by Antonio Salituro
This is the untold story of a city in the South of Italy, Crotone, which went from being a major hub of the Ancient Greek civilization to one of the most polluted and poorest sites of Europe. A tale that reveals how small communities are trying to fight back against the environmental wreckage inherited from big corporations’ wrongdoing.
Last August, while tourists and returning economic migrants dived into the refreshing Crotone seawater to escape the 40-degree smothering air, local people were fuming. And not just because of the unbearable heatwave.
Every summer, urban overcrowding comes with a smelly side-effect: an invasion of garbage. As the landfills quickly saturate, garbage piles up outside the bins all around the city.
On top of that, another major issue fuelled citizens’ rage. A prolonged dry spell combined with decaying infrastructure led to a water shortage for a few days – ironic when considering the deadly climate change-driven flash flood that drowned the city in 1996 and flushed 6 lives away.
But the situation in Crotone has not always been so dramatic. Located along the East coast of Calabria—the “toe” of Italy’s “boot”—Crotone was an easy-to-reach anchor for the Achaean Greek conquerors living on the other side of the Ionian Sea. And still today, after over two thousand years, one can admire the marvel of that colonization.
Just seven miles off Crotone city centre, lies one of the twenty-seven-foot tall forty-eight Doric columns which supported the sacred temple dedicated to Hera Lacinia. Under Greek rule, what was then called Kroton thrived as a cultural hub. Known for his famous theorem, Pythagoras founded his school there. But Kroton’s fame went beyond science. Besides victories on the battlefield, Milo gave the colony athletic prestige by winning the wrestling competition in the Olympics games six times.
From a vital industrial centre to a graveyard
Fast forward two millennia, there’s sadly not much left of the Hellenic era’s splendour other than the majestic column.
In the 1920s, Crotone flourished again, but this time it was somewhat less splendid: the city became one of the major chemical manufacturing sites in Italy. Plants smelting zinc and producing phosphorous-based fertilizers were propelling the economy of the Calabria region.
While job opportunities boomed, the “progress” came at a high price. Unlike the Greek society, which left invaluable archaeological relics, the sprawling industrial centre left an unwanted gift to Crotone citizens. During 70 years of unregulated activity, harmful pollutants such as cadmium, argon, lead, and chromium were irresponsibly dumped into the environment.
In a documentary shot by the Italian TV show “Le Iene”, an ex-worker of one of the industrial plants, handles the so-called “Pietra del diavolo”, i.e. the devil’s stone in Italian. As shown in the footage, one could easily light a fire by rubbing these rocks. Behind the mystic name there is a solid scientific explanation, as those stones are nothing but agglomerates of flammable compounds. In 1980s, Eni — an international oil and gas company boasting the third largest revenue of all Italian corporations, and one of the seven largest oil companies in the world — became the main shareholder of those polluting factories.
With unforgiveable delay, the Italian government officially recognized the ex-industrial area as a contaminated “site of national interest” in 2001. This special “award” was granted because of the high level and hazard of the pollutants as well as the outstanding extent of its contamination (4,000 football pitches). After a whopping 16 years, the Italian Minister of Environment and spin-off company of Eni, Syndial, now called Eni Rewind, finally found an agreement to start the environmental remediation of a minor portion of the site. However, Eni’s project was dubbed inadequate and unacceptable by environmental activists.
The recklessness of the authorities is even more shocking when considering that in Crotone, the cancer mortality rate is 30% higher than the national average. Certainly, spreading toxic waste around the city didn’t help. Schools, houses and even the Crotone police headquarter was built over a pile of industrial rubbish. An epidemiological study published in 2000 suggests that the heavy metals in the air are a potential cause of the anomalous rise in respiratory pathologies and tumours affecting the local community over the last years.
Crotone: Italy’s bottom gem
While industrial pollution affected part of Crotone’s coastline, the city’s golden sandy beaches and protected marine reserves still attract many tourists over summer, which could easily last up to five months in Calabria.
And yet, Crotone is permanently ranking at the bottom of the national charts when measuring the quality of life. The lack of transport infrastructure and high-level services undermines the potential of its wonders. Most of the tourists are Calabrian residents and expats coming back to visit their family.This shows that, if not integrated with the development of other sectors and tailored to local economy, tourism could be a poverty trap.
Failing to convert polluting industries into sustainable projects, both local and national administrators fuelled the youth unemployment rate, which rose to around 64%. Other than tourism, agriculture and small businesses, those who heroically remained rely one of the main employers, a call centre, to survive.
The result of this was another negative record for Crotone, who scored the highest emigration rate to the richer North as of 2019.
An eco-warrior coming to the rescue
Intangible yet ubiquitous over the territory, ‘Ndrangheta—the most powerful mafia in Italy, if not globally—adds to the collusion, negligence and incompetence of local politicians. This poisonous cocktail spurred Crotone residents into a civic revolution in 2018. With nearly 50% of the votes, the ex-Hellenic settlement contributed to the unexpected victory of the anti-establishment 5 Star Movement at the last national elections. Crotone voters were enticed by two of their campaign’s main pillars — eradicating corruption from politics and a higher minimum income for poorer people. However, when forming a government with Lega — infamous for their anti-southerner and anti-migrant sentiments — many felt betrayed by the 5 star movement.
