Skip to main content

Landscape of Resistance. Science, power, and environmental justice in the struggle over garbage and incinerators in contemporary Naples, Italy

Final Report Summary - LARES (Landscape of Resistance. Science, power, and environmental justice in the struggle over garbage and incinerators in contemporary Naples, Italy)


LARES-Landscapes of Resistance is a project on the struggles over garbage and incinerators in Campania (Italy) in the last twenty years. Blending political ecology, environmental history, and environmental sociology, I have explored the galaxy of social movements rising from those struggles, their quest for ecological democracy, and the transformation of the environmentalist culture. The struggles over waste facilities are generally interpreted or as a symptom of the "NIMBY syndrome" or as part of the global movement for environmental justice. I argue that in the empirical cases those two paths are not separated, but rather one follows and intersects the other. In fact, all the struggles start from the defence of the community environment, even from the protection of the personal or family health; however, I have challenged the idea that this is a "wrong" behaviour. Instead, I believe that the "sense of place", that is, the sense of belonging to a place and a community, and the "militant particularism" in Williams'and Harvey's terms, have historically been the matrix for broader struggles. Actually, in the Campania case I have demonstrated that the community is not a given entity exiting in "nature", but the by-product of the struggle. The conflict over garbage and waste facilities creates communities which make sense of their bounds to the place, of their positionality in the metropolitan and national power hierarchies, and, finally, those communities redraw the internal boundaries among groups, friends, and loyalties. Since those communities are not defined by racial, ethnic, or classical class identities as, for instance, in the US context, the basic question of my study has been: is Campania somehow an example of environmental injustice, even in absence of a racial oppressed minority? I argue that it is indeed, stressing the existence of a discriminating environmental policy against "marginal communities", as I have defined them.

I have employed the oral history methodology (in-deep interviews with activists and other actors), the analysis of official records, scientific papers and statistics, and the discourse analysis. The results of my research can be summarised in four main points: i. The Campania case is indeed a case of environmental injustice; ii. The crisis has produced a new form of environmentalism which can be considered part of the global EJM; iii. That movement has accumulated a deep knowledge about waste disposal, ecology, public health, and environmental legislation, challenging both official science and political organisations; iv. The conflict is not the cause of the problem, as the mainstream narrative has often argued, but it might be a significant part of the solution, uncovering the unreliability of official data, the uncertainty of "normal science" discourses (for instance, the landfills'capacity and the incinerators'harmfulness), and, finally, rising awareness about the ecology of consuming and waste.


The case-study is supposedly well-known; since 1994 the Campania region has been in an emergency regime regarding the management of waste. Periodically, piles of garbage have flooded the streets of Naples, the regional city capital, while an ad hoc government agency, together with the corporation in charge of the waste management, have tried to implement landfills and incinerators, confronting the strong opposition of the communities where those infrastructures were meant to be built. Hence, the plot of the Campania crisis can be extremely simple, as the mainstream account has sustained: the usual NIMBY syndrome, combined with an explosive outburst of the stereotypical "green technophobia" (the opposition to incinerators) and the presumed southern-Italian weak civic spirit. I disagree with this interpretation which – I believe-lacks of historical perspective and political ecology vision. Instead I propose a structural interpretation of the ecological crisis of garbage in Campania which takes into account the long term patterns in the making of the metropolis and the power relationships at national and local level. According to my narrative, the crisis did not start in the 1994 with the official declaration of the "state of emergency", but it roots in the urban redesigns of Naples, first in the 1950s and 60s, with a huge development boom without any plan and services, then in the 1970s and 80s with a new expansion of affordable, often illegal, houses in the outskirts, especially following the 1980 earthquake (marginal communities which will become later the main theatre for the garbage struggles). The judicial and parliamentary investigations have uncovered the 1980s joint venture linking Camorra, corrupted politicians and entrepreneurs from the North part of Italy, who decided to use Campania as a cheap trashcan for toxic waste. Therefore, the so-called emergency was anything but an emergency lasting for about twenty years and coming from a even longer history of wild urban spreading and illegal disposal of toxic waste. Nevertheless, I consider indeed the 1994 "state of emergency" as a turning point in this history because it embodies what Naomi Klein has defined "the shock doctrine", that is, a political, legal and rhetorical tool employed to impose strategies, repress the opposition, and redistribute public resources through corruption and patronage. According to the Corte dei Conti (the Italian institution for safeguarding public finance), the government agency for the emergency in Campania has squandered 1. 5 billion Euros without solving the crisis, but actually worsening it by leaving on the ground about 6 million tons of bales of garbage (the so-called ecoballe) which should have produced energy but are instead in storage.

