New Internationalist

Tearing The Veil

Issue 294

Tearing the veil
Popular protest can make a difference and even the people who produce landmines
can take a moral stand, as Italy’s Nicoletta Dentico discovers.

‘Conversion’ might be too dramatic a term to define the process. But there’s no denying that the Italian Campaign to Ban Landmines – a coalition of 44 non-governmental organizations and 176 local councils – has contributed to the change of heart of individuals who were prominently involved in producing some of the world’s deadliest landmines. The ongoing relationship between campaign members and those with the moral fibre to question their approach to a problem they helped create is proving to be one of the most enriching experiences of this adventure.

‘I always knew that I was constructing weapons. Landmines. We all knew it here, obviously. Castenedolo has made its fortune on the production of landmines. What we were not aware of was the devastating result of our work, the real consequences for human beings in other parts of the world. That is how we have been deprived of our dignity. That is why we have to say: Enough!’ Franca Faita, 49, a militant trade unionist who had worked for 27 years with Valsella, one of Italy’s most notorious landmine producers, used to take for granted the nature of her job. But things began to change when the ripples of the anti-landmines movement touched these inhospitable shores in the north of Italy. Here the Campaign to Ban Landmines hosted its first three-day rally in September 1994, bringing to the very cradle of Italian landmine production some 5,000 demonstrators holding pictures of people injured by mines, walking on crutches to make their point. They were addressing the responsibility of the small community of Castenedolo for landmine contamination worldwide.

‘Why do we have to kill to work?’ was the banner that Franca Faita and three of her colleagues from Valsella – also women – decided to bring to the demonstration, on behalf of their colleagues. The veil had been torn, as had never happened before. ‘It was like a real detonation,’ she says, commenting on the episode, which confirmed her decision to become a conscientious objector.

The first reaction of the people in this peripheral town, whose wealth hinges upon the military industry, was outright self-justifying hostility. Stigmatizing landmine production implied criminalizing the whole development pattern of the area.

But the courage of the few kept the momentum. Franca brought the trade unions to grips with the humanitarian plight provoked by landmines, compelling them to stand by the pro-ban Campaign. She broached the matter with the workers inside the factory – a difficult exercise that won her more enemies than friends – engaging internal debate on the need for conversion to other, more peaceful, kinds of production. A signal of solidarity came from the town council of Castenedolo, whose mayor pushed through a resolution in support of the landmines ban. It was the first formal adhesion to the International Campaign coming from a local government: a controversial decision that has fuelled heated reactions from Valsella, and within the local community.

Favoured by the lack of any codified legislation on arms trading, Valsella had built its success in the 1970s and 1980s by combining its grisly produce with highly unscrupulous management. It was responsible for the deadly scatterable antipersonnel mines VS-50 and VS-MK2, and the notorious bounding mine Valmara 69, which has a lethal radius of 25 metres but is still able to injure or blind people at 300 metres.

Aggressive marketing to the world’s hottest conflict areas was the company’s policy of choice. Valsella landmines have been profusely used in the Western Sahara by the Moroccan Army, as well as in Somalia, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Cambodia. Production licences to companies in different parts of the world have guaranteed the presence of Valsella-designed mines in the most varied military scenarios. A disclosed shipment of 90,000 landmines to Paraguay (the real destination was South Africa, under embargo at the time) enabled Pretoria to become a partner to the licensed construction of Valmara 69. And when the boom in war-business happened during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Valsella stepped in with huge shipments of antipersonnel and antitank landmines to Saddam Hussein, resorting to illegal exports in order to keep up with the Iraqi demand.

This marketing policy paid off: revenues soared from 10 billion lire (around $5,850 million) in 1981 to 80 billion ($46,770m) in 1982 and 107 billion ($62560m) in 1983, capturing the attention of Italy’s largest private manufacturing firm – the automobile giant Fiat. Faced with the prospect of mouth-watering profits, Fiat took over Valsella in 1984.

But the golden years were coming to an end. Italy’s decision to tighten arms export controls in response to embarrassing publicity about illegal trade crippled Valsella’s freehanded approach: seven officials were arrested in a 1991 Italian criminal proceeding for illegally selling $180 million worth of munitions to Iraq, including nine million antipersonnel and antitank mines, the largest landmine sale ever reported.

