Octopus's Poisoned Gardens

Italy challenges eco-mafia as toxic dumping threatens lives and business. Story by Pavel Antonov at the Greenaccord International Media Forum in Naples, November 2013.

‘Mafia’ and ‘mess’ are casually used across the south and east of Europe to describe the state of politics and business affairs. The difference in Naples is that most people would speak quiet and instinctively look around when using these words. Rather than a warn-out metaphor, they impose a real life-threatening meaning and fear across the south of Italy. But this is about to change, as Italy’s prime minister, civil society watchdogs, magistrates, national and local authorities, the police, army, and even the Catholic Church seem to be acting together against the imminent danger posed by organized criminal toxic waste disposal on public health and the economy - not only in the south, but across the whole of Italy.

On January 14 the government in Rome announced that it is ready to use the army to stop the dumping of toxic waste by the so-called Ecomafia in the southern region of Campania, Italy’s ANSA news agency reported.  According to Defence Undersecretary Gioacchino Alfano, the purpose is to  “more effectively combat the phenomenon of the Ecomafia in the area between Naples and Caserta.” The government’s move comes after thousands marched against ecomafia in the streets of Naples in November, carrying  photos of relatives who they claimed had died as a result of criminal pollution. The demonstration was backed by Legambiente - an environmental pressure group that has been raising alarm about illegal hazardous dumping since the late 1980s when mafia first started getting involved with it. Earlier in November Legambiente’s ecomafia investigator Antonio Pergolizzi announced that what had begun as an “extra-budget” criminal activity has now grown into a multimillion-Euro business for the mafia over the past two decades. Pergolizzi told an international media forum on waste disposal  held in Naples by the Greenaccord Association, that thousands of acres of agricultural land were acquired by the Camorra and used for dumping toxic refuses.

The Mafia method

Фото: Greenaccord

Surrounded by armed special-force bodyguards Italy’s Antimafia National Attorney Franco Roberti described at the same forum how illegal waste disposal practices evolved over time, piggybacking on the economic rise of the industrial North since the 1980s. “A criminal once told me that smuggling waste pays him better that smuggling cocaine,” Roberti recalled. Back then the Camorra would normally offer potential clients to dispose of their hazardous excess for half of the market price, and be invoiced for the full-price invoice,” he revealed. But it takes two to tango, Roberti pointed: the Camorra needed partners outside of the criminal organization for its murderous, yet lucrative waste disposal business. Roberti described them as businessmen – “investors, people who can give [the Camorra] funds, and launder money.”

Legambiente estimated that about 440 businesses in central and northern Italy are involved in waste-related illegal activities to date. The watchdog counted over 6,000 illegal waste incinerations that have been registered in the area between January 2012 and August 2013 and identified over 2,000 polluted waste disposal sites. Over 10 million tonnes of industrial waste has been dumped in numerous locations across Italy, most of which are still unknown to the authorities, Legambiente claims.

The shocking proportions of damage on health and human life after two decades of intensive dumping of toxic waste are just starting to get clear. Some of the November 17 demonstrators in the streets of Naples carried photos of family members who had died of cancer as a result of pollution.  By 2007 the National Health Institute of Italy published the outcomes from a pilot study of the increase of mortality and congenital birth defects rates in 196 municipalities in the two provinces of Napoli and Caserta. Making use a special clustering methodology, researchers established increase of these rates near illegal and uncontrolled garbage landfills.   The general mortality rate in such areas was reported to increase by 7 – 10 percent in municipalities with higher environmental risks caused by toxic disposal. Specific liver cancer rates were found to increase by 4 – 7 percent for man and women respectively.  Congenital birth defects rose by up to 29% in municipalities with higher municipal indicator of garbage exposure.  Renown cancer researcher Antonio Giordano, President and Founder of the Sbarro Health Research Organization in Philadelphia, USA, also confirmed the correlation between illegally disposed toxic waste and the rise of certain categories of diseases among locals.  Due to higher disease and death rates caused by toxic emissions in the air and underground waters, locals started referring to the area between Naples and Caserta as the "Triangle of Death."

“The Mafia Method” is the way in which mafia groups operate, which involves: violence; intimidation; but also crucially silence – they want you to keep silent and not go to the authorities; and corruption – they want to buy out politicians, officials, judges, and journalists, Roberti explained. Corruption and politicians’ actions and inactions have made illegal waste dumping  possible , Pergolizzi agreed. Many mayors were involved with it in the past. [Mafia] Clans have had the support of white collar public officials, he said.

