The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Catholics in the Italian water movement!

Last week the Italian Water Movements Forum (Forum) celebrated the anniversary of the victory in the 2011 referenda against water privatisation by giving great emphasis to news coming from Chile: the halt by the Chilean government to the Hydro Aysen hydropower project. The project consists of five big dams to be built along two rivers in the Patagonia region by an international consortium led by the Italian government owned company Enel. This emphasis on foreign policy issues does not arise from the fact that in contemporary Italy there has been nothing to celebrate after and beyond the 2011 referendum. On the contrary “la lotta continua” and is still very active both at national and local level, with the struggle for “water as human right and commons” becoming a paradigmatic battle for democracy and against the commodification of human life, inspiring also other social mobilisations around the commons. In this guest post, Emanuele Fantini discusses the struggles of the Italian water movement with a particular emphasis on the role played by Catholic groups.

The attention paid to the struggle against big dams in Chile indicates two characteristics of the Italian water movement. First, its cosmopolitan dimension and the capacity to act at different scales, holding together global water issues and local struggles. This peculiarity of the Italian water movement cannot be easily found within other social mobilisations in contemporary Italy. Second, the active role that Catholic groups, individuals and organisations, have been playing within the Italian water movement. In fact the struggle in Chile was brought to the attention of the Italian water movement and of the broader public during the 2011 referendum campaign by Luis Infanti de la Mora, Bishop of Aysen (with Italian origins). These two issues are closely related because the Catholic groups active within the Italian water movement have been among those more concerned with the international dimension of the mobilisation.

I have recently analysed the role and contribution of Catholics within the Italian water movement in the article “Catholics in the making of the Italian water movement. A moral economy”, published in the open access journal Partecipazione e conflitto. The Open Journal of Sociopolitical studies and freely downloadable here. In this post, I would like to recall two aspects of this commitment that allows to highlight two main features of the whole Italian water movement: 1) the multiple meanings of the notion of “water as a commons”, facilitating a vast social coalition with heterogeneous political backgrounds within the Italian Water Movements Forum, as well as expressing a plurality of political grievances and meanings associated with water; 2) the inclusiveness of the water mobilisation in Italy and the capacity by the Forum to promote new political allegiances and identities, rather than simply summing up already existing political actors and groups.

The Forum articulated its struggle against the privatisation of water services around the notion of “water as a human right and commons” and translated the issue into an inherent question of democracy, as affirmed in the Forum’s motto “You write it water, you read it democracy”. As Chiara Carrozza and I have shown in the book we edited on the Italian water movement – available here in open access – the notion of the commons might entail a plurality of meanings. At least three different approaches to the notion of “water as a commons” coexist and overlap within the Italian water movement: i) the cosmopolitan approach of “water as a common good of humankind”, highlighting the global dimension of water issues and promoting the participation in transnational networks against water privatisation as well as the implementation of international solidarity projects; ii) the local approach of “water as a commons of the territory”, emphasising the local and civic dimension of the struggle, (re)inventing local identities and (re)discovering the local territory, advocating for water services governance and management by municipal actors rather than regional multi-utilities companies, national bodies or transnational companies; and iii) the radical approach of “water as a commons beyond the public and the private, beyond the state and the market” that entails a sharp criticism of representative democracy institutions and explores new patterns of citizens’ direct political participation in the governance and management of local services.

All these three different approaches to “water as a commons” resonate with the Catholic Social Doctrine (CSD) message on water management and the promotion of the common good. The acknowledgment of water as a human right and commons has been explicitly included in the CSD, affirming that “as God’s gift, water is a vital element, essential for survival and therefore a universal right; water resources and its uses should be oriented to the satisfaction of everybody’s needs and in particular to the need of people living in poverty”. Moreover, CSD recalls that “given its nature, water cannot be treated as a mere commodity among others and its use should be rational and fair” and that “the right to water, like all human rights, stems from human dignity and not from a mere quantitative evaluation considering water only as an economic good. Without water life is endangered. Therefore, the right to water is universal and indefeasible”. The management of water should be inspired by the principles of fairness, sustainability, international cooperation, and poverty alleviation. The different approaches to the commons by the Italian water movement find relevant correspondence in the principles of universality, subsidiarity and solidarity that CSD associates with the notion of common good. 

