People around the world have embraced the local food movement as a way to support local economies, eat healthier and reduce their carbon footprint. Residents of Naples, Italy, however, are doing just the opposite.
Napolitanos like Antonio Trotta read grocery store labels to avoid eating local fruit and vegetables, meat, even the region’s famed buffalo mozzarella produced in eastern Campania, outside Naples.
The area north of Naples* was once an important agricultural center. But the local mafia, the Camorra, has been dumping waste from European factories and hospitals on the land for decades—an environmental problem compounded nightly when dozens of these illicit waste heaps are set on fire, releasing toxic emissions that waft across pastures grazed by farm animals and coat the crops.
"They are full of heavy metals, dioxins and other carcinogens. What can you do but avoid eating them," says Trotta, a fashion designer and environmental activist, of the local produce.
Italian Senator Ignazio Marino, president of the parliamentary commission on sanitation services, says nearly 10 million tons of waste has been illegally dumped in the region in recent decades.
Once known as "Campania Felix" for its fertile land and "happy" farmers, the area acquired a more macabre nickname, "the triangle of death," in 2004. That year, an article published in the oncology journal The Lancet first examined high cancer mortality rates within an area bounded by three towns near Naples—Nola, Marigliano and Acerra— where Camorra dumping dates back at least to the early 1980s.
In July 2011, a new study published in the journal Cancer Biology & Therapy provided further scientific evidence. A multidisciplinary Italian-American team of researchers led by oncologist Antonio Giordano found higher rates of cancers, cancer deaths and serious birth defects in areas where dumping had occurred.
Giordano, a Naples native who divides his time between his research institutes in Italy and Philadelphia, has taken a personal interest in the problem. In September, he launched a petition signed by hundreds of researchers taking on the mafia’s allies in the political and business worlds and demanding action.
But illicit waste management has proved a lucrative business. According to Interpol and the U.S. Justice Department, the illegal waste business in the wider region, along with other types of transnational trafficking, brings in more profits for organized criminal syndicates today than cocaine and heroin trafficking combined.
"The criminals aren’t afraid because the penalties are so low and the profits so high,” says Michele Buonomo, president of the Campania branch of the Italian environmental group Legambiente. Buonomo says his group has proposed environmental reforms but they’ve gone nowhere in the Italian parliament.
For now, Senator Marino is spearheading a plan to deploy the Italian army alongside Carabinieri and local police to crack down on the nightly fires at illicit landfills. But Marino acknowledges that a cleanup is still a long way off. "Probably, we can quickly stop the fires. I don’t think we can quickly fix the waste problem that’s been accumulating for decades," Marino says. "It must be faced as a nation or it will never be resolved."
*This post has been updated to clarify that the area south of Naples is still an active agricultural center.