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Italian Journal of Engineering Geology and Environment - Book Series (6) www.ijege.uniroma1.it © 2013 Sapienza Università
Editrice
523
DOI: 10.4408/IJEGE.2013-06.B-50
DOMINATION OF OR ADAPTATION TO NATURE?
A LESSON WE CAN STILL LEARN FROM THE VAJONT
C
hiara
BiaNChiZZa
(*)
& S
imoNe
FriGerio
(**)
(*)
ISIG - Institute of International Sociology of Gorizia - Via Mazzini, 13 - 34170 Gorizia, Italy
(**)
C.N.R. - I.R.P.I. - Research Institute for Geo-Hydrological Protection, Italian National Research Council - C.so Stati Uniti, 4 -
35127 Padova, Italy
INTRODUCTION
As of today, tons of paper have been written about
the Vajont catastrophe. Newspapers have reported the
chronicles of the days following the landslide into the
water reservoir and of the trials, engineers and geolo-
gists have studied the technical aspects of the event,
legal experts the procedures that led to the progressive
land acquisitions in the valley, psychologists the marks
left on the survivors by the disaster that took place on
the 9
th
of October 1963, just to mention few of the do-
mains of research that have focused on the Vajont.
50 years later we have no groundbreaking revela-
tions to make, all has been already written and the
memory of the Vajont has not found yet a defined
place in the history of Italy (a
rmiero
, 2011). This
paper aims at identifying, though the analysis of the
events that led to the Vajont catastrophe, the lessons
that can still be learnt for a more respectful and in-
clusive management of our territories and resources,
starting from an in depth literature and press review.
This article stems from the idea that, had the Mount
Toc not have fallen into the lake, the history of land
management that took place in the Piave valley would
have led in any case to a social disaster and to the end
of a traditional community.
This paper thus focuses on three main issues, all
gravitating around the link between power and land
management. Firstly, it defines the historical context
on which this event took place, namely a moment of
transition from traditional and community based land
ABSTRACT
"Risk perception" for social science implies that
risk can be judged through mental models embedded
in social/cultural environments and shaped by media
and peer influences.
This paper reviews risk perception dynamics in
Vajont case. The disaster of 1963 left a strong mark
on morphology and history of the communities and
in the national public opinion. The event determined
the end of a local approach to inhabiting a territory.
While inhabitants of Piave valley had adapted to the
mountain environment, the national project of pro-
ducing hydroelectricity embodied a new modernity,
aimed at human domination of nature.
The paper analyses public opinion perception
about Vajont, both locally and at national level. Lo-
cal community had opposed to the dam project due
to the known instability of the terrain. The national
press after the tragedy talked instead about "nature’s
unpredictability". The paper investigates the contrast
between local and experts’ knowledge.
The paper also investigates the influence of cul-
tural background in shaping risk perceptions. On the
one hand, local communities viewed risks as factors
determining adaptation. On the other, the State con-
sidered risks as nuisances that could be controlled.
The Vajont case is an important example to be
taken into account in the perspective of future devel-
opments for territorial management.
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International Conference Vajont 1963-2013. Thoughts and analyses after 50 years since the catastrophic landslide Padua, Italy - 8-10 October 2013
(S
elli
& T
reviSaN
, 1964). In 1957 the municipalities
of Erto and Casso, on the edges of the Vajont torrent,
were notified of the beginning of the construction.
Local communities opposed to the plan, due to both
the land expropriation that this project implied, and
to the historically known instability of the terrain of
mount Toc, on which the dam walls were to rest upon.
