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'Tough Guy' Farmers Stand Up To Italian Mafia — And Win

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Farmer Daniele Pacicca in the Calabria region of southern Italy shows the stumps of his 13 olive trees that were hacked down this summer. With the help of GOEL Bio, he was able to replace them with twice as many new trees, 26.

Imagine a tough guy who stands up to organized crime, and you probably think of a steely cop or a crusading prosecutor. But in the Calabria region of southern Italy, the tough guys who have neutralized the local mafia are not the sort you would expect.

Daniele Pacicca rides a tractor through his olive grove outside the town of Stilo, where he makes organic olive oil. His 1,200 trees are his livelihood. One morning this summer, he was shocked to find 13 of them had been hacked to the ground.

"It was like a kick in the stomach," he says. "Look at them. I don't think it was an accident that they chose the most visible ones, closest to the road. Maybe someone was trying to teach me a lesson."

Pacicca is pretty sure who that was: the 'Ndrangheta, the region's organized crime group. Typically when they attack a farmer, they'll do it again and again, until the farmer pays protection money and vows loyalty.

But that's not what Pacicca did.

"We cried out: Enough! This can't go on any longer with this mafia system," he says. "That's the idea behind GOEL."

That's GOEL Bio, a consortium of organic farmers just like Pacicca. The concept is straightforward: if the 'Ndrangheta strikes, members pitch in to help out the victim. In Pacicca's case, that meant replacing his 13 trees. But they didn't stop there.

"They chopped down 13 trees, so we planted twice as many, 26," says Vincenzo Linarello, the founder of GOEL Bio. "The idea is to send a message right away that they can't stop us. And we'll get up stronger every time they strike. They work by sending signals. So we need to send a signal."

The 'Ndrangheta has become Italy's biggest organized crime group, estimated to take in tens of billions of euros annually. According to one think tank, it's more profitable than McDonald's and Deutsche Bank combined.

"I would say that is actually a conservative estimate," says Anna Sergi, an expert on the 'Ndrangheta at the University of Essex. She says the crime syndicate gets most of its money from international drug trafficking.

"And the only way to do this is to essentially control everything that happens in Calabria," she adds. "So they engage in extortion rackets, using intimidation and violence. If you want to establish your own commercial activity, you have to essentially pay someone to get things done."

Calabria is Italy's poorest region. With local unemployment at 23 percent, many Calabrians face a choice: do business with the mafia or don't work at all.

Linarello, through GOEL Bio, gives locals a third option. What he's done for orange farmers is one example.

"Farmers around here typically earn five cents per kilo of oranges," he says. "That's exploitative. Our members earn 40 cents per kilo."

They get this because they sell to the high-end organic market in Europe, and because GOEL Bio has developed its own local supply chain that stretches from the fields to the packaging centers, all the way to restaurants, each a vetted part of the GOEL network.

Since it was founded in 2003, GOEL has grown beyond the food industry, with businesses ranging from clothing to cosmetics. This fall, it's launching a line of organic toothpaste.

For his efforts, Linarello was awarded this year with a prestigious fellowship from Ashoka, a Washington-based organization focused on social entrepreneurship. Alessandro Valera, who heads Ashoka's office in Italy, says GOEL did more than try to fix a broken and corrupt economy. Instead, it created an entirely new, alternative economy.

"One that actually works," says Valera. "Linarello believes the best way to have a long-term effect on Calabria is to have people shrug off the 'Ndrangheta as something that doesn't work, not only something that is bad."

Perhaps surprisingly, the 'Ndrangheta has not physically attacked anyone from GOEL. Bad publicity from mob hits is one reason the infamous Cosa Nostra in Sicily is in decline. So experts say the 'Ndrangheta avoids them.

"It is bad for business because it attracts attention, and definitely the 'Ndrangheta is not like Cosa Nostra," says Sergi. "They don't like being looked at. They don't have the big houses, they don't have the big cars."

But they're still known to kill on occasion. A lawyer in Calabria who was investigating the 'Ndrangheta was recently gunned down in his driveway.

But GOEL Bio keeps resisting, helping locals like Annalisa Fiorenza, who runs the 'A Lanterna farm and inn in the seaside town of Monasterace. Protection racketeers have attacked her place seven times in the past seven years. Last October, someone burned down her barn just before the citrus harvest.

"I felt like giving up," she says.

As she opens the new barn door, she explains that GOEL Bio helped her rebuild and get up and running in less than two months.

"I thought, 'No, this is crazy! There's still the smell of smoke in the air,'" she recalls. "But it was the best way to respond, to confront them together. It's the only way things will change."

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