Poisoned Fruit

The Mafia Plants Death in Italy’s Land of Mozzarella

Illegal dumping for decades created land so toxic that selling wine, cheese, and olive oil produced there is strictly prohibited. Locals say the land is too dangerous to even die on.

CASERTA, Italy—On a sunny morning along an unmarked gravel road between Caserta and Castel Volturno just north of Naples, the sound of puttering tractors and the smell of fresh soil herald the spring planting season. Apricot blossoms have already turned the nearby groves popcorn white, and fresh green grass looks like a soft carpet in the fields where cattle and water buffalo graze. Little Ape three-wheel trucks are laden with freshly harvested winter produce like peas and artichokes being sold on the roadside.

The only problem with the picturesque scene is that the land being worked is the epicenter of the “terra dei fuochi” or burning fields that have been deemed too toxic to till after years of rogue dumping of illegal waste at the hands of the local Camorra crime syndicate. In early March, Italy’s ministry of agriculture issued a report prohibiting the commercial sale of any products harvested from fields in a 21.5 square kilometer (13.3 square mile) area between Naples, Castera and Castel Volturno. The ban includes certain brands of buffalo mozzarella, olive oil and wine produced on the toxic land. Many of the signs posted on the fields that are supposed to be left fallow now litter the road ditches. Not all of the farmers on the banned land are planting this year, but those who are say they are doing it because they need to feed their own families and there just aren’t any alternatives to eek out a living. “By the time we harvest, they will change the rules again,” says 47-year-old Giuseppe Dell’Acqua as he gets off his tractor to refill the seed bins on his planter. “Anyway, we’ve been selling the produce off this land for the last 20 years and its certainly no worse now than it was before.”

Dell’Acqua’s attitude toward the ban is not exactly an endorsement for eating the local produce. Nearly 10,000 people have died of cancer in the triangle since 2005, according to the Pascale Institute of Naples, which also concludes that the cancer rate could reach 47 percent in men and 40 percent in women by 2015 if more isn’t done soon. For many who live in the area, the government ban doesn’t even begin to address the problem. The parcel of prohibited land represents only two percent of a larger area spanning 1,076 kilometers (668.6 square miles) where toxic waste has been dumped for half a century. Legambiente estimates that more than 100,000 tons of highly toxic waste was dumped in the entire region between 1991 and 2014 alone. In 1997, mafia turncoat Carmine Sciavone tipped authorities to the extent of the problem, admitting that he used to plead to his mob bosses that they were killing the population. “Drink bottled water,” they told him.

In recently declassified documents (PDF) from his series of confessions, he paints a grim picture of just what’s under ground. “There is chemical, pharmaceutical and hospital waste buried there,” he told investigators. “But worse than that is the nuclear waste that has been dumped into the rivers and buried deep in the land,” he told investigators. No one kept a list or map of what was dumped where, so authorities have to rely on random soil and air samples to pinpoint the problem. It’s not an exact science. The last government under Enrico Letta promised to send the army to patrol the land and keep the mob from continuing their illegal dumping practices, but so far they haven’t been deployed.

For good reason perhaps, no one trusts the system. People who have private wells on their property don’t use them for human consumption but most still use the water for livestock and crop irrigation, which means toxins still reach the food chain. Even the U.S. Navy based in Naples and the suburbs do their own water and soil tests and regularly issue public warnings to their personnel and their families not to drink local water or eat certain foods off the base, including mozzarella and some meats like chicken and pork that could be contaminated. In 2011, they recommended that all personnel and their families use bottled water “for off-base personnel, for drinking, food preparation, cooking, brushing teeth, making ice, and for pets, due to the widespread presence of contaminants (e.g., arsenic, fecal coliform, PCE) as measured in the tap water, as well as the other drinking water system infrastructure deficiencies.” The Navy also suggested that families who live off the base choose living accommodations above the second floor, “which will significantly mitigate concerns associated with vapor intrusion from soil gas.” The Navy recently relocated 17 families from areas around Naples who were living in areas they deemed simply too risky.

Few know the real horror of living in the “triangle of death” and the “land of tumors,” as the area is known across Italy, as intimately as Father Maurizio Patriciello, a local priest at in the parish of Caivano and co-author of Don’t Wait for the Apocalypse about what he calls “preaching in hell.” He has spent the last 30 years watching the slow death of his community and every day wonders who will be the next parishioner stricken with cancer. “Hell exists and it is not in the afterworld,” Father Patriciello told The Daily Beast. “It is right here in this damned dirt. You can see it and touch it and live it and eat it until it kills you.”

Patriciello has been leading a grassroots movement in Campania to fight those who destroyed the land and protect those who have no choice but to live on it. He scouts the area at night in search of rogue fires that are often tied to the ongoing illegal destruction of toxic waste that cannot be dumped in regular landfills or burned in the area’s incinerators. By day, he buries the dead. He says even handling the deceased is risky. “Sometimes I worry what these polluted bodies are doing to the environment, too,” he says. “The undertakers don’t want to touch them. They are toxic even in the grave.”

Last year, he instigated a campaign to take pictures of dozens of family members whose children have died of brain cancer, which didn’t even exist in any accountable number in the area a decade ago, but is now so prevalent that a mobile cancer van moves through the area to administer medication and take blood-cell counts. He and other parishes in the area sent the postcard pictures to Pope Francis, who called a local nun to tell her he would pray for them. On Friday, March 21, when the pope meets with 700 families of the victims of mafia violence, he will also pray for the victims of the burning fields.

Father Patriciello says he believes there is some progress being made, but it is too little, too late. By his estimate, the area will be safe in 2060—only if good practices are put in place now. But even the ban on commercial sales from the most toxic land won’t mean anything if the local people are still eating what they plant, or if farmers are selling the food on the roadside. “You are what you eat,” he says. “And in this case that means we’re all doomed.”