Italian Ire Will Naples' Garbage Plague Never End?

The trash has been removed from the streets of Naples since Silvio Berlusconi's return to office, but the greater garbage problem persists. Public distrust of the government is so great that any effort to deal with the trash problem inevitably sparks new protests.

By Michael Giglio in Naples, Italy


The people march through the dusk. A massive man with a bullhorn and a black Billy-goat beard strides backward at the center of the procession, his voice booming with the bass of the speakers packed into the hatchback beside him. At his back are police and carabinieri in riot gear, keeping 20 yards off, as he leads about 1,000 protesters. Some blow whistles just to make noise, and some wave flags bearing an angry cartoon tree with a sign that reads "Jatevenne," which is Neapolitan slang for "back off."

The protesters, residents of an outer quarter of Naples called Chiaiano and the neighboring township of Marano, are trying to stop the government from building a new dump in their midst. But the fight has become a microcosm of the cycle of corruption and suspicion that has gripped and crippled the city and greater region of Campania for longer than anyone can remember, and for which trash is perhaps the most fitting emblem.

As recently as summer, piles of it burned nightly in the streets, a product of overflowing dumps and just the latest chapter of the perennial "garbage state of emergency" in Italy first declared by the European Union in 1994. Rome responded back then by nationalizing the dumps, which were controlled by the powerful local mafia, and appointing a special garbage commissioner with his own budget and total authority.

A host of men have held the post, five since 2000 alone. All have arrived at more or less the same conclusion -- the region must build new dumps and reopen old ones. That approach, though, has merely prolonged the problem and ensured the survival of their own bureaucracy, which has already spent more than €2 billion. A recent report by the Italian parliament lambasted the office's work as a "harmful illusion," claiming the commissioners had squandered taxpayer money and failed to fix the problem. The European Union is pursuing infringement proceedings against Italy for its alleged violations of Brussels' waste mangement regulations. And the outrage that sparked a major crisis earlier this year continues to simmer.

An incinerator in nearby Acerra, which would be the only one in the Campania region, has been under construction for more than 10 years. In May, the CEO and employees at Impregilo, the private company contracted to build the incinerator and manage Campania's waste, were arrested in a probe into fraud, abuse of power and "breach of trust in environmental matters" that named over 25 people, including Antonio Bassolino, the regional governor who has also served as trash czar. Further probes involve two other former commissioners. Meanwhile, a new company took over the incinerator contract in October.

Officials in the office of Campania Governor Bassolino, who was mayor of Naples before becoming governor in 2000 and served as garbage commissioner between 2002 and 2004, blame the tumultuous social and political climate for the local trash impasse, saying those who took the risk of making difficult and unpopular decisions are now being put on trial for them.

"(There have been) protests against landfills ... the incinerators, even against the plants for sorting. They're protesting against anything and everything," Bassolino said. He claims politicians from both the left and the right have used opposition to the plant to drum up support.

The mafia seems capable of profiting no matter what happens. It runs collection and transportation and makes a fortune illegally stuffing toxic industrial waste into dumps or by simply burying it in the countryside. A 2007 World Health Organization report found a steep increase in cancer and fetal defects, compared with the rest of the country, for those living near the region's illegal waste sites. The decision to continue building the new dump in Chiaiano even after the discovery of illegal asbestos deposits there in late October triggered the most recent protest in November.

Silvio Berlusconi made cleaning up Naples a central promise of his new government, which took over in early May, and the streets are now clean. He declared the crisis over by July. This has meant shipping waste to places like Sardinia and Germany, plans for new incinerators and, as always, new dumps. The proposed dump in Chiaiano has become one of the most important strategic sites in Campania.

"It represents, along with other facilities, the will of the city of Naples to do its part in dealing with a problem so serious," Bassolino said, applauding the strict enforcement measures that have been enacted to fight resistance to the project. A new law makes dumps and incinerators places of national interest and disrupting their progress punishable by up to four years in jail. The army has been posted permanently inside the Chiaiano site.

But that hasn't stopped the unrest that seems to break out every time a new facility is announced -- in part because nobody wants garbage in their backyard, and no less because people have lost faith in the government's ability to fix the problem.

Since the plans for the site were announced in April, there have been nightly meetings at "Titanic" -- a weed-ridden traffic island with a ship's mast in the middle -- to coordinate a constant campaign against it. This has included guerrilla protests like "soft-walking" in large groups over crosswalks to halt traffic, petitions and demonstrations like the one in November, which started and ended there.

"This is our garrison," says Serena Kaiser, a student who lives in Chiaiano, pointing to a shack built along the sidewalk to fight the cold.

After the first big event on May 23, protestors set up a blockade of dumpsters at Titanic on the road leading to the dump. Some sat behind it, hands in the air, women and children in front to deter the platoon of police and carabinieri. Kaiser was with her family about five yards from the barricade. The police marched through all at once, batons swinging, as if on an order to attack. She says a police officer threw her off to the side and another clubbed her father in the hand as he tried to film the scene.

Father Alex Zanotelli, an Italian monk who fought waste in the toxic slums of Nairobi before returning to fight it here, believes the government is sending a simple message: "Dissent is prohibited."

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