Living in a Contested Environment: On Strategic Not-Knowing in the Aftermath of the ‘Quirra case’

by Chiara Carboni

“I had no idea people were still talking about this. They have even reopened the beach!” Ernesto (the name is fictitious) is probably in his late 70s, but may be much younger: his skin, shrivelled and darkened by Sardinia’s sun, makes it tricky to tell his age. We are in Porto Corallo, one of Villaputzu’s beaches. Some friends have quite abruptly introduced him to me, for he is a farmer living close to Quirra, the tiny fraction of Villaputzu’s municipality that has repeatedly hit the headlines of many local and national newspapers in the last 10 years.

Last summer, in order to complete my M.Sc. in Medical Anthropology dissertation, I carried out a five-weeks-long ethnography in Villaputzu, a village in South-Eastern Sardinia, Italy. One of the biggest training and testing military ranges in Europe, the PISQ, is located in that area, and covers 13,400 ha. Since 1959, this space has been used as a training area for both Italian and international corps. Territories under the PISQ jurisdiction are used ‘dually,’ that is, local farmers have often been able to keep farmland inside the PISQ perimeter; only during exercises and weapons tests are they forced to ‘evacuate.’

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Figure 1. Location of the PISQ. Source: Google Maps.

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Figure 2. Mountains and radar systems in Quirra. In the distance, next to a 16th century defensive tower, buildings belonging to the PISQ.

In 2001, a local GP signalled an incidence of leukaemia and lymphomas considered abnormal in a population living in one of the most rural parts of Sardinia. Shortly after that, two vets informed local authorities that a significant amount of livestock in farms located inside and nearby the perimeter of the PISQ were born with severe congenic deformities. Alarmingly, such births usually coincided with the onset of tumoral pathologies in farmers.

A six-year-long trial ensued, and is still proceeding: several (but not all) communities located along the PISQ borders brought a civil action against eight generals serving inside the range. Scientific evidence of pollution is not overwhelming (also local health authorities have often proven uncooperative, causing analyses to be carried out sloppily), but present. However, in a dynamic that reminds of Conway & Oreskes’ study on corporate manipulation of science in debates on tobacco smoke and global warming (2010), it has routinely been treated as contestable both by the media and lawyers.

That is why Ernesto looks astonished: his community has been plagued by fear and suspicion for years – all the more so since the PISQ is widely perceived as one of the main sources of income for what is otherwise a generally impoverished area: not only was the local economy affected by a decline in tourism and export of local produce, but the community of Villaputzu was plagued for years by internal divisions and rivalry between those who ‘believed’ in pollution, and those who firmly denied it. And this has led to no significant changes: last summer, after several years during which it had been inaccessible, even the beach of Murtas, which is periodically used for military exercises and rocket launches, has been reopened to the public.

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Figure 3. Mandatory turn on the way to the beach. This part of the PISQ perimeter, in an area heavily frequented by civilians, is not signalled by walls or barbed wire: only the signs in the background inform of the presence of a military zone and command to keep out.

In the almost 50 years of existence of the range, residents of Villaputzu had become used to seeing military waste scattered in the woods and on the beach that is periodically used for PISQ-related exercises. This community, nonetheless, strikes as a quite hierarchical one (cf. Douglas & Wildavsky 1982), where scientific and political authority is highly valued. Therefore, when public health concerns were raised, residents started to construct military waste as pollution, thereby reconciling their experience with environmental concerns expressed by experts.

Unfortunately, other sources of authority have been used in this case to enact a “labor of confusion” (Auyero & Swistun 2008:360): some scientists (usually upon request of the generals’ attorneys) have contested the first findings. All of this happened in an institutional vacuum, since the Italian government did not participate in the civil action, and only provided the generals’ attorneys. Local authorities, consistent with the population, are progressively taking a more accommodating stance towards the PISQ.

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Figure 4. One of the rare antimilitarist graffiti on a tunnel wall near Villaputzu. The creepy human-like figure holds a missile in its hands, and asks “What the f*** am I supposed to do with this? – NO BASES” (the swearword has been censored). The sign on the left reads “We are not NATO’s partners in crime.” According to activists, antimilitarist graffiti, as well as fliers announcing demonstrations, are duly removed from the walls of Villapuztu a few hours after they appear.

People in Villaputzu hold quasi-messianic expectations around scientific knowledge: they are adamant that, once a ‘serious’ scientific study is carried out, ‘the truth’ will emerge. They have been taught to always ask for more evidence. But science can hardly provide the incontestable truth they are after. Therefore, meanwhile, most of them, like Ernesto, navigate their everyday experience obliterating their “uncomfortable knowledge” (Rayner 2012): they attribute more value to signs and facts that seem to contradict the reality of pollution, marginalise local antimilitarist activists, and stop taking interest in the trial. In Villaputzu, like in many communities affected by cases of contested pollution, ‘not-knowing’ becomes a precious device freeing people from the moral duty of providing for their and their loved ones’ health, of engaging in community debates, and of claiming redress from the government.

Chiara Carboni graduated from UCL’s Medical Anthropology programme in 2017, with a dissertation entitled ‘Hazardous as Usual: Living in Villaputzu in the Aftermath of the Quirra Case.’ She is currently pursuing a Research MSc in Cultures of Arts, Science, and Technology at Maastricht University.

References:

Auyero, Javier & Debora Swistun. 2008. The Social Production of Toxic Uncertainty. American Sociological Review, 73 (3), 357-379.

Conway, Erik M., & Naomi Oreskes. 2010. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. New York, Berlin, London: Bloomsbury Press.

Douglas, Mary, & Aaron Wildavsky. 1982. Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technological and Environmental Dangers. Berkley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press.

Rayner, Steve. 2012. Uncomfortable Knowledge: The Social Construction of Ignorance in Science and Environmental Policy Discourses. Economy and Society, 41 (1), 107-125.

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