Also, the saturation of the global landmine market forced the company’s management, for the first time, to switch part of Valsella’s workforce into Fiat car production.

In this phase of uncertainty, with unemployment looming in the workers’ minds, the Italian Government, responding to national pressure to prohibit antipersonnel mines, adopted a unilateral moratorium on their production and export in August 1994. Fiat was quick to attempt to escape the negative publicity, declaring in October that its shares had been sold back to Valsella. But campaigners at the beginning of 1996 got hold of documents from the Brescia tribunal proving that Fiat still had 50 per cent of shares in Valsella as late as 22 November 1995 and no further evidence has emerged to the contrary. Valsella is unrepentant and is biding its time waiting for the chance to market its mines again. It has been an active participant in military fairs showing off its new landmine scattering systems and its so-called ‘smart’ antitank mines. While all but the few workers diverted into car production are now living on unemployment benefit, landmine engineers have kept their jobs and continued working as usual. Campaigners have argued that Valsella could with Fiat’s help switch to producing airbags for cars without hefty amounts of investment. But Fiat is not interested.

Franca’s fight continues, meanwhile, bolstered by the conviction that the goal of a ban is a realistic one. ‘The world wants the ban, and will get it sooner or later. Valsella will have to come to terms with it then.’

Vito Alfieri Fontana, the owner of the landmine-producing company Tecnovar (which began life as Valsella South), based in southern Italy, has no doubts about it: ‘The movement, nationally and internationally, is too strong now to be defeated. A total ban on landmines will be introduced; it is only a question of time. Reluctant governments and producers alike will have to accept the fact, whether they like it or not.’

He inherited the factory business from his father, Ludovico Fontana, a pioneer in the move towards plastic mines in the 1960s. This choice proved key to the company’s market success. By the mid-1980s their mine systems dominated the domestic Italian market and had won important export contracts in North Africa (Tecnovar mines were produced in Egypt throughout the 1980s under licensing agreements) and the Middle East (Qatar, Iran). But profits began plummeting at the beginning of this decade and production (with the exception of Egypt) went into decline. The workers, initially covered by unemployment-benefit schemes, found themselves strangled by usury, a sadly common phenomenon in the poorer south.

Vito Fontana makes no secret that his abjuration of military production, and the consequent attempt to reconvert the company’s production, derives from economic realities. At present production has ground to a standstill: only small quantities of mines for use in quarrying are being produced. But there is something deeper in Fontana’s farewell to landmines: a moral process spurred by a series of personal circumstances, ‘unambiguous signs’, he calls them, that it ‘would be a terrible mistake to ignore, or disregard, out of prejudice towards me and my past role.’

With the war in Bosnia still ravaging the Balkans, he received a letter from Monsignor Tonino Bello, President of Pax Christi Italy, raising the issue of landmines after hearing in Sarajevo about the presence of Italian munitions there. ‘The message was an invitation to take up my responsibility and consider the magnitude of the problem, not only in Bosnia; he also invited me to discuss the question together at a public meeting to be held shortly after. Unfortunately I missed the meeting, but I never got over Monsignor Bello’s words.’ The Bishop died a few months later.

The discussion he’d missed came about in disguise, when Fontana accompanied his 10-year-old son to visit the company for the first time. A sort of initiation, such as he had once received from his own father. The child’s questions were like daggers.

‘Dad, why do we produce landmines? I heard my teacher say that these weapons kill children when they are playing, once the war is over.’

‘If we did not make these weapons, somebody else would do it, son.’

‘Yes, but why must it be us doing it?’

Unyielding innocence! After that conversation, Fontana contacted the Italian Campaign for a meeting. We have had quite a few, since then. His information on landmine production worldwide proved invaluable to Human Rights Watch when it compiled its recent report on the issue. He has also assisted us in drafting a credible and comprehensive law banning landmines for the Italian Government to debate.

Nicoletta Dentico ( nicoden@flashnet.it ) is a journalist and member of the NGO Mani Tese which co-ordinates the Italian Campaign to Ban Landmines. In the past Italy was one of the three major landmines producers in the world, together with USSR and China. Today the Italian Government seems to be on the path to a total ban. The Italian Campaign to Ban Landmines is based in Rome:
Via dei Banchi Vecchi 58, 00186 Roma, Italy
Tel: +39 6 6868959  Fax: +39 6 6871477

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Copyright New Internationalist Magazine 1997


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