Apart from investors’ greed and the strive for maximising profits at all cost, legislative loopholes and lack of coordination between different police forces and other enforcement agencies made this murderous business activity possible, he pointed out. The perpetrators were well abreast with legal requirements and monstrously inventive.  When regional waste disposal strategies were implemented across Italy during the 1990s, the clans were quick to put on a legal mask on toxic waste disposal.  They obtained legal landfill sites and used them to cover-up continued illegal disposing of hazardous materials in the surrounding agricultural fields, said Pergolizzi.

When EU law and Italian land-planning regulations got tighter over the 2000s, mafia-related companies started using public works contracts for illegal dumping of toxic waste. “When you are placing asphalt you can easily mix it with waste - there nobody can say anything,” Pergolizzi explained. He then confirmed that criminals used gravel mixed with toxic chemicals in streets, crossroad, schoolyards, and other public works across Italy. “Their indifference is so great that they do not care about the aquifers, creating incredibly huge environmental damage on the health of local communities,” Pergolizzi added, describing the situation as “terrible.” 

No Holy Communion

Фото: Greenaccord

The deadly consequences of waste disposal have come to the attention of the Catholic Church.  In a personal message to the Greenaccord forum in November, Pope Francis voiced  “strong exhortation to scientists and journalists to actively contribute in sensitizing political institutions and citizens in spreading a sustainable lifestyle both under a human and environmental point of view, as well as work on creating an economic system not merely based on the consumption of human and natural resources, but which promotes a complete fulfilment of each person in an authentic development of all creation.” Using plainer language, the Archbishop of Naples Cardinal Sepe announced that “those who pollute are not in the condition of receiving communion.” The president of the Pontifical Counsel for Legislative Texts at the Vatican, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio agreed: “Who pollutes ruins the people and all created by God, attacks the right of others and the love for the next. There is incompatibility between the lack of love for others and the participation in the Eucharist”.  “Recent times made us more careful about the business of mafia, including the use of waste. All this taught our community to be attentive about this,” explained Angelo Spinillo, the bishop of Avensa.

Meanwhile Roberti presented the more earthly measures and actions taken by Italian authorities to eradicate hazardous waste disposal.  As a former regional attorney in Salerno he had witnessed how lack of coordination among different offices makes it difficult to condemn crime. Originally these investigations relied on fines, state witnesses and other measures, whose effect Roberti described as “negligible”. But since 2010 smuggling of waste was finally acknowledged as organized crime by law-makers, and a general plan attributed the responsibility to district attorneys. “This was a turning point – district attorney offices have now a competence on these crimes, and public prosecution judges can be involved,” Roberti explained.

Then in 2012 Italy’s national attorney made a memorandum with the forestry police which normally deals with environmental crimes. It is now possible to link the IT systems of the regional attorney offices and look for lower level crimes that make up organized crime, including non-organised illegal waste disposal. A shared database connects all regional district attorney offices. “If a person disposes waste here in Naples today, tomorrow in Venice, then in Florence, we have a system that [enables us] to catch this organization. We can use telephone tapping and other techniques that make it possible to investigate better,” Roberti said.  He also saw hope in the European Parliament resolution on organised crime, corruption and money laundering, passed on of 23 October 2013, which contains recommendations on action and initiatives to tackle Mafia, corruption and money laundering, as well as a forthcoming EU directive on this matter, currently drafted by the European Commission in Brussels. In December Italy’s Prime Minister Enrico Letta  announced a decree that makes burn rubbish without authorisation a criminal offence and introduce tougher controls on agricultural land.

According to Roberti all these steps led to the first positive results in 20 years of traffic of waste from the North to the South by the mafia. “They are now making alliances with non-mafia organisations, and started disposing the regional waste elsewhere,” Roberti explained. The waste now travels to overseas’ destinations in the developing world, including China, Romania and other countries of Eastern Europe, he said. Transnational crime falls out from antimafia judges’ scope  so further reorganisation of Italy’s legal system might be needed to effectively tackle cross-border toxic dumping, Roberti clarified.


