16 February 2008: 4 degrees above zero, strong winds from the East and white powder moving along horizontal lines in the air. Yes, it`s snowing in the very South of Italy! I am just as unpleasantly surprised as the locals are. Still, a small assembly of people on the main square of Grottaglie steadily grows into a big crowd. Eventually, about 1000 people are set to march through the streets to demonstrate against the local authorities. Objective: force the municipality to withdraw their permission to open up ? another ? junk yard next to the city.
Trade in rubbish is a competitive activity in Italy. Beside processing waste from local households, the South of Italy also imports industrial waste from all over the country and even from abroad. Until several years ago, nobody saw any harm in that. Preparing and maintaining pieces of land for the disposal of waste was thought of as any other business. It supported the local economy and health risks were unheard of. Junk yards may never have spread the nicest fragrances over the area, but the local population used to think of that as nothing but an unpleasant side effect.
..is moving back to Switzerland for a while, so she will rediscover her love for Italy
Here and now
The situation has changed and people have now become aware that rubbish trade is a danger to their fields, to their water supply and to their very own lives. Cancer rates are increasing and people have lost faith in local authorities, who claim that all health risks are non-existent or within limits. The city council of Grottaglie cannot have been surprised that the approval to open a new junk yard next to two existing ones would lead to strong opposition from the local population.
Apart from the opposition of the local population to the third junk yard, the way in which the license was granted has raised eyebrows as much as it has caused fury. Design plans submitted to the city council are said to have intentionally left out a water supply tube which runs under the planned location of the junk yard. The blueprints for the junk yard were moreover accepted at their first submission, without any questions to the company making the proposal, and without prior notification to the public. When the decision did become public, it provoked collective anger which resulted into a series of demonstrations. Today is the last edition, as the decision to withdraw the license or not will be taken within the next month.
Annie (29), Swiss by birth but Italian by life experience is one of the organisers of today`s demonstration. She explains me that young people in Italy are not very politically active: `The system of politics is almost inaccessible in Italy. It`s even very difficult to have access to proper information. Many people in the South of Italy rely on the TV for their news supply. The information they get is always the same and it is never very profound. They don`t know what is happening in Italy and they are particularly ignorant about what`s happening in the rest of the world. They need to worry about getting food on the table. What happens in Rome or anywhere else outside their own region has no importance if it doesn`t touch them directly.`
Annie continues by saying that even those who do keep up with the news have grown disappointed with politics: `They have seen too much of it. Even the politicians who seem pure and clean by the time they get elected, even they convert themselves into corrupt power maniacs. Life in Italy is about having power or not. Once you have the power, you need to take advantage of it, if only to compensate for all the time you did not have it. Power creates money, and money creates power.`
`Italian politics is a thoroughly rotten system of favours and acquaintances. Throughout the past centuries, Italians have become familiar with the frustration that they have no control over what happens to their land. Historical rulers of South Italy ? Arabs, Turks and Spanish ? all decided over the heads of the South Italians. Result: people have their own ways of seeing their needs satisfied and everybody who does not have their trust will automatically be mistrusted. As an illustration, I would say that Italians are more likely to give some money to a beggar in the streets than to an international NGO like Amnesty, Unicef or Greenpeace.`
`Fighting for a general cause is not a very common practice in Italy. People who fight for something abstract are drawn up as leftish extremists who simply oppose everything in society. Little of that is true, but the image does discourage many people to join the struggle for a better life.`
Economical factors involved
Antonio (31) has hope that the obvious problems that Italy is faced with today will open people`s eyes. He says that the waste problem serves as a trigger for people to increase their consciousness of what`s happening in Italy: `They are starting to see that they too can raise their voice.`
Antonio continues by explaining the seriousness of the waste problem: `The decision to open up another junk yard is a purely economical one. Cash rules in the way people make decisions. Some private business is making a lot of money on this and, as a result, so does the local council. Waste is a source of money in the South of Italy, which explains why nobody opposed to it in the past. Owners of these yards used to sponsor local cultural events to keep the people happy. Buy locals paid a heavy price for that, and it is shown in the cancer rates. We are not talking about simple domestic waste here. These junk yards can contain just about everything.`
`Of course, local authorities promise that they will keep an eye out, but they grant contracts to private companies who can do what they want. The official procedure is to cover the bottom of an excavation with foil, they dump the waste on top, cover it with foil again, cover the foil with sand and plant some trees. But nobody checks what`s inside, nobody checks how much of that is leaking and nobody checks whether the private companies keep their promise of taking care of the dump for the next 30 years. First of all, what kind of stuff do they put in there that needs 30 years of check-ups. Secondly: what do they do if the private company declares bankrupt once the dump is full? That would be a perfectly Italian business strategy to solve the problem.`
The demonstration is set to start at 17h, but according to Italian practice, the crowd only start moving about 45 minutes later. Previous demonstrations have managed to attract up to 3000 residents of Grottaglie and surrounding cities, but the cold has discouraged many potential participants. Today, about a thousand activists are facing the weather and so are about thirty police officers who carefully and continuously inspect the crowd.
Antonio explains that recent marches have not been entirely free of violence: `We asked shop owners along the route to temporarily close their windows as a sign of sympathy. Some didn`t because not all of them are on our side. During the most recent demonstrations, some marchers forced shop keepers to shut their windows. The police then wrote down their names and they are now being prosecuted for instigation to delinquency.
Tonight`s march begins and ends without any incidents. Children, parents, farmers, shop owners and students all walk side by side, singing songs and holding banners inciting people to recycle garbage. The demonstration lasts for two hours. After a series of speeches marking the end of the manifestation, most people return home. Some of the organisers return to the campsite they have installed next to junk yard 1 and 2, and very close to the projected junk yard number 3. It has been inhabited since last year`s autumn and serves as the headquarters of the anti-junk yard movement.
Although tonight`s march is the last one in line, the garbage problem has united the inhabitants of three cities who have shown that South Italian citizens do not want to be treated like walkovers. How much of their screams for a better Italy will echo their way to the local or even national authorities remains to be heard. In case of failure, they have at least instigated a process of increasing awareness. Which today`s marchers have translated into one of their slogans: You can cut off a flower, but you can`t prevent the arrival of spring.
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