‘Toc’ in both dialects spoken in the valley means both
‘piece’ and ‘rotten’, evident symbol of the oral tra-
ditional knowledge that tagged all the relevant geo-
morphology with evocative names (P
aoliNi
& v
aCiS
,
1997). However, based on old geological tests and on
a permit to construct that SADE (Società Adriatica di
Elettricità, a private electricity company with strong
support at national level) managed to get from the
government in mid-world war II (1943, with only few
national commission members present in Parliament
to approve the project), works started in the valley and
land was expropriated. SADE project became even
more ambitious: the height of the dam was increased
even before the national permit was obtained and in
spite of negative experts’ opinion (m
erliN
, 1983;
B
arNaBa
2003). In 1959 a 3 million cubic meters
landslide slipped into the nearby Pontesei dam lake
killing a man at work. The voice of local communities
of Erto and Casso once again and with more strength
was raised against the construction, claiming strongly
a role in decision-making (m
erliN
, 1983; S
emeNZa
et
alii, 2000). SADE, supported by a government com-
mission that never really took charge of the supervi-
sion of the work, stressed the certainty of geology
survey performed twenty years earlier, even if a new
survey had in the meanwhile revealed a substratum
covered by an active formation dipping on left side
of the valley. This meant a serious condition of slope
instability. This geological survey was however dis-
regarded as not relevant and work proceeded. A first
filling of reservoir was accomplished in June 1960 fol-
lowed by a small rock slide and in November 1960 a
huge rock block collapsed into the lake. Nonetheless,
the dam construction was pursued in every way and
attempts to make the rest of the rock collapse in the
lake once and for all, so to continue with the project,
were the only measures taken. (B
elloNi
, 1987). In the
meantime, three geological models and monitoring
instruments installed revealed potential critical sce-
narios (S
emeNZa
, 1960; m
üller
, 1987) but the outputs
were never carefully analysed. In October 1961 the
management to state control over territorial decision
making and resources. Secondly, it investigates how a
political construct can inform even the scientific opin-
ion in the pursue of a "vision", in spite of the signals
that the physical events manifest. In the case at stake
the definition of perception of territorial management
and risk shifted in the hands of those who were in
charge of decisions (the state) and could channel the in-
formation and inform the public opinion (i.e. the lead-
ing political party through the press), thus covering the
voices of those directly involved at local level. Finally,
the paper investigates the social destructive dimension
of the dam construction for the local communities of
Erto and Casso. Longarone was hit more severely that
those two villages in the valley by the collapse of the
Toc into the reservoir. However, the scope of this paper
focuses rather on the dam construction process and its
consequences on the communities before and despite
the fall of the landslide. The communities of Erto and
Casso had since the 1950’s been affected negatively by
the dam construction, without being involved in any
territorial management decision. To understand social
implications of territorial decision making, the analysis
of the events that led to the catastrophe are thus the
core of investigation of this paper.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE VAJONT DAM
Many texts and scholarly articles (C
iaBaTTi
, 1964;
m
erliN
, 1983; P
aoliNi
& v
aCiS
, 1997; G
eNevoiS
&
G
hiroTTi
, 2005; D
elle
r
oSe
, 2012) just to cite a few
have already described in the detail the history that
lead to the collapse of Mount Toc into the Vajont lake
(m
üller
, 1961; S
emeNZa
, 1965; K
ilBurN
& P
eTley
,
2003; m
aNTovaNi
& v
iTa
-F
iNZi
, 2003), causing more
than 2000 victims and completely washing away vil-
lages, communities and a way of life. Thus we refer
for completeness to these texts; we here briefly merely
summarise the salient steps that lead to the 9
th
of Octo-
ber as a background to the review that follows.
The disaster had a stout impact on the environ-
ment (P
aoliNi
& v
aCiS
, 1997) and a huge influence
as well on local population in a socio-economical
context in different temporal steps (m
arCo
, 1976;
m
aSCari
et alii, 2009; v
eCCo
, 2010). Since 1920 the
planning of the dam had started, in the total unaware-
ness of the population about the "Great Vajont" hydro-
electric project, designed to transform the valley of the
Piave river into a giant source of hydropower for Italy
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DOMINATION OF OR ADAPTATION TO NATURE? A LESSON WE CAN STILL LEARN FROM THE VAJONT
Italian Journal of Engineering Geology and Environment - Book Series (6) www.ijege.uniroma1.it © 2013 Sapienza Università
Editrice
525
every way to any other mountain village in Europe until
the beginning of 1950s. While in fact until this decade
isolated mountain communities throughout Europe had
lived and self regulated the territory they inhabited,
through an empirical approach to the choice of set-
tling areas (e.g., and like in the case at stake, building
in an area subsequently destroyed by a landslide, and
thus re-building the village in a safer area), from the
1950s economic development needs imposed often ex-
ternal stresses on the delicate equilibrium of these lands
(F
avier
& r
emaCle
, 2007).
