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Draining the Ostia Marshes: A Co-operative Achievement

Long before Mussolini drained the Pontine Marshes, a Socialist Co-operative set to work reclaiming the land around Ostia at the mouth of the River Tiber.

The moment travellers set foot on the ground at Rome's Fiumicino airport, they have albeit unwittingly, made contact with the Italian co-operative movement. As the aircraft circles in to land, they should divert their gaze from the distant dome of Saint Peter's on the one side and the coast with its ribbon of bathing huts on the other, and look directly below; there, to the north and south of the Tiber, lies prosperous farmland, interspersed with pine woods and small houses. This is land reclaimed a hundred years ago from malarial marshes by a co-operative of landless labourers. While the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini used to vaunt its achievement between the two World Wars in draining the Pontine marshes further down the coast, it had been preceded in this type of work half a century earlier by others without any boastful pretensions to glory.

On November 24th, 1884, a ceremonial send off was given at the station of Ravenna on the Adriatic coast of the Romagna region to a special train bound for Rome, 250 miles away. For many of the 420 drab and undistinguished looking passengers it was the first time in their lives that they had been feted or even been given favourable attention by the authorities. The mayor, Count Pietro Gamba, and the aldermen were there, together with the town band, and many members of the public. The men, accompanied by a few women and children, were from the Associazione Generale degli Operai Braccianti (AGOB) or General Association of Landworkers, set up the year before to undertake local drainage and public works under the presidency of one of themselves, Armando Armuzzi.

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