Garbage in Naples has been piling up for weeks.
"Garbage? Did you see any piles of garbage in front of my office? Well, then," says Antonio Valiante, vice president of the Campania region, in his office at the Palazzo Onorevole only a few blocks away. "You will only find garbage on the streets in western Naples, on the outskirts. Who goes there, anyway? Salerno, the Amalfi Coast, Pompeii -- it's clean over there." This is a leading local politician's answer to a foreigner's incredulous question as to why there are about 100,000 tons of uncollected garbage lying around in Naples, tarnishing one of Italy's most beautiful landscapes.
The residents of Quarto, a Naples suburb, would probably like to agree with Valiante and his sensitivity to their situation -- if they didn't have completely different worries. The mayor of Quarto demanded that the police clear a "humanitarian corridor" to the town, where food supplies are running low, after opponents of a garbage dump to be reopened there blocked access routes for several days with cement blocks, construction vehicles and tree trunks.
In the past week, the municipalities surrounding the Pianura garbage dump have seen next to no government presence. Rioters controlled the area, the crater of an extinct volcano, until last Wednesday. There were checkpoints and burning piles of tires, while residents had to deal with young men armed with sticks, their faces covered.
When the dump was closed in 1996, after having been used for more than 40 years, residents were promised that the site would be converted into a golf course. The fact that garbage trucks are back, instead of golf carts, hasn't exactly boosted residents' confidence in their local politicians. "We did our part. We pay taxes, and we too are Europeans," says Patrizia, a 50-year-old hotel worker, who is thin and smokes. "I'm tired of wasting away," she adds. She's talking about the garbage, the hooligans, the politicians, the stench, the Camorra -- in short, life.
Meanwhile, three masked protestors are hacking away at a tall pine tree they hope to turn into a barricade. Finally the tree -- the only attractive one far and wide -- crashes to the ground.
No one can remember ever having experienced this form of urban guerilla activity in Naples before. The violence that has erupted around the city is reminiscent of the Paris riots, complete with burning buses, demolished fire trucks and street fighters on motorcycle patrols, using walkie-talkies to coordinate their movements. Weapons, say residents, are apparently also circulating.
It is said that the hooligans were deployed by the local mafia, which controls waste collection in the city and has the most to gain from the crisis. One thing is certain, and that is that there are enough young men in suburbs who take every opportunity to challenge the state, be it in football stadiums, on tax returns or in front of the garbage dump. "We are not the Camorra / But you are our ulcers!" one of their signs reads.
Meanwhile, the garbage is spreading -- by 1,100 tons a day in Naples alone. Since the dumps have been filled to capacity, garbage is no longer being picked up in the suburbs, where it litters the streets in the form of rotting piles shredded by traffic, dogs and rats.
Waste disposal fees are higher in Naples than elsewhere in Italy. Nevertheless, in the past few decades regional officials have come up with no better idea than to fill their craters, basalt caves, quarries and low-lying areas with garbage. In 1994, the region was ordered to clean up all unregulated garbage dumps and develop a waste disposal program that includes garbage separation and recycling. Fourteen years and close to 2 billion later, none of the region's three waste incinerators is operational and the garbage separation rate is one of the lowest in the country. Closed dumps are being reopened, and yet the region -- with the exception of Pompeii and the office of Vice President Valiante -- is full of trash. There are 2,500 illegal garbage dumps in the Caserta district alone.
Guido Bertolaso, one of the current special commissioner's predecessors, came up with a plan to address the problem, but the Green environment minister opposed it and the plan never materialized. After successfully managing operations in war-torn Cambodia and during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Bertolaso was defeated in Naples.
The city's administration has proved to be incompetent, if not unwilling. Municipalities awarded expensive waste disposal contracts to consortiums, which in turn farmed out the work to subcontractors that were as inexpensive as they were shady. No one paid attention and no one threatened to impose any fines.
The millions seeped away, just like the industrial toxins, sewage sludge and paint disposed of by subcontractors of subcontractors in Campania. In a wiretapped conversation in 2003, a member of an illegal garbage disposal unit said: "The garbage grows into pure gold in our hands." For the Camorra, the waste disposal business is less risky and, presumably, more profitable than the drug business.
But neither the Camorra nor some southern mentality is to blame for the crisis. According to Guido Viale, an environmental economist, politicians are at fault for "underestimating the problems, for their political lack of responsibility and for getting involved with the Camorra."