The most exhaustive formulation of these positions is the one by the Pontifical Council for Justice and peace which last year published the book “Water. An essential element for life”. The Pope and the Italian bishops have reaffirmed these positions in several official statements.

The correspondence between the Italian water movement frame and CSD facilitated the mobilisation of Catholic groups, particularly during the referendum. Catholics have been involved since the very beginning in the Italian water movement at the end of the 1990s. The international roots of the mobilisation defined the profile of Catholic actors and organisations. These actors belong to the group – a relative minority within the broader Catholic constellation - of individuals and associations inspired by Christian pacifism and internationalism: faith based development NGOs belonging to FOCSIV-Volontari nel mondo (the Christian Federation of Italian Development NGOs), alter-globalisation groups encompassing Catholic activists such as Rete di Lilliput, pacifist associations such as Pax Christi and missionaries like Alex Zanotelli. Catholic participation in the mobilisation widened during the 2011 referenda. Groups like ACLI (Christian Workers Association) or “Beati i costruttori di pace” (Christian pacifist group) joined the Referendum Promoting Committee. Others like AGESCI (Catholic Scouts Association) or the Jesuit Social Network gave official, external support. Additional support came through the adhesion of the Conference of the Missionary Institutes and the Dioceses Network on Sustainability, as well as from several dioceses and parishes.

These groups’ commitment shares several features with the whole water movement. First the spontaneous and bottom-up nature: Catholics’ participation in the water mobilisation has not been promoted and orchestrated by the Church hierarchy, as it was for instance the case during the 2005 referenda on assisted fertilization. Rather, Catholic activism has been the result of local groups’ and individual believers’ interests and commitment. Second, Catholics’ presence in the mobilisation has been mimetic. Catholic identity influenced little the whole movement’s identity and its repertoires of contention. While significant in terms of individual biographies of Catholic militants, the participation in the water mobilisation fell short of reorienting the way dominant Catholic groups conceive their civic and political commitment. Third, the ecumenical character of the mobilisation for public water offered the opportunity for many people to get involved in politics - for the first time or as a renewal of past commitment - on a “noble” theme, perceived as being above partisan and short-term interests. Thus, for several Catholic believers and organisations, the water mobilisation offered the space to combine the affirmation of principles and identities with co-operation and relationships with actors from different backgrounds.

The spontaneous and mimetic character of the Catholics’ commitment within the Italian water movement inevitably implies a certain degree of fragmentation and, therefore, the difficulty to assess the scope and the specificity of their contribution. For sure, Catholics have been particularly keen in emphasising the moral, symbolic and cultural aspects of the contention, consolidating a broad and popular consensus over the principles of social justice and universality that should inspire water management. The emphasis on the moral aspects has been considered a key factor in ensuring wide identification with the water movement and adhesion to the mobilisation, particularly during the referenda, as shown by social psychologists Davide Mazzoni and Elvira Cicognani.

Thus rather than awakening traditional religious and political allegiances, the Italian water movement constitutes an original experience – also by virtue of the very nature of water – in which a plurality of political backgrounds cohabit and gave birth to a new political identity - the “water people” - and patterns of participation - “the commons movement”. These are relatively new developments within the Italian water movement that deserve further enquiry.

Emanuele Fantini ( is research fellow at the University of Turin, Department of Cultures, Politics and Society. His research interests focus on the political sociology of water management and water movements, the processes of state formation in Africa with particular focus on Ethiopia, and the role of universities and research within development cooperation programs. He has been working with the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the United Nations and different Italian NGOs in Ethiopia, Morocco, South-Sudan, Serbia and Italy.

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