A rural, isolated population that had learned to
live in a difficult environment is thus what SADE
finds on the sides of the Vajont in the 1950s when the
dam project started.
While these two communities are one of the ac-
tors of this story, SADE is the counterpart. While these
two villages embody a traditional way of living, that
sees nature as source of both nurture and peril and thus
deals with it with a mixture of fear and care, SADE
represents the opposite side of the coin and embodies
a large scale world view that since the beginning of
the 20
th
century has grown in Europe.
River basin management in this sense was associ-
ated with the so called "hydraulic mission" (m
olle
,
2008b), in a nationalist (in the case of Italy, fascist)
attempt of government self sufficiency. Also this was
in turn based on a modernist concept of domination
of nature (D
elle
r
oSe
, 2012) through improved tech-
nological discoveries and knowledge and based on an
ideal scenario of "zero risk" (B
iaNChiZZa
et alii, 2011)
through a man-made control of nature.
Territorial and river basin management has been
throughout history a concept embodying different
ideological and in turn political constructs (m
olle
,
2008b). We will later see (following session) how this
was in turn used by SADE to strengthen the legiti-
macy of their agenda and to meet with state approval,
by delivering the answer to a national view of devel-
opment that was embodied by more and cheaper elec-
tricity for all. In this sense, the "hydraulic mission",
pursuing an aim that was considered a state priority in
terms of development, justified the breaking of regula-
tions and the enrooting of whole communities in the
light of "national, common interests" (m
erliN
, 1983).
What happened in the Vajont between 1950s and
1963 is only one example of the many such cases
throughout the whole of European alpine region. As
slope movements started to be monitored by new in-
struments and the displacement passed the threshold
of 1.5 cm per day, especially in November 1962. The
movement stopped only in March 1963, with a wa-
ter level decreased to 650 m (m
üller
, 1964). At the
same time the State acquired SADE and, against all
due care recommended by geologists and the worries
and continuous protests by the local communities, in
May 1963 the company increased the level of water
of the reservoir to 720 m, so to deliver the dam as
perfectly functional and thus close the transaction
with ENEL (the state controlled electricity company).
As a consequence in the following months of 1963
the landslide crown started to enlarge and new cracks
appeared (D
elle
r
oSe
, 2012). In October the houses
were evacuated on the sliding slope and the mayor
of Erto forbade access on reservoir, where the water
level was being decreased at great speed to avoid the
worst. It was too late, and the night of the 9
th
of Octo-
ber 1963 the catastrophe stroke.
ADAPTING OR DOMINATING? TWO PA-
RADIGMATIC APPROACHES TO NATU-
RE AND RISK
In the 1950s Erto and Casso were rural moun-
tainous villages clenched to the steep slopes of Salta
mountain in an impervious valley crossed by the Vajont
torrent, an affluent to the Piave river. These settlements
dated back to Roman times, when the Northern Euro-
pean tribe of the Cimbri settled in the geomorphologic
impervious Piave valley to seek refuge from the Ro-
mans, founding Erto. The settlement of Casso seems
to have come later on. The communities spoke two
different dialects and although administratively part
of the same municipality, kept for centuries different
political trends and traditions. However, both commu-
nities throughout the centuries grew safe and isolated
and learnt to live in the harsh nature of the mountainous
area. Numerous landslides have been frequent through-
out history and the two villages as they stood in the
1950s had been built on the debris of slides occurred
in XVI-XVII centuries (m
erliN
, 1983). The population
adapted to a certainly not easy nature, setting the houses
on the more stable, yet less productive side of the val-
ley, and the fields and pastures on the more fertile, yet
unstable slopes of the Toc Mountain, on the other side
of the Vajont torrent. The adaptation of these communi-
ties to the environment they in inhabited is similar in
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International Conference Vajont 1963-2013. Thoughts and analyses after 50 years since the catastrophic landslide Padua, Italy - 8-10 October 2013
residents over their own territory was progressively,
constantly and illegally taken away by the electricity
holding company and by the State. The communities
rebelled and protested, on the basis of their own right
over the land and of their inherited and long estab-
lished knowledge of the terrain and its instability.
However, these protests were largely disregarded.
