Lake Vico is a protected nature site and a source of drinking water for the local area. It is classified as a Natura 2000 site – part of a network of areas protected by the European Union.

However, according to legal campaign group ClientEarth, the quality of the lake’s water is being ‘wrecked’ by ‘catastrophic pollution’ lined to intensive hazelnut farming in the Lazo region. Over the last 50 years, intensive hazelnut farming has replaced the more diverse crops that used to be grown in the region and, with focus on productivity, resulted in high levels of fertilisers and pesticides to maximise yield, ClientEarth argued. “Intensive hazelnut farming in the surrounding region now covers more than 21,700 hectares and has led to a dangerous quantity of fertilisers entering the lake.”

The result is ‘toxic conditions’ in Lake Vico that are the consequence of a continuous build-up of fertiliser that has killed wildlife and made the water – normally used for public consumption – undrinkable.

ClientEarth is launching legal action, together with its partner Lipu-Birdlife Italy, to challenge the Lazio region, the Water Service Authorities and the municipalities of Ronciglione and Caprarola near Rome for failing to comply with EU and national laws and take steps to protect Lake Vico and the people dependent on its resources.

“The Italian authorities’ failure to protect this site and its biodiversity from agriculture pollution means they are sacrificing nature and jeopardising people’s health,”​ ClientEarth agriculture lawyer Lara Fornabaio said. “It’s the duty of public administrations to make sure that their lands remain fertile and healthy for generations to come. But by allowing these intensive agricultural practices to continue, they are failing to take their role as custodians of the area seriously.”

‘Authorities at all levels must take responsibility’

Fornabaio insisted that future business needs – as well as the requirements of the community – must be protected by enforcement authorities. “If we want to be able to successfully farm into the future, we need the public administrations to step in now to stop the area and its biodiversity from degrading irreversibly. If they don’t, intensive farming is going to wreck nature’s ability to provide for communities in the years ahead – and it’s depriving residents of safe drinking water today. That’s why we’re taking action.”

“The case of Lake Vico is the perfect example of how intensive monoculture farming is damaging one of our most important national assets – our biodiversity, which provides essential ecosystem services like drinking water and soil fertility. But the lake also provides us with something less tangible – the richness and variety of the landscape which is the heart of our country,”​ added Federica Luoni, agriculture officer from Lipu-BirdLife Italy. “Authorities at all levels must take responsibility for putting limits on a land use model that has devastating consequences for habitats and species, and instead move us towards diversified systems that restore a harmony between farming and nature.”

The situation also carries significant implications for the safety of drinking water in the region. The public authorities have not identified an alternative source of drinking water for the inhabitants of Ronciglione and Caprarola. In reality, what this means is that residents still receive the water in their homes but are not allowed to directly consume it. So instead of turning on the taps, they are forced to buy all their bottled water, or go to neighbouring villages to collect it in bulk.

Lara added: “If we want to be able to successfully farm into the future, we need the public administrations to step in now to stop the area and its biodiversity from degrading irreversibly. If they don’t, intensive farming is going to wreck nature’s ability to provide for communities in the years ahead – and it’s depriving residents of safe drinking water today. That’s why we’re taking action.”

While the legal action is focused on the local authorities and their management of the situation, ClientEarth noted the connection that large corporations like Ferrero Group have with the region. Known for manufacturing chocolate and confectionery products such as Nutella, Ferrero has invested to boost productivity and become the main third-party purchaser in the region, Client Earth stressed.

ClientEarth is currently engaged in legal action against French dairy-to-waters giant Danone over the company’s alleged failure to address its plastic pollution footprint​. 

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