On the heel of this political turmoil, a chemistry professor and environmental activist, Vincenzo Voce, formed a civic list to battle against left and right coalitions, which had been in power for what seemed to be forever. With the same vigour and bravery of his ancestor Milo, Voce became mayor on October 5th, 2020. Before being elected mayor, Vincenzo Voce had been on the front line of raising awareness on Crotone’s ecological disaster and so put the environment at the centre of his political agenda. This was a historic outcome, given no civic lists had ever conquered the council. Local social movements like “Stanchi dei soliti” (fed up with the status quo) significantly contributed to Voce’s triumph.
Will the eco-warrior make the Ancient Kroton rise from its ashes?
Voce’s term started with a bang. When forming his team, Voce included, for the first time, a Counsellor dedicated to protecting people’s health and acknowledging the environmental damage caused by former industries. In March 2021, the mayor requested 10 million Euros worth of royalties from Calabria’s regional government. These were to pay the city back for the waste that was unfairly dumped into Crotone landfills. In addition, last August, Voce raised his voice on Crotone’s environmental and sanitary emergency during an online meeting with representatives from the national and regional government and from Eni Rewind. After rejecting the company’s proposals in May, the mayor suggested a more appropriate (while not necessarily more expensive) remediation of the ex-industrial site to ensure a safer decontamination of the area, which would effectively protect the health of the local population.
In the meantime, Voce and his team already won a fight against Eni on a different yet related battleground. The company had refused to pay the 2016 due taxes for keeping three methane extraction platforms off Crotone’s coastline. Back in April, after rejecting to negotiate with Eni, Crotone’s municipality appealed to local tax authorities, which, just this November, forced the oil giant to swell the city’s coffers with nearly 4 million Euros. According to Voce, this ground-breaking sentence will have a knock-on effect on other litigations Eni is engaged with on a national scale. Certainly, this is the least Eni could do to pay the Crotone community back after plundering its resources for 50 years. Tapping into 16% of the Italian methane production, the multinational firm did not give Crotone any compensation during the first 20 years of extraction. Instead, its activity increased the land’s subsidence, threatening more environmental issues such as mudslides or sinkholes.
Besides challenging Eni on multiple fronts, the mayor also made a first step to address youth unemployment. Over the next three years, Crotone council is planning to hire 200 collaborators across several areas of expertise. Although this is encouraging, the new leadership should strive to design projects revolving around the circular economy that could attract sustainability-driven investors and unleash new green jobs.
As for waste disposal, this is still a pressing issue. In July, driven by frustration, someone brought the mayor a stinky present. Several rubbish bags were taken off the street and laid outside the council main entrance. Despite the fact that Crotone sidewalks are now largely cleared of rubbish, recycling, which was one of Voce’s priorities, is still not taking off because of delays in planning and a lack of infrastructure. Yet, in July, door-to-door collection of plastic and metals started in three areas of the city. In addition to that, Voce claims he will soon present a new project on recycling which aims to receive 2.2 million Euro in funding from the Calabria region. If the project was to be financed, recycling may become a reality for the entire city.
While Voce is trying to fulfil his environmental promises, one (pandemic) year of government can’t reverse the effect of toxic decades. Despite the garbage bravado, most people seem to understand that. In a recent poll, Voce ranked as the 13th most appreciated mayor of Italy.
Crotone is not the only community bearing the brunt of Eni’s negligence. The oil giant has left a 60-year toxic legacy in the Niger Delta — one of the most polluted places on Earth. Since the 1950s, Eni has been sucking dirty fuels out of Nigeria’s soil while soiling its land and waterways. What’s worse, local people often do not get compensated for oil spills because of a flawed analysis of root causes performed by the government. Yet, in 2017, the small Ikebiri community rose to its feet to fight for its rights. In what sounds like a David vs Goliath clash, they sued Eni in their home country for an oil spill caused by the failure of one of their pipelines in 2010. In an unprecedent court case in Italy, the Nigerian village put a spotlight on Eni’s environmental damage overseas.
After months of negotiations, the oil corporation offered to upgrade local energy infrastructure and renovate the community’s health centre. When commenting on this outcome, the Ikebiri’s king said, “No individual community suffering from Eni’s crimes has been able to take Eni to court on an international level and get a result such as this. Only if the company keeps its promises, we have truly got justice.” Despite winning this battle, the village hasn’t won the environmental justice war yet. Through an out-of-court settlement, Eni took a shortcut to escape their liability without paying the 2m euro compensation initially asked for by the Ikebiri community. To add to that, Ikebiri’s fishponds and plants are still drenched in crude oil, thus affecting Indigenous’ livelihood.
Whether in their own country or abroad, Eni still do not take full ownership of their environmental impact. There won’t be true justice until they pay their eco-victims back. Without rewinding to Greek times, Crotone and other places across the world could benefit from a transition to a zero-carbon economy. This is where big players like Eni could redeem themselves, investing in renewable energy and circular materials while ditching oil and harmful chemicals for good. Clearly, there’s a strong parallelism between what Crotone and Ikebiri experienced. And not only because they’ve been fighting against the same enemy. The common thread weaving the two cases together is that an uncontrolled pursuit of private interests comes with a detrimental legacy for people and their habitat. As this story hints, this won’t end until underdog small communities join forces to demand justice from mega profit-centred corporations. Be it an international class action or social media networking, global citizens should come together if they want Eni and the likes to promote a sustainable growth for the whole society.
Antonio Salituro is a freelance eco-friendly copywriter, blogger and journalist who specialises in the environmental sustainability niche.