Italy's first national park on brink of extinction

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The Independent Online
The exclusive Italian resort of Portofino, a favoured holiday destination of Europe's élite, would seem an unlikely place for a battle, but the troops are armed, the battle lines drawn and today is the final offensive.

The exclusive Italian resort of Portofino, a favoured holiday destination of Europe's élite, would seem an unlikely place for a battle, but the troops are armed, the battle lines drawn and today is the final offensive.

At stake are 4,600 hectares of unspoilt native bush and pretty seaside towns that have, unlike the rest of the Italian Riviera, avoided being covered in cement, multi-storey hotels and beach umbrellas.

On one side are the mayors, who want the boundaries of the national park, with its environmental restrictions, to be reduced by 75 per cent to a little more than 1,000 hectares. Defending the strict conservation measures are environmentalists and heritage groups ­ with the tepid support of left-wing political parties ­ who are saying that any roll-back will lead to uncontrolled development.

At a meeting today of the Ente Parco, the nominally independent body that oversees the reserve, those seeking to reduce the boundaries want to push through the measure, and believe they have the numbers to do so. The Ente Parco has been paralysed for nearly a year by the local authorities. They have boycotted meetings and forced the former president to resign. Their crusade has been backed by the centre-right coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi, which governs the province and whose members made electoral promises to abolish the reserve.

The park, which covers a promontory on the Ligurian coastline to the north-west, is home to Portofino, Santa Margherita and Camogli, as well as other less glamorous coastal towns. Set up under Mussolini's fascist rule in 1935, it was Italy's first nature reserve. Its tight restrictions on building houses or roads have been crucial to maintaining the natural beauty of the area.

The confines, which were extended in the Eighties, take in all or part of seven small seaside towns. New buildings, hunting and landing helicopter are forbidden. Even minor modifications of existing buildings need special permits.

The most vocal opponents of the park's restrictions are hunters and farmers. Adriana Amici, a retired biologist, whose village can be reached only by foot or by boat, says he often comes across hunters right on the park's borders. "They are a very powerful lobby and they can't see why they can't take a shot at sparrows wherever they like," he said.

Federico Valerio, the Ligurian president of the heritage association Italia Nostra, says the centre-right coalition has started a disinformation campaign. "They have spread false news telling farmers that the park means they can't cut firewood, can't mow the grass, can't take animals to graze. They have created an atmosphere of resentment towards the nature reserve," he said.

But environmentalists see a much bigger threat ­ that of unbridled construction. Piero Ottone, a leading commentator for La Repubblica newspaper and a resident of Camogli, said: "The local mayors have deliberately eroded the power of the Ente Parco so they can have total control over what happens in the territory.

"The damage won't happen overnight. One day there will be a road across the mountains, then there will be more houses, and more roads to reach the houses."

Portofino is especially tempting to building speculators. It has been beautifully preserved since the Fifties, when it was frequented by the Hollywood jet-set. Rex Harrison and Rita Hayworth were regular visitors for years. Now, the splendid villas on the hills are owned by, among others, Dolce and Gabbana and Rosanna Armani, as well as wealthy Italian industrialists and aristocrats.

Enrico Mussini, the Portofino delegate to the Ente Parco, wants the reserve cut back to its 1935 boundaries, and wants restrictions eased in the town centre. He said: "If our town has remained an oasis it is because it has been well governed, and it is right that we decide how to govern our territory. We are not going to do something stupid like build a skyscraper in the town square, and this talk of building speculation is nonsense."

The new president of the Ente Parco, Piero Crovetto, says he hopes to find a balance between the needs of the local people and the concerns of the wider community. He also favours a return to the 1935 confines. "I think it is better to return to the original area and defend it well. Then the administrators of the surrounding areas are free to apply extra restrictions in their territory if they wish," he said.