Protecting crops

Pergolizzi warned that the problem is no longer regional: “in the beginning it was a flow from the North to the South and particularly Naples’ region. Now we know it is a nation-wide phenomenon,” he concluded in what sounds like a stark alarm bell for Italy’s thriving agricultural and farming industry. The perspective of excessive intoxication of soil and ground water is daunting for Italy’s position as one of Europe’s and the World’s leading exporters of agricultural goods, and could easily jeopardize the so far impeccable reputation of Italian fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy products, as well as wine and oil exports. This threat was confirmed by Joe Crino, Export Manager at local oil producer Basso, who was quick to emphasise that all base products used by his company are harvested from areas unaffected by toxic waste dumping. A similar clarification was made by Paolo Sibillo, Commercial Director at local winery Villa Raiano. But a marketing campaign of tomatoes that were “imported and therefore healthy” has already shocked local producers.

While health consequences and costs from persistent unregulated hazardous waste disposal are immense, breaking the story might ruin local economy and livelihoods – something that both the authorities and environmental activists want to prevent. So, following decades of political indifference, nepotism and corruption, a new generation of politicians are called to act on solving the problem. “Considering toxic waste disposal a serious crime is a must,” said Ermete Realacci, a former president of Legambiente, now elected as Member of Parliament and Chair of the Environment Committee. “After the whole economy becomes criminal we need to combat the mafia clans, and to fight them we need to identify the clean economy,” Realacci said.  In his view the biggest mistake would be to give up and do nothing.

Фото: GreenaccordOne politician elected with a clear mandate to not give up and do something against the Camorra’s toxic heritage is Luigi de Magistris. Born in 1967, de Magistris gained popularity as a public prosecutor in Naples and Catanzaro from 1998 to 2009, whose investigations frequently focused on links between politicians and the Mafia. In Catanzaro he investigated misuse by politicians of EU funds for sewage filter systems and other business projects in Calabria, and was subsequently removed from the case. Investigations involving famous names such as former Italian prime Minister and European Commission President Romano Prodi, Italy’s former Minister of Justice Clemente Mastella kept de Magistris in the eye of media attention for years. His political career started as Italy’s second most voted candidate in the 2009 European elections, followed by his 2011 election as the Mayor of Naples with a 65% percent victory over the right-wing Berlusconi-backed candidate Gianni Lettieri.

Aware of citizens’ expectation to be environmentally protected, de Magistris spoke openly of fighting against mafia entrepreneurs in the environmental sector and the Camorra. In response to the garbage crisis he has led Naples to becoming Italy’s first city to adopt a Zero-waste strategy. “The road is still long but it is well laid: enough with landfills and incinerators, we are switching to recycled waste collection, more composting and manual-mechanical treatment of waste and the creation of recycling deposits, calling for a widespread participation of the citizenship,” he explained. “We started out with 2500 tons of waste uncollected on the streets and we are now at the structural phase of this new course.” A composting plant in the Secondigliano prison and an ongoing bid for another plant that will handle 30-40 thousand tons of garbage in Naples are among the first tangible steps made.

De Magistris refuses to accept that the Naples’ region be considered as doomed to waste and poisoning.  A crisis should be viewed as an opportunity, he believes. “Naples does not need more cement; it needs an economy based on its most important resources: emotions. It is not only the nature and beauty of course, but if we protect them we can help communities, SMEs, the economy. For this we need to fight the mafia in the environment and its connections with politicians,” Naples’ mayor announced.  His vision of necessary reforms goes far beyond rehabilitation of polluted land and restructuring of waste treatment. “We should not speak about waste but about revolution,” he said, pointing at the consumerist culture of contemporary societies as a primary problem to address. “I am not interested in the stock exchanges but in an economy that depends on the grassroots, what we get from the ground – this is the revolution we need to have,” de Magistris explained.  Innovative revolutionary environmental policies are the ways to rebuild the city, but also to address safety, he believes.


A shortened version or this story was published in Bulgarian by Capital on 10.01.2014 г.  entitled "Боклукът, който убива" - Rubbish that kills.

Photos courtesy of Greenaccord.

More on this story:  Dealing with environmental crime is difficult, both as magistrate and as mayor, interview with Naples Mayor and former public prosecutor at the Greenaccord International Media Forum in Naples, November 2013.

Pavel Antonov is a journalist and social researcher based in Budapest. He is the Executive Editor of BlueLink.net - Bulgaria