Waste, flames and profit: Italy’s ongoing eco-crime
In July, the disquieting images of the cloud of smoke and flames engulfing the city of Naples and its surroundings have surfaced an endemic crisis that has been threatening the region for decades.
Arson is a recurrent and parlous presence in the area, typically used to illegally burn toxic and non-toxic waste. ‘Accidental’ wood fires are also used to create more land space for abusive landfills. The constant fires mark the horizon and turn the air into an invisible cloud of toxicity, one that sneaks into the houses and the lungs of those who live there. For this reason, the area surrounding the city of Naples has been likened to the hellish landscape of the devil, nicknamed Terra dei Fuochi, Land of Fires.
In order to understand this vicious phenomenon, it’s crucial to note that the Campania region is home to the Camorra, a multi-billion Euro criminal organisation that manages territorial and international businesses. Drugs, weapons and infrastructure are the most commonly known markets controlled by the organisation. Interestingly though, one of Camorra’s most prolific businesses is the illegal trade of waste from national (and in some cases even European) industries within the rural lands of southern Italy.
From the brutal architecture along Italy’s coasts, to the construction of factories and houses on unsuitable grounds, Italy has suffered numerous land related crimes. The country’s lands have been abused to serve a criminal gold-rush, and the Neapolitan area has suffered the most fatal - yet unspoken - consequences.
The view from the streets crossing the area is continuously blemished with sporadic, noxious dark flames, while beneath the surface of agricultural fields and within the official and unofficial landfills an irreversible contamination has been taking place. The list of materials burnt and buried in this slice of land – where close to three million people reside and cultivate – includes rubber, dross from aluminium, hazardous dust from the steel and iron industry paint, asbestos and dregs from petrochemical companies.
In 1988 and then in 1993, two former Camorra bosses confessed that their families had managed the disposal of toxic and radioactive waste for over 20 years. Their confessions shook the country; suddenly Italy had to face a new mafia-related crime, not of bombs or executions, but of environmental pollution of giant proportions.
Initially, the business involved transporting industrial waste from the factories of northern Italy. Thousands of vans travelled throughout the country to unload the toxic materials within the dismantled mines, lakes and agricultural fields of the Neapolitan district. The landscape has been shaped by the layering of waste accumulated throughout the years. New hills have appeared, new holes have been created, and dark stains reminiscent of the fires keep signing the ground.
Despite several attempts from the Italian government to interfere, the lands have never been fully reclaimed from the Camorra. Toxic waste continues to contaminate the soil, the water, and the air as large amounts of noxious leachate and fumes are inhaled, eaten, and drunk by the population on a daily basis.
Citizens of the area have not only been directly exposed to deadly toxins, with alarming levels of dioxins found in vegetables and in the blood of sheep and cows, they have also witnessed the gradual destruction of their lands and their economic sustenance. Their livelihood is entwined with destruction, gradually poisoning the only place they have the right to call home.
The drive behind the waste business does not exclusively benefit the Camorra clans; managers of factories, enterprises and industries from all over the country have saved their companies millions of Euros by illegally disposing their waste. The long term health and environmental effects caused by this lucrative business is overshadowed by the financial benefits it offers national corporations and criminal organisations alike. Politics has bend under the weight of such forces, failing to provide an effective and long-term solution.
The ongoing narrative of the Land of Fires reflects a short-term political agenda that prefers to ignore its most urgent environmental and social issues in favour of business. The recent fires that paralysed southern Italy revived the urgency to overthrow the criminal regime still characteristic of the area. To recognise the environmental and human casualties of this extreme form of pollution is a crucial step to understand the crisis occurring in the Land of Fires and throughout Italy’s south as an urgent, present issue.
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