatory framework for promoting and establishing the associations and supporting their activities.

Cavallero, A. 2013. L’Associazione fondiaria per rivitalizzare l’agricoltura in montagna, PieMonti, January-February, 25-28.

Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Kittredge, D. B.. 2005. “The cooperation of private forest owners on scales larger than one individual property: international examples and potential application in the United States.” Forest Policy and Economics, 7: 671-688.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.