Restoring ecological balance and building community: Rocciaviva’s network in Basilicata

Oct 2023

Association Rocciaviva (Living Rock in Italian) was born out of Pietro Franco’s desire to help his community and restore the region of Basilicata, Italy. Located in the southern tip of Italy, between the “toe” and “heel” regions of Calabria and Puglia, the Basilicata region is home to some of the oldest continuously inhabited human settlements in all of Europe, including the rock cut town of Matera, which has been inhabited in some form for over 10,000 years. This long history of human habitation has been accompanied with massive ecological change, from the Roman Empire’s clearcutting of forests for shipbuilding, to the expansion of intensive, monocrop agriculture in the 19th and 20th century. This has left Basilicata with a highly disturbed and degraded ecosystem.

A disturbed landscape

Few of the original forests that covered the region are still standing, and as agricultural fields are abandoned, the degraded soils have become susceptible to desertification. Today, less than 10% of Basilicata is dense intact forest, and more than 50% is under heavy cultivation. Climate change, and the naturally dry climate of Basilicata, have exacerbated this situation.

A Basilicata hillside

This was the landscape that Pietro grew up in, but he was only inspired to establish Association Rocciaviva after a period of extensive travel. When he was 17, Pietro left Matera to study and travel, visiting Canada, Latin America and France before, eventually landing in China for graduate coursework in biology, where his experiences of urban air and water pollution caused him to reflect on the way that his own home in the south of Italy had been environmentally degraded. Pietro continued traveling and studied regenerative agricultural and ecological restoration practices in Japan and the Philippines, where he earned his permaculture design certification. When he returned to Basilicata after 13 years away, he resolved that he would be part of the solution to the problems that they faced.

Recent Land Cover and Land Usage Changes in Basilicata (Cillis Et. al, 2021)

Building community and restoring habitat

Like many regions of southern Italy, economic factors have driven young people to leave for the north or abroad to find work. This trend has only exacerbated in recent years, with Basilicata experiencing a declining population over the past 2 decades, with the region’s population declining by roughly 3000 per year. Pietro was surprised, then, when he encountered many other young people who had also had similar travel experiences and returned home hoping to make a difference in the region’s ecological recovery. He initially hoped to create an eco-village, but realized that a network of restoration projects in partnership with local landowners had greater potential to make change.

Starting in 2018, Pietro organized with other like minded Basilicata residents to begin restoring agricultural and forest land surrounding Matera. They began by working with local landowners to restore their abandoned and working farmland. In 2023, they were able to purchase a piece of land that they hope to turn into a nursery for native trees. Restoring an area as degraded as Basilicata is not easy. Years of intensive farming have led to degraded soils that erode easily, and the lack of tree cover has reduced the resilience of the ecosystem to extreme weather events. The first priority is restoring the soil. “On the lands we already own we are mulching all the time,” says Pietro. On working lands, they are encouraging cover cropping and reduced tillage to help build and maintain the soil, which will both improve soil quality and the farming function of the area.

A working lands restoration project in Basilicata

Once the soil is able to sustain plants, they work to build up the resiliency of the landscape to erosion and extreme weather, through the use of swales, cover cropping, tree lanes, and other techniques. The disturbed environment, and agricultural practices makes restoration work difficult. Pietro remarked that; “The biggest problems here are fires. Last year’s work was lost because a road-fire came and destroyed a large part of our plantings… The owners of the fields burn off their excess crops, and the fires can spread really far and fast, because there are no windbreaks.”

Since its inception, building networks with the local community has been essential to Association Rocciaviva’s work. They organize monthly community activities to help people learn more about Association Rocciaviva’s work and goals, and the history of the ecosystem. In 2019, they launched a permaculture design course and added a Eco Buildings course, developed with the help of Cal Earth.

Planning future projects on Association Rocciaviva’s main site and future nursery

Creating a nucleus for agroforestry

Pietro recognized that Association Rocciaviva could work more effectively if it partnered with other like minded organizations, and, after watching a documentary about John Liu’s work, reached out to Ecosystem Restoration Communities to suggest a partnership. After joining the Ecosystem Restoration Communities network in 2021, Pietro leveraged the network to help bring expertise to the project. He says that being able to reach out to the Ecosystem Recreation Communities network of scholars and database of restoration knowledge is one of the greatest advantages of the network.

Association Rocciaviva is currently expanding its capabilities for hosting volunteers, and hopes to be able to  improve its infrastructure to regularly provide opportunities for ecosystem restoration experiences in the future. Pietro’s goal is to eventually completely shift the way agriculture is practiced in Basilicata “Agroforestry is the future. As humans we need to find ways to be integrated into the forest, as part of the biome and of the ecosystems and not as something at the top of an illusionary pyramid we created. More than just plants and Animals, I wish to see water flowing on the land with rivers and natural lakes.”

A variety of tree species ready for restoration planting on Association Rocciaviva’s site

Pietro is hopeful about what Association Rocciaviva can accomplish, but realistic about the challenge ahead. “In 10 years, I want to see 30-40 hectares restored. The land we bought is surrounded by land owned by older people, and perhaps we can spread and create a bio district if they are interested in selling.” He plans on continuing Association Rocciaviva’s work organizing the community as well. “We are building a network of young people, not just for ecosystem restoration. We hold festivals and other activities, and are creating community gardens and handicrafts. We are trying to strengthen this network and create jobs. This will take time. But I’m not in a rush.”

Read more about Ecosystem Restoration Community Rocciaviva

Volunteer blogger Ezekiel Maben is a sustainability professional with experience in project management, research, policy development and organisational collaboration.