Unless you live in the Italian region of Abruzzo, routinely read the Italian newspapers, or are an oil junkie, chances are you have never heard the name Maria Rita D’Orsogna. Until a few weeks ago, neither had I and it was a serendipitous circumstance that brought this astonishing woman to my attention.
I tend to admire people with a strong sense of civic duty, who will stop at nothing to right a wrong, undaunted by seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Maria Rita D’Orsogna can be defined in many ways, and probably none of them, taken alone, would do her justice. Raised between the United States and Italy, with deep connections to the Abruzzo region, Maria Rita is a professor in the department of Mathematics at Cal State Northridge, in Los Angeles. Blonde, pretty and self-collected, younger looking than her 40 years, Maria Rita belies a strength and an intensity that might not be apparent upon first meeting her.
In 2007, a phone call from an Italian friend changed the trajectory of her life or, at least, it made her take a long detour. Not that she knew it at the time, when her friend happened to mention some “oil fields” that were being explored in a rural area of Abruzzo. By whom and for what purpose was not entirely clear. “But don’t worry about it”, the friend concluded “I am sure it’s nothing”. That night, Maria Rita was not able to sleep – the thought of these “oil fields” lodged in her brain.
In the following days, whatever research she could muster from this side of the ocean, revealed the likelihood that ENI – the Italian oil company of which the state is a 30% stakeholder – was going to start exploratory drilling right in the rural area of Ortona, made up of vegetable fields still in private hands, with the purpose of extracting oil. Maria Rita’s first letters of protest to the local mayor, a prominent daily and the local Catholic Church didn’t get her very far other than seeing her letter published in Corriere della Sera, sparking some citizens’ interest.
In the meantime, being the scientist that she is, Maria Rita wrote a paper detailing the environmental and health impact that extracting oil from a heavily populated area still subsisting mainly on agriculture would have (a prime example of disruption and ecological mayhem can be sadly gathered from the Basilicata region where a similar extraction program went ahead).
This was just the beginning of a personal odyssey that, over the years, included several trips to Italy to educate the local population; participation in town hall meetings (some also attended by ENI representatives); canvassing the help of environmental groups and politicians and raising awareness – all the while being vilified by her opponents. The ordeal took its toll on Maria Rita’s spare time, entirely occupied by this endeavor, and on her finances taxed by back and forth trips to Italy. But she never questioned it. “I felt it was my civic duty. If no one spoke up, nothing would get done” she told me sitting down for coffee in a swanky Santa Monica cafe, a world removed from the fields of Abruzzo.
The outcome, about five years later, was a sweeping victory: the state put a moratorium on any drilling in the area and ENI had to abandon its plans. Highly placed politicians, all the way to former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, seeking votes in times of elections, and gauging which way the wind was blowing, opposed the project. The national press, at the beginning reluctant, wrote celebratory articles. At the center of the maelstrom, Maria Rita retained her composure: in a country where nobody does anything if not for a price or a personal favour, she never aligned with any party or faction. She was asked to speak twice in front of the Senate chamber, both times delineating in scientific manners what was at stake.
“Do you regret any of it?” I asked her.
No, not really. I did sacrifice so much of my private life, but it was worth it.
There is a great deal of personal satisfaction and gratitude from the local population,
and in many ways I feel blessed and humbled to have had this opportunity. It made me a different
“Besides winning, what was the most satisfying aspect of all this?”
“The human contact. In a country where selfishness and self-promotion are rampant, I came in contact with humble people who were eager to know the truth. I met people whose life was ruined by the oil fields that sprouted right next to their properties, and shared their stories with me. All I could do was cry with them”.
“And all of this, what for? Italy has limited oil reserves and the oil is very low-grade and requires heavy refinement. How can they think to drill in such a densely populated country, thus affecting the food chain, the environment and the health of the inhabitants?”
Very often, we witness injustices and do nothing other than condemning them, privately or publicly, because we think there is nothing to be done. Whatever forces are out there, we think they are bigger than us. Well, they are but, as Maria Rita perfectly exemplifies, all it takes is the power of one. Her story is fascinating, rich in details and characters, from the corrupted mayor to the self-serving politicians, and I truly hope she will put it black on white and release it in book form.
“Oil doesn’t make the average population rich. Basilicata, where extraction went ahead in a similar manner as was planned in Abruzzo, is still the poorest region in Italy”. Oftentimes the right thing is obvious, it stares us in the face and, especially in a country like Italy, the rich and powerful count on the populace’s disinterest or purposefully feed misinformation to reach their goals. This time, they messed with the wrong woman.
With her example, Maria Rita D’Orsogna, reminds us that the world we live in is us: we can’t count on a hypothetical “other” the redress wrongs, shrug our shoulders and move on. Even when fighting a dragon, sometimes all it takes is a first step – the rest of the army will follow.
If you read Italian, Maria Rita’s blog is a great source of information on everything oil related, from fracking all over the world to other environmental causes.
Update on November 27, 2013 – The oil giant has lost all legal recourses. Oil drilling in the area is now forevermore out of the question.
Photos of Abruzzo found in the public domain