The newly established Italian republic and its American allies implemented a program of land reform, the Riforma Fondiaria. With funding from the Marshall Plan, the Italian state attempted to inhibit the popularity of the communist party and other left-wing movements by appropriating some of their policies. Two extensive reform laws initiated a redistribution of land that had profound effects across Italy, albeit predominantly in the south. What became a spectacular for the people and a bonanza for the state has left its physical evidence scattered across the countryside. We (Myles McCallum, Steven Seidenberg, and Carolyn White) began an interdisciplinary project to document the contemporary remains of the Riforma.
The legislation had two purposes: to subdivide large estates, and to consolidate holdings for farmers who otherwise had to travel long distances in order to manage far-flung properties. Beginning in 1950, regional Reform Authority boards (Enti di Riforma) empowered provincial authorities to expropriate land from baronial estates. The targeted landholdings were determined by variable measures of acreage and value, tabulated differently across various provinces. But all proprietors with taxable land income above 30,000 lire were subject to expropriation. In Basilicata and Puglia, the focus-area for our project, expropriations were based on per-hectare taxable income. Exemptions were made for land that was highly efficient or intensively used, as indicated by housing stock, crop yields, and labour relationships with sharecroppers — although after expropriation, even these landholders were forbidden to purchase additional parcels in excess of 750 hectares. Essentially, properties with the lowest yields were subject to the largest percentages of expropriation.
Provinces prioritized allocation recipients as follows: first, landless peasants in the towns; second, sharecroppers with active contracts in the towns; third, landless peasants or agricultural workers; and finally, peasants whose plots were insufficient to support their families, either because their acreage was limited or because the holdings were too widely scattered. The relocated farmers could not obtain title to their new fields until they had worked them for two years, but neither did they make payments until the end of the third year. Assignees were forbidden to sell, rent, lease, or divide their properties for 30 years.
More than half-a-million hectares had been distributed across Italy, families had received allocations. These varied in size, but in Basilicata and Puglia, the grant was approximately 3 hectares per family (7.4 acres). The Reform Authority was supposed to have made basic improvements before assignees moved in, including the construction of roads, houses, and outbuildings; provision of basic systems for irrigation, drainage, and potable wells; and the planting of trees. The Authority developed programs to teach modern farming methods, built schools, and in some locations erected whole new villages designed to give the relocated smallholders a wider support network. These towns fared a bit better than the individual farms, but they too are now largely abandoned.
Problems with the scheme were many, and they arose nearly immediately. Most significantly, the farms were too small. Because so many landless people qualified for the program, expropriated holdings were subdivided into parcels at subsistence level rather than family-commercial level. Irrigation was insufficient. The lots’ small size required the government to spend disproportionately on buildings, since every parcel required a farmhouse and associated outbuildings. The limited acreage meant that multiple crops could not be planted simultaneously, which would have allowed family labour to shift from field to field in an efficient cycle; instead, additional laborers had to be hired to accommodate bursts of activity as single crops matured.
Several additional factors coincided to doom the program — some cultural, others administrative or structural. Culturally, the centrally administered settlement patterns of the Riforma ran counter to the lives southern Italians had known for centuries. Authorities wildly underestimated grant recipients’ resistance to the semi-isolated farms, far from the close-knit villages and towns they had left behind. Credit, a financial lifeline to farming communities, was scarce. 9 Worse still, the land itself was poor. Riforma laws allowed the original landowners to retain the most productive segments of their pre-war holdings, with the result that acreage available to relocated farmers was of marginal quality, often suitable only for cereal crops — like wheat, the price of which was depressed in postwar Italy. The average farmer could produce 20 quintals (2000 kilos) of wheat per hectare, and expect a million lire in gross returns. Yet, after expenses, net income came only to about 200,000 lire for an entire family (equivalent today to $3107). One contemporary commentator noted, “That is starvation, or something very similar to starvation. The result is that the peasants are starting to run away from the reform lands.” Another observer remarked that “the land expropriated in 99% of the cases lacks almost everything. There are no roads, no houses, no villages, no water, and, in short, it is without the basic elements needed to establish a settlement.” Most of the new houses were abandoned within two years.