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<nettime> Roberto Saviano: How the Mob Turned Southern Italy into a Toxic Wasteland


How the Mob Turned Southern Italy into a Toxic Wasteland

January 16, 2015

By Roberto Saviano

My homeland was called Campania Felix, or "Blessed Campania," by the
ancient Romans, who felt the heavens had smiled on the region by giving
it a mild climate, fertile soil, and magnificent scenery. Then the land
committed suicide in a dramatic fashion -- by taking poison. Campania's
fruits and vegetables gave way to an illegal economy of waste -- much of
it toxic -- that is burned out in the fields or buried beneath them. Wine
grapes, apples, peaches, and almonds were destroyed to make room for
illicit landfills. A new word was born --  biocidio, or "biocide" -- to refer
to the extermination of the environment.

Campania Felix has become the "Land of Fires," as it is popularly
known. When people travel here, they see continual columns of smoke and
flames, signs of the garbage that is torched in the countryside. They
are like the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who baptized the
archipelago off of South America "Tierra del Fuego" because of fires
along the coast that he spotted from his ship. If you look around while
driving on the highway between Nola and Villa Literno or on the road
from Giugliano to Acerra, you will see smoke rising from the ground on
all sides. Lower the window and you'll breathe in an acrid scent that
sears the throat and coats the mouth in a sour film. It's an odor and
taste you'll never get used to.

How could this happen? How was it possible to bury so much toxic waste
that it became difficult, if not outright impossible, to make the soil
arable again?

For 30 years various companies from Northern Italy have contracted out
the disposal of their waste to apparently legal firms that are actually
run by the Camorra, the Neapolitan Mafia. These firms are able to give
enormous discounts to their clients, which, in the region's current
economic situation, can mean the difference between the survival and
failure of a venture.

According to the Anti-Mafia District Directorate of Naples, Italian
stakeholders (the middlemen between industrial waste producers and
disposal companies) in 2004 were able to guarantee that 800 tons of
hydrocarbon-contaminated soil, property of a chemical company, would be
disposed of for the price of 25 cents per kilo, transport included.
That's an 80 percent discount on normal prices, made possible by a
variety of cut corners. Though the companies that use these methods are
guilty of despoiling the land, they are legally protected because their
fixers produce what appears to be legal documentation showing the waste
cycle has been respected.

The mob magically transforms loads of toxic waste into innocuous
garbage that can be sent to landfills by doctoring waybills, or packing
slips. It works like this. Each barrel of industrial sewage is
accompanied by a document that states the level of toxicity of the
substances. The companies that wish to save money turn to a middleman
who ships the sludge to a storage center. There, all it takes is a
simple stroke of the pen to modify the waybill so the contents of the
load appear to be ordinary refuse. Another step taken at the storage
centers to save money is mixing the toxic waste with harmless trash to
dilute the concentration of toxins and lower its classification in the
European Waste Catalogue's scale of hazardous wastes.

The cost-conscious middlemen also have a more obviously criminal way to
dispose of the trash: combustion. They burn tires, clothes, plastics,
and copper cables lined with insulation. They stack pyres with every
kind of waste imaginable. By incinerating it, they decrease its mass
and mix the ashes into the soil.

The land here is simply thought of as space -- space to fill, space to
profit. In Southern Italy, particularly in Campania, it's common to see
parking lots piled high with garbage. The first thought many visitors
have is that the residents are uncivilized, since, instead of recycling
their trash or collecting it in a dumpster, they haul it to the
roadside, making a shameful spectacle of themselves and their homeland.
Nothing could be further from the truth. These parking lots are -- for the
companies run by the Mafia -- simply space, acreages in which to dump
garbage. All this is the opposite of primitive -- it's the invention of
organized crime and an extremely clever way of making profit.

