Ismail leans over the vegetables in the middle of the field and yells at his coworker: “Lorè, aren’t you doing anything and your back hurts already?” Meanwhile, he cleverly separates a cauliflower head from its long leaves and throws it in a box waiting to receive it. His colleagues Lorenzo and Cheikh get up and move the boxes full of products after the morning pickup.
The sun is shining here in Italy today, but there is no time to stop and enjoy it. Lettuces and spinach collected from this and other soils should be washed together with cabbages and cauliflowers; delivery boxes must be prepared and loaded into the van. This is the task of Barikama, a cooperative created in 2011 by a group of young Africans of different nationalities. Many of the founders participated in the Rosarno revolt, an uprising in January 2010 in which hundreds of African fruit pickers who were being exploited in Italy’s citrus groves protested in support of a comrade who was seriously injured in an attack. racist. The rebellion broke the silence that surrounds the conditions of migrant day laborers in the Italian countryside, often in the so-called corporalates. This is a form of illegal recruitment and exploitation of agricultural workers, generally immigrants.
Ten years later, members of the Barikama cooperative are at the forefront of Italy’s deadly fight against covid-19. Every day, while people in her community are locked away in their homes, Ismail and her colleagues move between the field and the warehouse, packing delivery boxes of vegetables and dairy products to help feed an increasing number of households in the zone. “Demand has been higher than ever because people cannot go out, we are working twice as hard,” says Modibo, a 32-year-old Malian who came to Lampedusa in 2008 and is one of the co-founders of the Barikama cooperative, with headquarters in Casale di Martignano, 35 kilometers from Rome. “Every day, all day is just agriculture and delivery. Every day we get new orders and we won’t stop working because people need us. However, although it is very difficult to feel useful to people in this horrible time, it makes me very happy, “he adds.
For Modibo and all the members of the cooperative, this work is also a form of redemption from exploitation: barikama means force or resistance in the Bambara Malian dialect. The cooperative is based in Pigneto, a historic working-class neighborhood in Rome. At seven in the morning the sky begins to clear. “Something has changed in our lives,” says Modibo. “If you’re not rich, you can’t afford to heal yourself and buy medicine. If a person you love gets sick, you can’t do anything and you lose your mind.”
Every morning, the young members of the cooperative gather at headquarters to load the van, and then divide their daily chores between fieldwork, deliveries, and bringing food to local markets. One of them is the one in Trieste, in Via Chiana. While the venue is normally full of customers, since the current movement restrictions were in place only 24 people are allowed at a time. Today is Tony’s turn to take the place of Barikama. Tony arrived in Italy four years ago from Nigeria and soon after began working in the Foggia tomato fields alongside hundreds of migrants and refugees. “In Foggia they gave us four euros for each 350-kilo box, it was like a race,” he recalls.
Six years after its foundation, Barikama cultivates six hectares of orchards and produces up to 200 liters of yogurt per week.
Another member of the cooperative, Cheikh, 34, was a soccer player in Senegal and studied biology at the university. When he arrived in Italy in 2007, he worked in the fields to survive. “I looked around the situation and did the math,” he says. “In Rosarno, there were between 200 and 300 people working without contracts for more than a month. It is not possible that anyone noticed. How did they escape paying taxes on all that money they earned?”
The idea for the cooperative came from a friend in a social center they came to after the Rosarno protests in 2010. They all knew how to farm. She suggested that they get together and start producing their own food. “At first we made our own yogurt and managed to produce between five and ten euros each, which at least allowed us to phone home,” says Cheikh.
In 2014 they formed the cooperative and found a place to establish themselves, the Casale di Martignano, a farm in this town. They reached agreements with the owners of other farms to start dairy production, rent the machinery to start producing yogurt, and then cultivate the unused fields on the property. Six years later, Barikama cultivates six hectares of orchards and produces up to 200 liters of yogurt per week.
In one of the fields, Cheikh checks the weight of the newly packed boxes before loading the truck. The cooperative’s finances are carefully managed. Something is always reserved and the rest of the benefits are divided equally. According to this Senegalese, the goal now is to gain more autonomy, extend distribution and increase wholesale sales to guarantee a stable salary for all. “It is not much, but 2019 went well, we earned an average of 500 euros per month, and 700 euros in the last months of the year,” he says with a smile. “In summer, for a month, we gave up wages, but we didn’t lose money.” They now feel that they are performing a vital task to keep their clients healthy in a moment of extreme fear and trauma. “It is a beautiful thing that we help feed the community in these terrible times,” Cheikh ends as he turns to go back to work.
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