The Rites Of Spring

Spring has sprung in Sicily. The wildflowers are blooming, pale northern tourists are heading for the beaches--and bulldozers are showing up outside people's homes. Giuseppe Micciche can see one from his window. "I'm trying to save the house my father built," he said by phone from the southern town of Licata. Sure, it's too close to the coast. And yes, it was built in total disregard for all relevant rules and regulations. But heck! "You should see how beautiful it is!"

Tales like this are as common in Sicily as Marsala wine. Confronted over years with whole communities of often unsafe, environmentally unsound and frequently ugly constructions--most of them built without permits and in blithe disdain for civic ordinances and zoning--the government has turned to a draconian solution. That's to knock them down. In the province of Agrigento alone last year, bulldozers rolled in and cleared literally hundreds of houses--some with clothes still billowing on their clotheslines. A hotel overlooking the coastline was pushed into the sea, reportedly with guests' luggage still in the rooms. Cars left inside garages, souvenir stands filled with statues of the pope and David, even grocery stores all fell to the bulldozers' blades.

This year promises nothing less. The drastic policy is enforced each spring, just before the peak tourist season gets underway. And picturesque Agrigento, home to the most spectacular collection of ancient temples outside Greece, is prime bulldozing territory. New construction has been banned around the archeological park since 1968. Yet hundreds of new and half-built houses dot the surrounding hills. There's even an illegally built church for the illegally housed residents. Not only do the buildings mar the landscape, but many are unsafe and unsanitary. Some route sewage into the sea and pile garbage on roadsides, since they cannot apply for city services. Others are built on dangerous cliffs, sites that would never be approved under Italy's usually rigorous building codes.

But, say residents, that's how it's always been. When asked why his father hadn't applied for a building permit, Micciche replied, "Things just aren't done that way here." The tedious red tape and numerous applications for legal permits can take several years to complete. And it's expensive, sometimes costing several thousand euros to secure all the necessary paperwork. As a result, about 8,500 new illegal construction projects break ground each year. To date, 170,000 illegal buildings, mostly hotels and private houses, have been built within 150 meters of Sicily's once pristine coastline.

Who's behind this mess? You guessed it: the mafia. Legambiente, an environmental group that supports the bulldozing campaign, says 22 different mafia clans run the construction companies that contract the illegal building. Their campaign contributions have long guided the way things work in Sicily. But here comes yet another twist: Sicily's regional president, Salvatore (Toto) Cuffaro, has promised to reinstate a controversial 1994 mandate that grants "amnesty" to certain illegal buildings--provided they have a foundation and their owner agrees to a hefty fine. The news has sparked a midnight construction boom in Sicily, as illegal developers boldly race ahead with their plans, hoping to be blessed with legitimacy down the road.

Legambiente president Ermete Realacci calls that a "devastating act of indemnity," exempting those who broke the rules--perhaps desecrating irreplaceable natural landscapes--from any consequence. Together with the World Wildlife Fund for Nature of Italy, Realacci has declared war on the center-right government, calling the amnesty a blatant contradiction to the success of the bulldozing campaign. To make matters worse, Italy is about to pass a measure allowing much of what remains of Sicily's magical Mediterranean coastline to be sold--an open invitation to more (presumably illegal) building.

There seems no way out of the imbroglio. Beside the environmentalists, it's hard to find anyone who's not benefiting from the status quo. Unemployment among Sicily's younger generation hovers at around 40 percent, and the whole process--whether it's illegal building or legal destruction--requires workers. What's more, many Sicilians live off private profits from the sale of nontraceable building supplies--concrete, masonry and clay for those famous terra cotta rooftops. Perhaps Sicily's best chance of digging itself out from the hole is for the daytime destruction crews to work faster than the midnight construction crews. Until then, springtime in Sicily will mean the running of the bulldozers.