Sicilian idyll struck by the curse of black gold

In a rustic and scenic corner of Italy an oil rush is threatening to blight the landscape, Peter Popham reports from Ragusa

"The ancient farm,” reads the internet description of Silvia La Padula’s bed and breakfast, “has an extraordinary location overlooking the surrounding countryside ... located among pastures, woods of carob trees and age-old secular olive trees.”

This is the Val di Noto, in the rustic depths of south-eastern Sicily, and many farmhouses like Silvia’s, abandoned by a dwindling rural population, have been snapped up by British buyers in the past five years.

You can see why: even during this week’s heatwave, the sun was mellowed and sweetened by breezes off the sea a few kilometres away. The food and wine are superb.

The beaches are clean and broad and the sea, here at a latitude south of Tunis, shares the pellucid clarity of the Libyan and Tunisian coastline. So strong is the appeal that the Italian press has started talking about “Ragusashire”.

The Val di Noto is also celebrated as the stamping ground of Inspector Montalbano, fictional hero of the detective novels by Andrea Camilleri, the most popular Italian writer in the world. Donnafugata, a castle a few kilometres from Silvia La Padula’s B&B, is the home, in Camilleri’s books, of the mafia boss, Balduccio Sinagra. Unfortunately for secular olive trees, not to mention all those who have sunk their savings here, the Val di Noto has just taken a drastic turn for the worse; her “extraordinary” location just got even more so – but not in a good way.

In March, to her consternation, a construction team working for the Italian chemicals and energy giant Eni arrived in a field adjoining her land and within two months had erected an 80ft-high oil rig.

The Ragusa oil rush was under way.

“At night,” the internet description of the charms of the Contada Cammarana B&B continues, “you will be able to enjoy an awesome view of a sky full of stars ... ”

Not any more: they are blotted out by the lights of the drilling rig, which works 24 hours a day. The earth trembles, orders are barked through loudspeakers to the site’s workers, and several times a minute comes a plaintive metallic moaning, like a cow in labour, as the drill bit cuts ever deeper into the bowels of the earth.

It all happened very suddenly. “A friend who is in politics heard a rumour in February,” Ms La Padula said this week. “But it was almost a secret; there was no advance information about it, nothing in black and white. Then one day in March they started digging in front of our property. We assumed they were quarrying for stone, but instead within two months they had erected this huge rig. Fifteen days ago they started work.”

It emerged that a neighbour of Ms La Padula, a farmer whose artisan cheese and ricotta have won prizes, had been persuaded to rent the land to Eni on a 30-year lease, for €80,000 (£67,000). “We make ricotta,” the farmer’s wife remarked when she paid her a visit to find out what was going on, “but now we’re going to be rich!”

“If we had known what they were planning we’d have gladly paid them that much not to let the land,” Ms La Padula says now.

Across the valley from the B&B, her cousin Salvatore Mancini runs Eremo della Giubliana, a five-star hotel in a 15th century former monastery, built on the foundations of a Saracen fort, a refuge from marauding Barbary pirates.

This is one of those places where the ageless world of the Sicilian aristocracy is still palpable: the sprawling stone possession with its 400-year-old olive trees and walled garden has been the summer estate of a prominent local family since the 17th century, and has the serenity of a stately home.

“This is the Val di Noto,” says the owner, Salvatore Mancini, an architect, “and it’s almost an island within the island. In the 16th century the Spanish kings who ruled Sicily ceded this eastern part to the local gentry. The upshot was that the two sides of the island developed in different ways. The west was divided into huge estates owned by absentee barons where the forerunners of the Mafia emerged as managers.

“But here in the south-east, the local gentry in their small estates took care of their property and the land, which is why it remains so beautiful today.”

It has been described by the Ministry of Culture as one of the most important stretches of countryside in Italy. Its beauty is of a hot, dry, dusty type that takes a while to appreciate, but when Mr Mancini takes me up in his four-seater Partenavia plane it becomes clearer.

This is limestone land, carved by the wind into rolling hills and canyons, dotted with carob and olive trees and with squat, solid “masserie”, farm houses with shallow-pitched terracotta roofs.

And in the midst of them, as stark and ominous as an alien visitation, is the oil rig. How can such a thing happen, practically overnight, in an area of great natural beauty which local activists and politicians have been lobbying for years to have declared a national park?

We are in Sicily, but according to Mancini the problem is nothing to do with the Mafia. “I never thought I’d hear myself say this,” he says when we are back on terra firma, “but today the Mafia no longer has any reason to exist. The local mayors here have no relation to the Mafia. They work in the clear light of day, and they have no need to kill anyone because no one is against them.”

The problem, he says, is the pervasive deregulation brought in by Silvio Berlusconi, who during more than seven years in power has done everything from decriminalising accounting fraud to relaxing regulation for construction.

“The high level of corruption in the government has brought incredible illegality and impunity” into the nation’s affairs, alleges Mancini.

“It is not difficult for entrepreneurs to attack the territory, as it is so simple to get permits from the government. The situation in Sicily is like the situation in Cuba at the time of Batista – but we have no Che. And I am saying that even though I’m not a leftist.”

But the oil rig is not the only blight on the landscape, just the most recent and glaring. Laissez-faire planning since the Second World War allowed the once magnificent medieval city of Ragusa to explode into a jumbled mess of high, tightly-packed, shoddily built blocks of flats.

But the oil rig’s threat has a peculiar charge of its own. The presence of oil in this region has been known about since the second half of the 19th century; in the 1950s American firms pumped low-quality oil close to the surface for use in making bitumen.

But Eni’s new project is going far deeper, more than 1,500 metres; according to one source, the oil quality even down there is still low, but the real hope, the holy grail of the drilling quest, is to hit gas.

In the meantime, Mancini points out, the drill bits slicing through the earth are not cutting through sand but limestone rock and through all its innumerable water courses, which are what render this countryside habitable. “We’re really afraid that these watercourses are going to be polluted by oil.” And more rigs are on the way: from the air we saw a second one already under construction.

A spokeswoman for Eni said: “We have never created any problem for the environment in this area, we have received full authorisation from the local authorities and have an excellent relationship with the local people.”

But Ms La Padula, whose land abuts the site of the rig, denied having received any communication from the company.

“We’re doing everything we can to fight the oil rigs,” she insists. “We’ve got the environmental organisations on our side, the environment minister Stefania Prestigiacomo, who is Sicilian, has spoken out against it, so has the president of the region, Raffaele Lombardo. But it’s like David and Goliath: there are strong powers at work here. And there is a deep ignorance of the consequences.”

But the situation is not hopeless. Three years ago a Franco-American oil company, Panther Eureka, wanted to drill for oil near the town of Noto some 30 miles away, one of the eight towns in the Val di Noto listed by Unesco as World Heritage Sites on account of their unique late-baroque architecture. But after Andrea Camilleri launched a campaign denouncing the project, the company quickly pulled out.

Yesterday Mr Camilleri told The Independent: “If Sicilians don’t want oil rigs to destroy the beauty of their region, they must simply choose administrators who have the beauty of their land at heart.”

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