Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday broadsheet newspaper on 24 November 2013
Twenty years ago, Italian police and Customs officials going after narcotics were considered ‘heroic’ while those investigating any environmental crimes were seen as ‘boy scouts’. After all, what could be so criminal about waste and pollution?
Plenty, as it turned out. In the early 1990s, Italy’s notorious organised crime syndicates – or the mafia – discovered that they could make lots of money fast by helping industries to get rid of their toxic waste.
So mafia groups decided to ‘go green’ – and ecomafias emerged.
The Italian environmental advocacy group Legambiente started investigating this in 1993, when a pile of toxic waste was discovered near a NATO military base in Italy. In fact, they coined the term ‘ecomafie’ (ecomafia), which soon entered popular vocabulary.
Legambiente has been researching on ecomafia practices and cooperating with law enforcement officers for two decades. It analyses official data, and compiles an annual report of eco crimes in Italy.
“The mafia saw toxic waste as a huge business opportunity. They noticed how industries faced difficulties in safely disposing of their waste, and offered a turn-key solution: a cheaper and faster way to get rid of the waste, avoiding costly investments and bureaucratic procedures,” says Antonio Pergolizzi of Legambiente.
Owners of factories, refineries and other industrial plants turned to the ecomafia because it was four to five times cheaper than proper waste disposal. Unknown to most citizens, Naples and other areas in southern Italy became dumping grounds for such waste causing massive damage to soil and water. Over time, it triggered widespread public health problems including rising levels of cancer.
Since then, such dump sites have been discovered across Italy. Highly poisonous waste was released indiscriminately in landfills, farmyards, old wells, abandoned quarries, as well as in or around canals – all without any safeguards.
This scandal attracted global attention, especially with reports of the “Land of bonfires”, a territory between Naples and Caserta often seen with bonfires of illegally disposed waste.
Rising green crime
The deadly shadow of ecomafia that has fallen over Italy was discussed during the 10th Greenaccord International Media Forum held in Napes, Italy, from 6 to 9 November 2013. Organised by the Rome-based non-profit group Greenaccord, the event brought together over 100 scientists and journalists from more than 25 countries.
Scientists, prosecutors, activists and legislator came together to share Italy’s experience in tackling the menace that can emerge in any modern society.
In Italy alone, mafia groups committed more than 30,000 environmental crimes in 2010, according to Legambiente. These include trafficking in exotic animals and stolen timber, running illegal slaughterhouses and schemes to redirect water resources. Tracking these down is no longer ‘boy scout’ work.
Indeed, it’s a massive illicit trade: Legambiente estimates that toxic waste dumping on Italian farmlands and beneath construction sites is worth at least USD 26 billion per year.
Such crimes became possible due to bureaucratic negligence and corruption, says Legambiente’s Antonio Pergolizzi. The Camorra – one of the oldest and largest criminal organizations in Italy that originated in Naples — has close links with some public officials. Certain elected officials like mayors have also been implicated.
Some revelations have been shocking. Ecomafias have used their construction ventures to build roads with cement mixed with toxic or radioactive waste. Worse, Legambiente came across some school buildings put up with such waste mixed into the concrete.
“We have known and documented these eco-crimes for 20 years, but our politicians didn’t want to hear about it until recently. We have engaged the judiciary in our efforts, and also lobbied with companies for more responsible conduct in disposing their waste,” he says.
One rare politician who tackled the problem is Ermete Realacci, an environmentalist who now heads the Italian Parliamentary Commission on the environment.
“Italian law enforcement authorities didn’t initially appreciate the gravity of the problem. Parliament had to adopt new laws covering crimes against the environment,” recalls Realacci who played a lead role in that process.
Realacci believes transparency at all levels of governance can reduce criminal collusion between industries, ecomafia and corrupt officials. Companies are now under pressure from civil society groups to disclose full information on what they do with their waste.
Italian regulations have evolved over the past two decades to better prosecute crimes against the environment, says Franco Roberti, Italy’s Anti-mafia Prosecutor.
He adds: “Until 2001, we relied on fines and light sanctions. The law was amended that year, giving us more powers. In 2006, Italy defined new crimes against the environment.”
Roberti recalls a Mafioso telling him that working with waste entailed far less criminal consequences than, say, peddling cocaine – and it was more profitable as well.
But tracking down scattered toxic waste dumping is far from easy, especially as tell-tale signs can take years to manifest. In 2012, the Anti-mafia Commission and forestry police started cooperating against the ecomafia to probe and bust organised crime in waste trafficking.
Roberti believes international cooperation is vital to stop the smuggling of toxic waste across borders. Ecomafias now have networks to ship toxic waste abroad: their main targets are China, Eastern Europe and the Horn of Africa.
“We have to stop thinking merely on local terms. Toxic waste mafia is an internationally organised crime, using elaborate networks and high tech support,” Roberti says.
Christine MacDonald, an American journalist who has investigated the issue, quotes mafia watchers at Interpol and the US Department of Justice as saying that toxic waste dumping has evolved into a globalized business.
“Besides the human and habitat harm, the illegal waste trafficking feeds corruption and strengthens criminal gangs in countries on both the shipping and receiving ends,” she wrote in May 2012.
Mafias have diversified their commercial holdings over the years, getting into activities such as construction, transport and even alternative energy. Such enterprises help launder money.
Mafia operates through methods of intimidation, coercion and corruption. They are known to buy the silence of officials. The European Union considers criminal activity, money laundering and corruption as three faces of the same widespread problem affecting all countries.
In March 2011, the European Parliament set up the Special Committee on Organised Crime, Corruption and Money-Laundering (CRIM) to analyse the impact of trans-border crimes on the EU and its member states. The Committee has recommended developing a comprehensive strategy to combat criminal systems and related activities, including corruption and money-laundering.
It’s more than a matter of law enforcement, of course. Public health and safety have been compromised by ecomafia’s waste dumping. Some localities in Italy have been found to contain over 200 substances that can cause cancer – yet people are blissfully unaware of the hazards involved, says Dr Antonio Giordano, a pathologist and geneticist who heads the Sbarro Health Research Organization in Philadelphia, USA.
He and his colleagues have been studying the causal link between exposure to chemical substances in air, water, soil, food, other potential contaminants and various types of cancers.
According to Dr Giordano, Gulf of Naples is one of the most polluted water bodies in Italy, which was first detected in the 1970s. But there wasn’t sufficient public awareness at the time, as a result of which a whole generation of port workers and residents was exposed.
“It’s impossible for medical doctors alone to fight increased health problems resulting from communities exposed to toxic waste,” he says. “We should target not only the ecomafias and their clients, but also corrupt officials who allow this to continue!”
He believes that all elected officials during the past 40 years should be held responsible for ignoring the (environmental) causes of rising incidence of cancer.
Italy’s struggle with ecomafia holds important lessons for both developed and developing countries. Our environmental activists have long been concerned about North-South waste dumping, but some local industries might collude with criminal hangs to dump waste in less populous and under-developed parts of our island.
As our own industrial and electronic waste increases, we need to guard against home-grown ecomafias!
Photos courtesy Greenaccord Press Office