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How the Mob Turned Southern Italy into a Toxic Wasteland

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.

Cipriano Chianese, a reported mastermind of Southern Italian waste rackets. Illustrations by Jacob Everett

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