As I have demonstrated in my research, more the social movements against the corporate-government plan of waste disposal was rising, the most the state of emergency has increased its power and tightened its knits. Those movements are the main object of my research; I have analyzed whether they can be considered part of the broader EJM, sharing the basic assumption that the burdens of economic growth are not equally distributed among races, classes, and genders.

The principal problem of applying the EJM paradigm to the Campania case has been the absence of a clear racial or a classical class issue. Nevertheless, people targeted to bear the burden of landfills and incinerators are all part of marginal communities. Actually, their identities have been forged in the midst of the environmental conflicts which have became producers of communities. However, even if we cannot find a "classical" racial discrimination, the Campania case can also be understood in "racial" terms considering the historical racist discourses and discrimination against Southern Italians, which has been characteristic of the Italian North-South relationships. Still today, many observers frame the waste crisis in Campania within the context of the supposed lack of civicness, "natural" among Southern Italians; according to them, some sort of anthropological unwillingness impedes to have a proper management of waste in those areas of the country. Instead, as I demonstrate, Southern Italians are indeed willing to recycle, many times even when no recycling policies are actually implemented, experimenting self-organised forms of recycling. This racist discourse serves to hide the illegal disposal of industrial waste from the "civilised" North to the "uncivil" South; it has been estimated that 13 million tons of garbage have been illegally disposed in Campania between 2006 and 2008. As a matter of fact, the industries from the North have used the Campania region as a cheap trashcan for any kind of waste, choosing the Camorra's illegal market; therefore, on a national scale, they have elected the classical "path of least resistance", targeting one of the poorest regions in the country, with an extraordinary high rate of unemployment and deeply controlled by criminal organisations. Those characteristics are, of course, even stronger in the marginal communities which became the terminals of that illegal traffic of toxic waste, such as Pianura, Giugliano, and Marigliano. The socio-economic characteristics are important indeed since in the scientific discourse the poverty and social deprivation must be considered "confounding" variables; in trying to isolate the exposition to toxic substance as the causal factor for diseases, epidemiologists must "subtract" the socio-economic variables. Instead, as a social scientist, I am not subtracting but actually adding up those variables, since my aim is not to demonstrate any casual connection in medical terms, but the existence of a power relation linking poverty, social deprivation and environmental injustice (that is, unequal exposition to environmental risks).

My project has intersected other European projects such as the relevant Eurohazcon on the effects of hazardous waste landfills on birth malformations in twenty-one site in Europe; however, while the researchers of Eurohazcon have rightly used the official classification of the landfills, my social science approach suggests that many times illegal activities and corruption may affect radically the composition of waste even without changing the official classification of landfills (see the case of the Pianura dump). Obviously, the local knowledge, or the "street science" to use Corbrun's expression, has been instrumental in understanding and even discover several of those cases.

Aiming at shifting the attention from the official data to the informal knowledge and its construction, I have put a special effort in collecting more than sixty interviews with activists, "experts", and politicians (the Archive of Ecological Conflicts-ACE). As any counter-hegemonic movement is always also a counter-hegemonic narrative, so ACE has been a tool in the self-construction of the movement and in its self-narrative. A characteristic of the EJM is the centrality of narrations; the activists know through stories rather than through laboratory experiments or statistical inferences, even if they are becoming familiar with both. Therefore, following examples from other experiences (CAMEO, Community, Autobiography, Memory, Ethnography, Organisation of New York City, for instance), I have offered the opportunity to preserve/build a shared memory among activists, which is at the same time a research tool and an action participatory research in itself. Empowerment, politicisation, self education, and community building are the main topics emerging from those interviews; often, women have played a significant role in the mobilisation. I have addressed the gender issue in my research and I have decided to dedicate a book to the women's experience: "Teresa e le altre" [Teresa and the others] is an experimental book which puts together activists, scholars, and novelists aiming at overcoming the frontiers between storytelling and scientific narratives, the personal and the scientific. Such a book will also contribute to a wider dissemination of LARES results beyond the obvious but sometimes narrow scholarly public. The FORUM Resisting Communities/Resisting Knowledges (Naples, June 2012) goes in the same direction of disseminate LARES'result, gathering together EJ activists, policy makers, scholars, and journalists.

For more information about LARES, please look at http://landscapeofresistance. or contact marco.