One of the main reasons for the flood of migrants from Sothern Italy was the dreadful poverty which to a large extent was caused by the devastation from widespread malaria.
Many factors contributed to the spread of malaria in Calabria, some of them were due to man’s work, others to the land constitution and to natural events deeply altering Calabrian territory, and creating favourable conditions to the diffusion of malarial.
From the geological point of view, Calabria shows very crumbly grounds easily attacked by atmospheric agents (rain-water erosion, frost and thaws) and crossed by several rivers, streams and typical water-courses, the "fiumare"; they are usually dry in summer, but water-swelling at the first autumn rains and often overflowing. Past chronicles have often recorded such calamities. Marls and clays melted and carried away by the fury of water, depositing in the plains made even sandy shores watertight, producing marshes and bogs. More abundant rains caused the landslide of whole hills which produced large alluvial cones, river beds uplifting, floods and marshlands.
A further contribution to the diffusion of malaria was given by seismic movements, both disastrophic (earthquakes) and slow (bradyseisms). Calabrian territory has always been exposed to various entity earthquakes, some of which had very serious consequences. One of the most ruinous was the earthquake occurred on February 5th, 1783, which altered the aspect of large areas giving rise to lakes, ponds and sometimes diverting the course of rivers. Owing to such bradyseisms, some marshy areas dried up because of the ground lifting (positive bradyseisms), while others underwent a slow but constant plunge (negative bradyseisms). Some of the first cases took place on the Tyrrhenian Sea, in particular in the area between Gioia and Palmi, where some small islands near the beach joined the mainland. Instead, the Ionian Coast underwent a slow negative movement which turned it into such a marsh as to become unhealthy and deserted.
The diffusion of malaria in Calabria was due not only to the hydrogeological structure of its territory and to extraordinary natural events, but also to man’s work.
Since distant times Calabria has always been covered with wide and thick woods. Classic literature celebrated pine woods in northern Calabria and in the Sila plateau extending for 700 stadium (129 km), whose wood was also used to build Roman churches. The invaders coming from the sea and from inner areas, contributed to take people far off the coasts and the lands, to reach high hills or mountains. Here these populations started to cut off the wood in order to obtain wider areas proper to cultivation. In that period the damages were limited enough, but later they will become invaluable.
Calabria’s deforestation was given a strong impulse by the fall of the feudal system (with the law of August 12, 1806) which brought the abolition of feudal rights and the breaking up of large landed estates: rivers and woods became a public property. After the issue of this law the mountains’ peaks and sides changed their owners; many wide and almost untouched lands were put up at auction, divided in lots and sold up. The new owners, were soon in need of exploiting their purchases, so that a lot of woods were cut down both for wood’s use and for the conversion of lands into more profitable cultivations. With the cutting down of forests, the natural system sheltering the land from the damages caused by torrential rains was broken.
Trees in fact have a double function against ruinous rains: their foliages soften the strength of water, and their roots form a thick net supporting the ground against the outburst of rain. As a result, a general hydrogeological desorder took place; because of the remarkable slope and the lack of trees, the water divids were soon crossed by whirling streams dragging with them a huge amount of silts which upraised the river beds and diverted their courses. This irregular water system upward and downward caused the formation of many stagnant puddles, nourishing paludism and consequently anopheles and malaria.
Other causes of stagnation were the railways works, whose building material had to be taken from the so-called "quarry" in order to bank up and support their route. The banking up works were in many ways real barriers preventing a full downflow. Therefore, along a good portion of the railways route, stagnant puddles soon became centers of infection.
Other factors concerning the sanitary conditions of the population contributed to the spreading of malaria. Statistics about deceases caused by malaria reveal that it was more spread among poor and especially country people, forced to live and work in the country with inadequate food and sanitary conditions. Calabrian peasant’s food was essentially made of corn beans, potatoes, chestnuts and vegetables; meat was almost completely lacking. Inadequate food caused a chronic undernourishment, favouring the lowering of the body’s defences to all infections, malaria included. Moreover work, not yet regulated by law,usually went on (with a short midday break) from sunrise to sunset, both in summer and in winter.
Since some anopheles species reveal domestic habits and sting man especially inside the house, the kind of house and its location greatly influenced the diffusion of malaria. Often workers were forced to stay in the fields even by night, since their houses were far from the working places. In these cases their living conditions were worse than urban and rural ones. In fact, while village houses were made of tufa, sandstone or bricks, the shelters built in the fields were made of wood or branches, with thatch or reed roofs, without a real defence against malaria.
Peasants used to live in these huts especially in harvest and threshing time, when the transmission of the parasite was fairly probable. Under these circumstances, the only defence was represented by a fireplace put in the centre of the hut, whose smoke kept mosquito away at last by night.
Large landed estates too contributed to spread the infection. Their fields were not exploited in a rational manner: in fact the owners wanted manpower to work only in small cultivated areas, leaving large pieces of land wild and deserted. In this way workers were exposed to the infection. Once ended the working period, the day labourers went away taking malaria also to places not exposed to it thanks to their geographical location.
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