A Mayor, the Mafia, and Donkeys
Donkeys are a special breed of humble, huggable creatures

A Mayor, the Mafia, and Donkeys

What could a young mayor, the hoary Mafia, and an endangered breed of donkeys possibly have in common?


More than ten years ago, Sebastiano Fabio Venezia, a not yet 30-year-old, was elected mayor of Troina (a small hilltown in the Nebrodi Mountains). The municipality is facing a depopulation crisis that is typical of the inland areas of Sicily, and Venezia has been focusing his attentions on creating opportunities for the employment of young people of the area to dam the exodus. For many years, the rural mafia had been running a scam requesting funds from the European Union for a program that helped farmers manage their land and livestock. In the Nebrodi, 4,200 hectares (about 10,500 acres) was legally owned by the Municipality of Troina through a land grant from Count Roger in 1060. But centuries later, the mafia, through threats and intimidation, effectively took over these lands, who were not using the land but for the illegitimate benefit and clandestine hideaways it provided.

Unphased by the passing of time, Venezia began the long and dangerous process to restore the land back to the people willing to work it soon after his election. Finally in 2017, the last 1,000 hectares were returned to the administration. At first, the idea was to invite cooperatives of existing young farmers to take over the management of the land. It made sense, since these young farmers already knew how to take care of land and animals. However, because of continued intimidation from the mafia, this was not a viable option. Instead, they created a large municipal farm to manage the land in an ethical manner, as well as to manage the breeding of an endangered species of donkeys, a breed called Ragusano.

In early 2023, the Italian government officially certified the Ragusano Breed, which had been listed as an endangered species since 2007 and legitimized the operation in Troina for the continued reintroduction of the species in farms in the Nebrodi region. Today, there are over 120 Ragusano donkeys and 20 San Fratello horses at the Silvo Pastorale Azienda, a not for profit public entity dedicated to land and nature conservation. Both breeds are indigenous to Sicily.

They raise these beautiful creatures in a peaceful environment using traditional methods, as well as technological advances, to produce donkey milk which are then turned into soaps and other cosmetic products. Both the donkeys and the horses are also used for pet therapy. The Azienda employs nine young farmers from Troina.

Visit Franca at Sicily Connect

Coming to Sicily has been a homecoming of sorts for Franca—her father was born here—and while it's been a personal search for longing, purpose and place, she believes it's driven by a need universal to every human being. Having the opportunity now to share her journey and as well as this incredible place is truly a wonderful love story.

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The Ragusano Donkey


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