This happened for two main reasons. On the one
hand, concerns about geological instability were met
by SADE with sarcastic remarks on the superstitious
approach to nature of ignorant mountain men. This
is due to the always greater value that in the years
of the Italian economic boom the "experts"’ opinion
played against traditional knowledge. All that was tra-
ditional and not based on "science" was disregarded
and catalogued as old fashioned, as well as opposed to
"development". The dominant communication model
between science and lay people at the time was the so
called "deficit model" (h
oePPNer
et alii, 2010), assum-
ing that scientists/experts were sources of absolute
authority, while the audience (in this case the inhabit-
ants of Erto and Casso, people with no formal scholar
education) had no relevant knowledge and needed to
be educated. On the other hand, protests about land
expropriation could not go very far as the bureaucratic
machine of the state required "papers" as sole proofs
of property. Property of land in this isolated valley
had instead been transmitted throughout the centuries
from one generation to the other through traditional
rights of use, with no particular attention to cadastre
registration practices. Thus when compensation had to
be asked, only old documents with the names of the
ancestors that had first acquired the land were usable
and thus money transfers could not be made to the cur-
rent land owners. People was thus forced to sell the
land at the price offered by SADE (much lower than
market price), as they could not act legally against the
electricity company with no documents proving their
property. Also, several lands, on paper municipality
properties, were in fact managed and owned by citi-
zens, that kept them as part of a communal territorial
management plan and benefited in turn from the har-
vest (a
rmiero
, 2011). However SADE bought them as
municipal property, totally disregarding these ancient
customs of land regulation. (m
erliN
, 1983).
Besides the silencing that took place in the valley
in the decade of the dam construction, also at national
level the issue was never addressed. SADE hid behind
said in the introduction to this paragraph, starting in
the 1950s many infrastructures such as highways,
roads, pipes, dams have been built in alpine valleys by
external companies with the approval and support of
states, regions and provinces, without consulting local
population. These infrastructures in most of the cases
have been ultimately adding elements of danger in ar-
eas of human settlement, implying the construction of
even more novel structural elements. This mechanism
is an example of changes to the territory and subse-
quent interactions between different phenomena that
potentially enhance the danger for settlements that
had adapted for centuries.
This in turn has created a always greater distance
between the mountain territory and its inhabitants,
producing a void of knowledge and memory as well
of participation. All these had all been elements en-
dogenous to alpine communities and as consequence
of the "infrastructuralisation" that never involved
local communities in the 1950s, have been progres-
sively disappearing (F
avier
& r
emaCle
, 2007). Thus
today, with all the emphasis that is put on integrated
basin management, it is important to remember what
was eradicated in the 1950s and to create chances for
participatory approaches to land management, thus
delivering empowerment and responsibleness over
territorial management to residents and thus guaran-
teeing more sustainable and feasible land uses. The
idea of domination of nature has been a failure and the
unquestionability of experts knowledge has started
to collapse since the 1980s (h
oePPNer
et alii, 2010),
when the developed choices made in the previous dec-
ades had started to show their limits.
It is important to stress however that a change of
trend is not so easy as territorial management is al-
ways related to issues of power. It has been observed
(m
olle
, 2008b) that even today, after all the failures
in territorial management that we have seen in the
past, socio economic forces and webs of power that
stand behind water resources management do not take
into appropriate account natural limits.
PILOTING OF PERCEPTION: POWER VS
EVIDENCE
It has been already observed (S
wyNGeDouw
, 1997)
that wherever space re-organisation takes place, there
develops a struggle for control and in turn, power
(m
olle
, 2008b). In the case of Vajont, power of
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DOMINATION OF OR ADAPTATION TO NATURE? A LESSON WE CAN STILL LEARN FROM THE VAJONT
Italian Journal of Engineering Geology and Environment - Book Series (6) www.ijege.uniroma1.it © 2013 Sapienza Università
Editrice
527
made projects depicted as symbols of development
and progress, landslide as fatality of nature, charity
towards the survivors as elevating virtue for the na-
tion. No space for real equity claims, no attention to
the social disruption that had slowly but inevitably
operated for decades in the Vajont.
After the disaster, once the Vajont dam had be-
come officially State property, the public opinion per-
ception started to be largely informed and influenced
by the leading majority party, who had at the time con-
trol over the press.
