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Italian town sees sustainable efforts benefit community, economy

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(Read caption) Chuck Burr explains his organic seed growing techniques May 12, 2014, on his farm outside Ashland, Ore. An Italian small town has been transition to becoming more sustainable in the last 20 years, like having organic farms.

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Twenty years ago, Varese Ligure, a small town in Italy, moved into the 21st century ahead of schedule. By skipping over chemical focused farming techniques and transitioning towards renewable energy, this village in the La Spezia province of Italy found a way to survive economic decline. Traditionally a conservative and isolated farming community, Varese is now a sustainable tourist destination known for its organically produced produce and complete reliance on renewable energy. 

At the end of the 1980’s, Varese looked at the edge of collapse. With no jobs and no industry, its population dropped from 6,000 to 2,250. But town leadership refused to accept their fate and decided to find a way to strengthen their community and economy.

The mayor of Varese, Maurizio Caranza, realized that the town’s traditional weaknesses could be used to create a future that would benefit the whole community. The lack of modern industry and business as well as chemical-free farming practices had allowed the isolated valley to remain clean and unpolluted. Varese could be an idyllic sustainable tourist destination, where old Italian architecture mingled with new wind turbines and solar panels. 

Before organic farms built a large following and before renewable energy gained the attention of most of the developed world, Varese took a gamble and formed its future around these techniques and technologies. “We realized the only thing to do to prevent the village from dying was to protect the environment and rehabilitate the agriculture sector,” says Caranza.

Even with the foundations of a clean environment in place, the transition took time and education. When the City Council adopted their new strategic plan in the early 1990s, they dedicated time and resources towards creating an education system that would help create a community that values sustainability long into the future. In 1996, they formed the Environmental Education Center (CEA) which uses the classroom and the field to educate school children and adults about organic farms, dairy cooperatives, wind turbines, biomass, solar panels, and sustainability.

After education courses and realizing that organic products yielded higher economic returns, farmers recognized the value of organic certification. Most of these farmers, in fact, already avoided chemicals, primarily due to their high cost. Now, 108 organic farms supply 98 percent of the town’s produce, meat, and dairy

Renewable energy accompanied this transition towards organic farming. The town uses four wind turbines to produce eight gigawatts of energy per year, three times more electricity than needed. Solar panels on the town hall, the secondary school, and the town wastewater treatment plant as well as an eight kilowatt hydroelectric system contribute to the local power production. By relying on the combination of these power sources, the town is, at present, powered by 100 percent renewable energy and, moreover, it earns US$30,000 annually by selling off its excess wind power.

The town leadership also decided to add wind turbines. And their foresight has payed off. Since the late 1990s, the town has created, through renewable energy, 140 new jobs. This has been accompanied by a 500 percent increase in tourism and an increase of US$514,000 in annual tax revenues, proving that energy and agricultural sustainability go hand in hand.

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