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“Land mafia” is behind the fires that are burning Italy

by Roberto Galullo

The mafia of the land – woods and pastures – is striking again. Behind the fires that are devastating hectare upon hectare of land in the southern regions of Campania (including Mount Vesuvius), Basilicata, Calabria and Sicily, there is almost always a criminal hand. As we wait for the self-destructive madness to spread to other regions that are traditionally affected by the phenomenon – such as Puglia – it is worth assessing some of the reasons why organized crime has interest in stoking fires.

Firstly, there is the insistence of clans in demonstrating that in any area, they are capable of directing destinies, fortunes or bad luck. They show the land owners (whether they are private or state-linked) that they can bring good or bad times.
According to current law, it is forbidden to build for 15 years on areas hit by malicious fires. The tendency is for members of criminal organizations to approach owners and ask them to change the urban purpose of the land, so that they can buy it off them, usually for building property. If the owner refuses, they set the land on fire in retaliation.

In Campania and Sicily, but also increasingly in the northern region of Lombardy, the land the fire burns can become a place for the illicit dumping of all types of rubbish. If the area is impassable (though not of course for the mafia organizations) it is better.
The Cosa Nostra mafia in Sicily is so well-connected with sections of the public administration that it is able to plan profitable swindles at the cost of the European Union or the region itself. For example, on public land assigned to members of local mafia families, who make use of financing of activities they never carry out to acquire the land, they practice systems of animal thieving, slaughter and butchery of clandestine and contaminated meat and other illegal economic activities. And then there is Calabria, where often unfaithful workers start the fire as they know that in that way they will have an assured job in recovering the land the following year.

The fact that the land mafia have a business is shown also in the numbers, like those lined up in Legambiente’s latest “Ecomafia” report. Last year there were 4,635 forest fires which led to the intervention of the former Forestry Police and local police corps, a figure that is higher compared to 2015. These fires sent more than 27,000 hectares of green area up into smoke. That is the same amount that has already been devastated so far in the summer of 2017. It seems we are going from bad to worse. The people reported, including arsonists, environmental criminals and environment-linked mafia members, totaled 322 in 2016, while 14 people were arrested.

The overall estimates by the ex-forestry police on the environmental damage caused in 2016 by fires is around €14 million, while just the costs of putting out the fires were quantified at about €8 million, adding up to a total of about €22 million.