The catastrophe filled the first pages of all na-
tional newspapers, radio and television programs in a
global and widespread mass media session. Since the
beginning a palpable pressure led comments and judg-
ments in a single direction, avoiding discussions on
responsibilities and dangerous statements for SADE
or the State. A quite hypocrite trend tried to establish a
"false serenity" after the event, including themes like
"the cruelty of nature", describing an "unpredictable
accident" in a tone of pathetic resignation. Questions
on the tragedy grew quickly but they were smoothed
by generalities like "fatality of nature" or "nothing
more can be done" (i
SNeNGhi
, 2003). However, in the
valley and in Longarone isolated debate, desire to sep-
arate judgments, complaint against unclear liability
became livelier among people, against the "untouch-
able" SADE that had left them out of decision-making
and had made them victims of a tragedy in the name
of "engineering progress".
As listed in i
SNeNGhi
(2003) all the newspapers ap-
proached the catastrophe with perspectives and aims
linked to their own political alliance and social ap-
proach. The majority of the press, however, was with
the majority position, which was the leading party’s
position which was the government that owned ENEL
that owned the Vajont dam. It seems only a riddle, but
it is simply the chain of power that from government
led to press and thus to the information delivered at
national level. Here we briefly summarise some of the
main newspapers approaches.
Il Giorno oriented its articles towards a passive
and quite pitiable mode, citing "similar tragedies are
not remarkable, and sadly suffered as a defeat
". A
pure biblical submission to a "over-human" disaster
emerged, with the call to human solidarity expressed
by sentences such as "these consequences can only
enlarge human conscience
". The newspapers often
a popular intellectual project of domination of nature,
which was largely used at time by states to strengthen
their power by delivering what they called the "fruits
of development" (m
olle
, 2008b) (in this case, hydro-
electricity) to the nation.
During the dam construction only one national
newspaper, L’Unità, through its journalist Tina Mer-
lin, followed the events that led to the collapse of
Mount Toc and to the disaster that followed. Merlin
also reported news about residents’ protests, illegality
of the land expropriation, abuse of power on the side
of SADE, data on slope instability. Although Merlin
presence in the Vajont valley was constant throughout
the years, only few articles appeared in the newspaper
she worked for, and nothing on these issues was ever
published in other newspapers (m
erliN
, 1983; r
e
-
BerSChaK
, 2003). The land expropriation of mountain
people and the end of a traditional community was
not relevant for the public opinion if compared to the
progress that the construction of a hydroelectric dam
would foster. It is important to stress that the L’Unità,
the only newspaper that published some articles on
the Vajont before the catastrophe, was the press of
the PCI (The Italian Communist Party), the opposi-
tion party at the time in Italy. One of the main Italian
newspapers, "the newspaper" for north-eastern Italy,
Il Gazzettino was owned partly by SADE, partly by
FIAT, partly by Mr Volpi and partly by Mr Cini, the
two heads of SADE. Certainly Il Gazzettino would
have never published anything on the protests in Erto
and Casso. Volpi and Cini, part of the fascist govern-
ing elite, at the end of the war repaired in Switzer-
land, where they tried to clean their past from fascist
memories. Giving a lot of money to the Commitee for
National liberation and handing in Il Gazzettino” to
the Christian Democrats (DC), the majority party gov-
erning the country after 1947, Cini and Volpi obtained
a political ‘cleansing’ and could benefit again from
all the privileges of power (D
e
m
arCo
, 1976). Now,
with the newspapers owned by the majority party (the
government), with hydroelectric projects being part
of nationalist programme of development attached to
a "nirvana concept" (m
olle
, 2008a) of progress, the
dislocation of residents in Erto and Casso, the lack of
transparency of the procedures and the geological risk
had no space for the press and thus for the public opin-
ion. Furthermore, this was to be observed even more
acutely in the period after the catastrophe stroke. Man-
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C. BIANCHIZZA & S. FRIGERIO
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International Conference Vajont 1963-2013. Thoughts and analyses after 50 years since the catastrophic landslide Padua, Italy - 8-10 October 2013
made a link to national or foreign case studies like
Gleno (1923), Lago Cerreto (1935), Frejus (1959)
in which other dams collapsed and caused victims.
