Environment: an increasing attractive field for criminal organizations

Environmental crimes are alarmingly expanding: the DIA (Anti-Mafia Investigation Directorate) stated this in its report of the first semester of 2019. For several decades now, criminal organizations have understood the significance of the business and their infiltration in environmental fields is more and more evident. The DIA, in fact, observes that “environmental crime is a phenomenon which is worryingly expanding precisely because involves, indirectly, different interests. These illegal behaviors affect the environment and the physical and psychological integrity of people. They also prejudice people’s life quality, with relevant consequences on social costs.

The ecomafia phenomenon

Ecomafia” is an Italian term coined by Legambiente association in 1994. It refers to “the organized crime’s field that runs illegal activities with a detrimental impact on the environment.” The main ecomafia activities are: trafficking of exotic animals, unlawful building, archaeological finds trafficking and, above all, illegal waste disposal. This is the activity considered the most lucrative, to the extent that some mafia bosses defined it as more profitable than drug trafficking. “Trasi munnizza e n’iesci oro”, literally “Waste goes in and old goes out”, these are the words used by a Sicilian mafia boss during a telephone tapping of some decades ago.

But let’s see in details which are the features of each activity.

Illegal waste disposal

Illegal waste disposal can occur in different ways: there can be illegal rubbish tips or the disappearance of waste that should be treated and, instead, are burnt or buried in wastelands by the so called brokers. Another activity can be the mixing of toxic waste with non-dangerous one: obviously, the consequence of this is soil poisoning. All these processes do not include only one category of actors; on the contrary, we can have many categories, such as: public bodies that assign services of collection, waste producers, transporters, storage facilities and people who deal with waste disposal.

However, this type of illegal market goes beyond Italian borders: often if consists of an international traffic. The global environmental operation, coordinated by Interpol and carried out during last March, demonstrates this. It has been called ’30 days at sea’ and included 67 countries (among which Italy). The operation dealt with marine and coastal pollution, but it also revealed an illegal waste trafficking – meant to be sent to Turkey and Senegal – in the harbor of Augusta (Siracusa, Sicily). Moreover, the operation revealed that, given the pandemic situation and law-enforcement agencies’ less controls, for criminal actors has been easier to exploit environmental vulnerabilities.

Illegal traffic of exotic animals

Another growing business is the illegal traffic of exotic animals that, because of global criminal organizations, is becoming one of the most lucrative markets. The business is powered by new trends: an example can be the grey parrot, an African bird famous because able to emulate human voice. Today, the grey parrot is in the Red List of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature).

In this case too we can talk about an international traffic. In 2018, Interpol coordinated, together with the World Customs Organization (WCO) an international operation called Operation Thunderstorm. 92 countries were involved – European and non-European countries – and Italy was among them. The investigation revealed how much lucrative is the market – at the same level of drug trafficking – and how difficult it is to be discovered because there are few sanctions.

Unlawful building

Among the problems that can be considered totally Italian, instead, there is certainly unlawful building, which can be defined as the erection or re-erection, addition or alternation which is not approved or sanctioned by the Authority. According to 2019 Ecomafia Report of Legambiente, the unlawful buildings realized in a year in Italy are more or less 17 thousand. Legambiente also estimated the business at 2.3 billions of euro. Moreover, the most involved areas are the costal ones.

However, apparently there has been an important turning point in the fight against this phenomenon: the turning point is the last September approval of the amendment to Article 41 of 380/2001 DPR (Decree of the President of the Repubilc), suggested by Legambiente. The amendment aimed to give a boost to the demolition of unlawful buildings.

Archeological finds trafficking

For this type of traffic too has been coined a neologism, “Archeomafia”, which has been defined as the “organized crime field that deals with the illegal traffic of works of art and archeological finds”.

The art field attracts criminal organizations since it is a very reach market. Moreover, the value of artifacts underwent a remarkable increase in the last decades and this made the field even more attractive. Given its cultural heritage, Italy is among the most affected countries.

The market is characterized by the presence of different actors, organized in a hierarchical structure: at the bottom of the pyramid there is the manpower, the so called “tombaroli”, who act on behalf of some national intermediaries who, in turn, refer to other international intermediaries. At the peak of the pyramid there are prestigious museums, art galleries, collectors and wealthy scholars, who are often defined as “white collar tombaroli”. 

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  • L'Autore

    Lorena Radici

    Lorena Radici studia Relazioni Internazionali presso l'Università degli Studi di Milano, curriculum: International Cooperation and Human Rights. Nel 2019 ha conseguito una laurea in Scienze della Mediazione Linguistica presso la Scuola Superiore per Mediatori Linguistici (SSML) di Varese, specializzandosi nel campo della traduzione e dell'interpretariato in inglese, spagnolo e cinese.

    Durante il suo percorso di studi alla triennale ha avuto l'opportunità di svolgere dei tirocini di traduzione verso la lingua inglese con la redazione di VareseNews e con l'associazione culturale della località del Sacro Monte di Varese. Sempre alla SSML ha poi frequentato il corso di alta formazione in Mediazione Culturale.

    La sua passione per le Relazioni Internazionali è rivolta soprattutto al settore dei diritti umani, dell'immigrazione e della sicurezza internazionale. In particolare, è interessata ai temi riguardanti la criminalità organizzata globale.

    In Mondo Internazionale ricopre il ruolo di Autrice nelle aree tematiche "Organizzazioni Internazionali" e "Ambiente e Sviluppo" e il ruolo di Revisore di Bozze.

    Lorena Radici studies International Relations at the University of Milan, curriculum: International Cooperation and Human Rights. In 2019 she got a degree in Sciences of Language Mediation at SSML in Varese, where she studied Translation and Interpretating in English, Spanish and Chinese.

    During the degree course at SSML she had the opportunity to do an internship in translation with VareseNews and a cultural association of Sacro Monte. She also attended a course of Higher Education in Cultural Mediation.

    For what regards International Relations, she is interested above all in human rights, immigration and international security. Particularly, she is interested in topics related to global criminal organizations.

    Within Mondo Internazionale she is an Author for the thematic areas of "International Organizations" and "Environment and Development" and she also serves as Proofreader.


From the World Europe Sections Environment & Development Culture International Organizations International Security Society


#ecomafia #mafia #ambiente #illegalità #criminalità organizzata #archeomafia #abusivismo #traffico internazionale

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