From forgetting to remembering disaster: the controversial construction of 'discreet memory' in Seveso
School of Economics - University of Coimbra Centre for Social Studies - Observatory on Risk Coimbra, Portugal
Proposal for Session 6: Remembering and Forgetting Disaster
The Seveso disaster is considered as a symbol of European environmentalist struggle. Yet, at the local level, the population affected by the dioxin contamination caused by the ICMESA plant (10th of July 1976) has mostly fought for the right to forget the event. Only recently a collective memory of the disaster has been made visible, through the creation in 2004 of a Memory Pathway in the Oak Wood, a 42-hectare plot of forest in the urban centre of Seveso that was artificially created over the most contaminated area. The Memory Pathway -a series of displays telling the disaster's story through texts and photos- is part of the project Bridge of Memory, promoted by a local group of environmentalist and feminist activists with the aim of opposing the local pressure to erase the disaster's memory. The paper investigates how this shift from forgetting to remembering disaster has been made possible. First of all, I analyse the crisis that followed the dioxin spill and which was marked, locally, by a harsh conflict opposing, on one side, a part of the affected population and, on the other side, social movements and public authorities. The result of this conflict has been the lack of a shared interpretation of the event in the community affected and the reduction of its consequences to technical and individual problems. I then turn to how the experience of this conflict has been at the heart of the renewal, during the 80's and 90's, of the political action of a group of Seveso environmental and feminist activists. I analyse how this renewal brought to the launching of the Bridge of Memory project in 2000. This project succeeded in creating a shared view in the local community on the dioxin disaster as an 'opportunity for change'. In the same time, the compromise reached through the idea of 'discreet memory' -and embodied in the displays of the Memory Pathway- shows how the possibility to remember is linked to collectively avoid to investigate the controversial legacy of the disaster, in particular long-term dioxin health effects.