None of them was however even remotely compa-
rable with the Vajont catastrophe and the cases were
often quoted in a comparative attempt to exalt the
Italian Vajont dam manufacture over the others. In
those cases, in fact, it was the dam itself that had bro-
ken, while in Vajont the dam is still standing nowa-
days. Thus, the social and human dimension of disas-
ter was by the Italian press overshadowed in favour
of the national pride conveyed by the dam, symbol
of the proudest engineering construction in the name
of progress competition. The dam resisted to the vio-
lence of the slide, a daring project as a "proud dream
of hydraulic engineering". Sentences like "Man wins
over nature by damming the river and transforming
water in energy
" and "the nature took revenge on hu-
man structures and man-made projects
" were found
in the newspaper articles commenting the disaster,
emphasising a fatalist view of the event and painting
an heroic human struggle against greater forces. A
dimension of severe fatality become perceptible, and
the call of the Minister of Public Works that "fatal-
ity cannot justify these tragedies and government has
the compulsory role to bring out all details
" seemed
to get lost in the populist propaganda that led to no
real attribution of responsibility
1
.
Il Corriere della Sera highlighted the amazing
damage and incomparable catastrophe, describing
the events as a series of single reports, with images,
records and post-event feelings, like “the railway
disappeared, only two kilometres afterwards Longa-
rone, sleepers, binaries and wood emerged again
”.
The event was detailed both for enormous dimension
and for direct consequences, described by eyes and
shocked behaviour of survivors. "No more houses, no
people, no churches, no roads, no bridges
". The huge
wave wore away everything on one side of the valley.
Afterwards “it moved back on the bottom side of vil-
lages and dragged bodies, trees, cars and houses”. The
physical disaster is clearly transposed in a psychologi-
cal deep consequence. "The wave moved back two or
three times. Every time it torn, excavated, smashed
1 The trials of the Vajont last for many years, the webs of po-
wer remained untouched and the trail led to a final senten-
ce that was deemed as very unsatisfactory by the survivors
(M
erlin
, 1983; F
abbri
, 2003)
and split the past, hiding bodies and villages under
ten meters of sands and gravel
". Survivors lost identity
of their past and sentences like: "I knew Longarone in
every corner, now I don’t know where I am
" were quot-
ed. Villages crumbled. destroyed. "The Major, nuns of
nursery schools, the pharmacist and police cops are
missing
" said a municipal technician, but similar lists
became heavy loads for all families. "Nobody cries
here in Longarone
", "this man has been working for six
hours with his pick to find his wife and son
" convey a
frightful feeling of impotence. A feeling to be “over the
boundary” grew between local people, as testified by
fear and bad sensations recorded after the catastrophe.
We were waiting for the dam to fall...". The survivors
of Longarone town council met to decide first aid rules
and plan. They were astonished, tired, out of reality.
Between them lawyers, journalists, politicians started a
exploitation on responsibilities, roles and consequenc-
es of the disaster. Survivors dealt with a daily smarting
sufferance, but their pain was omitted and blinded by a
furious hatred against the State, that they deemed cor-
rupt and useless.
A direct and heavy accusation by L’Unità coped
with the incongruence of a general awareness of the
hazard and the total laziness to protect people, goods,
and land in spite of continuous alarms and support
required by local people. "The Vajont catastrophe
is the tragic end of a brutal misuse of land, water
and of the local population
". It is a public accusation
against public interest, economic power and a global
corruption of the entire socio-political system. "It
was a murder!, and the victims claim justice
". This
voice remained isolated as those of the survivors to
the catastrophe. At national level, charity and soli-
darity for the destroyed villages was abundant. The
public opinion was channelled to aiding those in
need, but no debate emerged, that could have been
useful for looking ahead, crafting the way in which
land management and territorial decision making
could have been better performed. The awakening
of pity and solidarity had succeeded in piloting the
public opinion towards emotional involvement and
diverting it from what would have been a righteous
demand for respectful and inclusive land manage-
ment and for the questioning of the almighty power
of politics and politicians. This vast review of news-
papers presentation of the facts of the Vajont is func-
tional to the highlighting of the enormous value that
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DOMINATION OF OR ADAPTATION TO NATURE? A LESSON WE CAN STILL LEARN FROM THE VAJONT
Italian Journal of Engineering Geology and Environment - Book Series (6) www.ijege.uniroma1.it © 2013 Sapienza Università
Editrice
529
dernity, there was no space for peasants, their needs
and their knowledge (m
erliN
, 1983; P
aoliNi
& v
aCiS
,
1997; a
rmiero
, 2011).