It's also a sign of the disaster's final, most troubling stage. The
garbage is no longer identifiable, circumscribable. It has invaded
everywhere, penetrating even the soil. The waste has invaded our lives
and entered our very bodies. It grows until it starts to take over, to
subsume us, so that even the everyday waste cycle is affected. Just ask
the inhabitants of Naples, where, a few years ago, judges ordered the
closing of landfills outside the city because of the illegal refuse
dumped there, causing a garbage crisis in which the city was
practically buried under its own trash.


How did we get here? How did this rich agricultural land become a
cemetery for trash? Tomatoes, broccoli, zucchini, chicory, cauliflower,
fava beans, bell peppers, oranges, mandarins, apples, pears -- Campania
was a bounty for all these crops. Then the large food distributors
started to pay farmers smaller and smaller amounts for their produce.
If the growers didn't accept the low prices, they risked losing their
business entirely, as the fruit could be bought abroad, from Libya,
Greece, or Spain.

When agriculture ceased to be the primary source of income for local
farmers, they began to sell or rent portions of their land to companies
for the illegal disposal of waste. The growers stay afloat with that
money, using it to maintain their crops because they have been deceived
with assurances that the waste is not pernicious. They quickly learn
this isn't the case. In fact the waste often consists of dioxins and a
variety of toxic solvents that either destroy entire harvests or poison
the produce that manages to grow there, which, in the long run, becomes
dangerous to those who eat it. According to the Italian National
Institute of Health, the fruits of the land and the acrid smoke
blanketing it have contributed to much higher rates of illness and
mortality than those elsewhere in Italy. Studies have shown the area
has a significantly higher incidence of birth defects, leukemia,
soft-tissue sarcoma, and cancer of the liver, stomach, kidneys, and
lungs. Local politicians are so complicit in this matter that it seems
impossible they haven't been brought to court, but history will be
their judge.

Equal to the physical devastation of the pollution is the perception
it's created. People believe that everything here is poisoned. In
Italy, all of Campania's products -- from the strawberries to the
tomatoes, from the world-famous mozzarella to the apples unique to this
region -- are considered polluted and compromised. Simply tracing the
origins of the product or labeling it as "organic" and healthy is no
longer enough to save the Neapolitan agricultural economy. Now
specific, detailed information must be given to dispel any doubts. A
label has to explicitly state that the product comes from unpolluted
land, from healthy soil, and give the address of the farm. Frequently,
Campania's produce is grouped together in the supermarkets and sold at
low cost, while signs nearby boast that this or that product is **not
from campania**.

When this happens, the Camorra's illegal economy benefits even further.
As Campanian products become unsalable, they are handed over to the
black market. Contaminated produce is mixed with safe goods and brought
to fruit and vegetable vendors often run by the mob, according to
federal investigations in the Lazio region and Milan. Secretly,
wholesalers covet these goods because they can buy them cheaply and
resell them for higher prices as products from Northern Italy, even
stamping them with the prized label of **not from campania**.

I have always been struck by the story told by a member of the Esposito
clan turned state informant. It clearly reveals the reasoning of
criminal organizations. This man recounted that one time, during a
meeting about the Camorra's waste trafficking, a boss -- perhaps overcome
with a guilty conscience for a moment -- noted: "If we bury the waste that
deep, we risk contaminating the aquifers." The don quickly responded:
"And what the fuck do we care?! We drink mineral water!"

Farming and pasture land, in a region known for its tourism and its
beauty, is systematically being poisoned in broad daylight. This is
taking place before the eyes of residents who have become convinced
that reform is impossible. All that is left is the cowardly pleasure of
wanting to destroy things rather than change them in hopes of a new and
marvelous world that will never arrive. And in the name of this new
world, everyday life has been made into an unlivable hell. Robert Musil
describes this mechanism well in the novel The Man Without Qualities.
It is the "unspeakable enjoyment" -- that, I would say, many of us
experience -- "of the spectacle of how the good can be humiliated, and how
wonderfully easily it can be destroyed."

Translated from the Italian by Kim Ziegler

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