Roddick brings image of plenty to farmers in Italian backwater

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The Independent Online
ANTONINO PORCINO has 10 hectares of bergamot trees in Calabria and a son who is a research scientist in Surrey. Mr Porcino let his bergamots - large mutant lemons with a distinctive Earl Grey perfume - rot on his trees last season, but would not dream of suggesting that his son should come home to revive the family farm.

"I keep the trees because they've always been there. They're part of our history," he said. "But we could never have made a living out of them, and we never will."

Mr Porcino did not say that to the Body Shop founder and chief executive Anita Roddick when she visited this depressed, crime-plagued region of southern Italy this week.

Indeed, far from giving her a taste of local stoicism, he had some of his over-ripe bergamots plucked from his trees, shipped to a local factory, and hurled into an extracting machine for her edification.

Mrs Roddick was in Calabria for the press launch of the Body Shop's bergamot range, products made with organically grown essential oil from the region. Here, and only here, the fruit flourishes and yields large quantities of its oil.

But the industry has dwindled since the 1970s when chemical companies came up with cheaper synthetic alternatives to bergamot oil, and the wave of ugly, unfinished buildings began flowing over the thin strip of beautiful Calabrian coast where this citrus grows best. Never one to bend before the dictates of the chemicals industry, Mrs Roddick came here for her scent.

True to the Body Shop philosophy she and her team came not only for business, but for the good of the area. Indefatigable as always when on the trail of a Good Cause, the Body Shop Community Trade division rooted out the few dogged organic producers, induced a handful more to eschew chemicals, and saved the odd bergamot orchard from the construction industry's axes. They dealt directly with the farmers, thus removing them from under the thumb of lackadaisical (or, maybe, unscrupulous) local oil extractors who year after year have paid producers less. For now, the Body Shop is taking only around 3 per cent of oil produced annually "though if the bergamot range sells well, we will be seeking to increase that", said Simone Mizzi, head of operations in Italy.

Even at this early stage, however, Ms Mizzi has noble aspirations for the Calabrian initiative. "This region has two big problems: unemployment, which reaches 65 per cent amongst young people, and the break-up of the traditional Calabrian extended family. We hope to do our bit to solve them both," she said.

The locals are happy to go along with the whole thing, though they have slightly different expectations. "It will definitely stop some bergamot trees being grubbed up and replaced with cash crops," said Diego Latella of the Assoberg producers' association from which the Body Shop is buying its oil. "But most of all, it's great publicity."

"It may generate some jobs," said Giuseppe Nistico, president of Calabria's regional council. "More than anything else, it's good to have an international company working in the region. It's all about image, really."

Mr Nistico, a pharmacologist by trade and very keen on touting bergamot's anti-viral properties in the fight against Aids, was rather dismissive of the Body Shop project, and miffed that the British company had waved aside the region's offers of tax breaks in exchange for setting up new joint venture companies with local entrepreneurs. "But we can create small- sized firms ourselves, by using European Union regional funds efficiently," he said, forecasting an ambitious 60,000 more jobs.

Mr Porcino, on the other hand, is just happy to be able to put his beloved bergamot fruits to some use. "I'm not expecting to make money out of it, with or without the Body Shop," he said. "Bergamots are something you grow for love, not for money. For the foreseeable future, I'll be telling my son to stay in Surrey."