The community started to crumble into pieces,
land was taken away and people were left with no
sources of income. This led to migration and thus to
the end of a way of living the mountains, even before
the Mount Toc had fallen into the artificial lake.
The customs for land management were disre-
garded, traditional and experiential knowledge were
not taken into account, responsibility of the inhabit-
ants over their territory was broken. This trend, that
characterised the land management policies at national
level from the 1950s (B
iaNChiZZa
et alii, 2011) has left
a mark on our mountains.
It meant no more maintenance of the land, creation
of new alien infrastructures to reduce an added danger
that derives from a non-adaptive use of the territory
and in turn an increase of risk. This, together with the
detachment of mountain people from their land that
they can no longer decide upon, leads to depopulation
of mountain areas.
Today the insights from the case of Vajont are espe-
cially precious. In the face of climate and socials change,
sustainable management of the land, repopulation of
mountain areas, re-creation of a link between inhabit-
ants and territory, valorisation of traditional knowledge
and creation of integrated approaches to local develop-
ment are increasingly gaining space in the definition of a
new way forward (m
olle
, 2008a; IPCC, 2007).
It is important to recall the Vajont as a cautionary
tale in this perspective. A state-centred approach, with
no care about experience and traditional knowledge,
and that did not include local development as criteria
for decision making has proved to be a failure, in the
Vajont and in many other cases across the Alps (P
el
-
liNG
, 2007, PLANALP, 2010). The rural society that
had adapted to mountains has already disappeared with
all its inherited knowledge. Still, the Vajont reminds us
that power and "visions" it conveys are often capable of
covering the signs and voice of evidence. When think-
ing territorial planning and management, this should be
carefully taken into account and by strengthening the
link between people and their territory and their par-
ticipation in decision making a tool could be devised
to stop the massive machine of political power from
crumbling people, communities and a sustainable fu-
ture under its invasive force.
the piloting of public opinion towards a certain per-
ceived shade of an event has in the silencing of real
management issues in favour of political choices.
This has always to be kept in mind when dealing
with territorial management. Choices affecting the
territory have impacts at local level that are often
overlooked and hid, by the simple diversion of the
issue towards its more emotional or rhetoric tones,
creating a widespread perception that has the illusion
of being freely formed but is instead often craftfully
shaped by the dominating political interests.
THE SOCIAL DISASTER INSIGHTS FOR
TERRITORIAL MANAGEMENT
When interviewed after the disaster and asked why
they had not left the valley, some of the inhabitants of
Erto-Casso replied that they had imagined and hoped
that experts and politicians, that had reassured them for
years about the safety of the dam, had known more than
what they did (PCI, 1963). It is a rather symbolic an-
swer that contains a lot of information about the social
disruption that had taken place in the previous decade
in the valley. People who had inhabited and made a
living out of inhospitable environment for their whole
lives, that had learned from experience and from the
knowledge of their ancestors how to read events and
act accordingly, found themselves slowly but surely ex-
propriated of the reliability of their own knowledge, in
favour of the opinion of experts, in front of the voice of
science. This is emblematic of an approach to science
already described in the previous paragraphs, where
the dichotomy expert/traditional knowledge results in
a victory of science over experience. This victory led
not only to the disaster of the Vajont and many others
alike, but also to the progressive disappearance of such
traditional knowledge in Europe in the last 50 years
and in turn to the de-responsibilisation of mountain in-
habitants from their environments (B
iaNChiZZa
et alii
2011). What happened in Erto and Casso, including the
creation of committees that asked to be listened on the
hazard that the mountain represented, was a diffused
phenomenon into the Italian Alps at the time. A larger
movement existed, called Comitato per la Rinascita
dell’Arco Alpino (Comittee for the recovery of the
Alps),
that involved communities that had been affected
by the savage land expropriation that was making space
to hydroelectric dams (a
rmiero
, 2011).
In the spirit of the time, all oriented towards mo-
background image
C. BIANCHIZZA & S. FRIGERIO
530
International Conference Vajont 1963-2013. Thoughts and analyses after 50 years since the catastrophic landslide Padua, Italy - 8-10 October 2013
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