Interesting article

The Home of Olive Oil and Mozzarella Is Still the Mafia’s Toxic Waste Land

By Alex Pasternack

The Gerlando family, profiled in Vice’s “Toxic: Naples,” below, are farmers originally from Naples who moved far south of Campania after their sheep began giving birth to mutated and deformed offspring. Image: Lele Saveri/VICE

“See Naples and die,” Goethe once wrote, referring to the stunning beauty of the Mediterranean city during its Golden Age. His expression still applies today, but not in the way he meant it. 

The Camorra, one of Italy’s three major mafia organizations, has ruled over Naples and the surrounding state of Campania for decades, threatening and murdering its way to the top. Bodies aren’t the only thing it’s buried, however. With politicians and towns under their influence, the Camorra has made giant profits from disposing of an untold amount of waste, some of it toxic, across a wide swath of southern Italy.

The national environmentalist group Legambiente says that since 1991 Camorra mobsters have systematically dumped, burned or buried nearly 10 million tons of waste, almost all of it coming from factories in the north that are either complicit or simply look the other way, as they seek to defray the costs of legitimate waste disposal. “Monnezza”—Neapolitan for garbage—has, in effect, mafia informants say, become worth its weight in gold. In the process, a region once known for its fertile farmland and gorgeous vistas has also become known for its burning piles of rubble, mutated sheep, and unusually high cancer rates.

After garbage piled up in Naples’ streets in 2007, spawning mass protests and global news coverage and even a lawsuit against Italy by the European Commission, then President Silvio Berlusconi unveiled a plan to build a set of incinerators to deal with the waste emergency. But the plan itself spawned more environmental concerns—even the Roman Catholic bishop of Naples refused to bless the project, per custom, out of protest. And relatively little has been done since then to clean up the larger problem of the Mafia’s control over the region’s waste management, the Times reports, while incidences of cancer rise across the region.


The veil of secrecy that surrounds the Mafia has made Naples’ environmental problems especially hard to measure and counteract. Details about the mafia’s waste activities have emerged only in small bursts from Mafia turncoats. In now famous testimony before a 1997 parliamentary commission, Carmine Schiavone, a former treasurer for the Casalesi clan who confessed to participating in more than 50 murders, described “millions of tons” of toxic garbage coming from as far away as Germany. The operations, he said, took place under the cover of night and were guarded by Mafiosi wearing military police uniforms. He even led officials to specific dump sites where, he worried, locals were at risk of “dying of cancer within 20 years.”

Schiavone’s warnings, however, went largely ignored: according to a report in Der Spiegel, much of his testimony seemed to implicate officials who now hold some of the highest offices in the Italian government, and his full statement was kept secret by Rome until October 2012, some fifteen years after the fact, when the parliament bent to public pressure and lifted its classification.

Scientific studies have helped shed more light. A 2008 survey by the US Navy, which has a base in Naples, found serious water contamination and described “unacceptable risks” in some areas. It urged all Americans stationed in the region to use bottled water for drinking, food preparation and brushing teeth. Tumors have increased by 47 percent among Neopolitan men within the past two decades, while the region of Campania now has the highest infertility rate in Italy and also leads in cases of severe autism. The occurrence of lung carcinoma is increasing, even among non-smokers. Dr. Alfredo Mazza, a cardiologist who documented a surge in local cancer cases in a 2004 study published in the medical journal The Lancet told the Times, “It’s impossible to clean it all up. The area is too vast.” He added, “We’re living on top of a bomb.” 

Trash piles up along a waterway in Naples. Image: Mario Mancuso/Flickr

The threat isn’t limited to Neapolitans either. This region—home to some 500,000 people—is also where Italy’s famous buffalo-milk mozzarella (mozzarella di bufala) and olive oil come from. In 2008, local health authorities testing samples of buffalo milk from farms just north of Naples found high levels of dioxins, nasty byproducts of chemical manufacturing that have figured in PCBs, Agent Orange defoliant, and the poison used in an assassination attempt on Ukraine’s former President in 2004. The resulting health scare was a blow to the region’s cheese industry, which is thought to account for some 20,000 sorely-needed jobs, and provided a sobering reminder that farmers across the region could be unwittingly irrigating land and feeding animals in fields and ponds contaminated by toxic waste. 

Gen. Sergio Costa, Naples’ top environmental cop, has insisted that production of cheese is carefully controlled, that no cases of contamination have occurred in recent years, and that testing of produce and contaminated aquifers will continue. But in an interview with The Associated Press in December, Costa named a list of substances in higher-than-permissible levels found in 13 farmland irrigation wells: Arsenic, cadmium, tin, beryllium and other metals; tetrachloride and tolulene, among other chemicals used as industrial solvents. The Camorra, he said, have “poisoned their own territory, they poisoned their own blood.” 

Meanwhile, the threat of toxic waste burial, along with the Mafia’s influence over the trash industry, is spreading beyond Naples, too. Having run out of room to dump its more toxic waste—and facing increasing police and public pressure—the Camorra have reportedly shifted many of their toxic waste shipments to Eastern Europe or the Balkans.

Franco Roberti, who used to police the Mafia in Naples and now heads the country’s war against organized crime, says that toxic waste dumping has also been uncovered near Florence, the tourist-friendly capital of Tuscany. The Camorra’s decades-long relationship with the Chinese mafia in the making and sale of pirated designer clothes in that region now includes waste management too: probes in recent years have uncovered cargo ships full of waste, including toxic materials and hospital refuse, to be shipped to China and Hong Kong.

A protest in Naples in November brought out 100,000 citizens. Image: imbroglionefiorentino/Flickr

The pressure on the Camorra is rising. The costs of fighting the Mafia remain high—those who inform or simply report on the Mafia are often targeted for assassination—but locals have grown steadily more courageous in their opposition to mafia control. In November, over 100,000 people took to the streets of Naples to protest the Mafia-led “biocide” of their region, after an investigation uncovered dangerous levels of arsenic, lead and other harmful materials in farmlands around the city. And late last month, police embarked on an unprecedented sweep that seized $337 million in Camorra business assets, including 27 pizzerias, cafes and other eateries in Rome and elsewhere.

Whether or not the environmental remediations, criminal investigations, and public protests in Naples help to clean up Italy, they serve as a reminder that the influence of organized crime is deeper and uglier than violence and extortion, with effects that may well outlast the Mafia itself. Then again, as some have speculated, environmental concerns in Naples could inspire the Camorra to use its decades of expertise, both in waste management and controlling public contracts, to muscle in on a growing industry: cleaning up the mess it’s made.


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