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Fight for justice in land of fires: ‘keeping silent doesn’t help’

It’s known locally as the “land of fires”.

In the countryside north of Naples, huge plumes of smoke mark the spots where piles of toxic waste including asbestos, chemical dyes and tanning solvents are burnt or dumped illegally.

According to reports, many of these heaps of debris are the result of secret deals between manufacturers from Italy and beyond, and the Camorra – one of Italy’s three main mafia groups. Firms wanting to reduce the costs of getting rid of their waste turned to the Camorra, which disposed of it underhandedly. It’s estimated that the scheme has earned the crime network billions in profits.

Meanwhile, the local population is forced to endure horrific air- and water pollution. While no direct link has ever been proven, cancer is disproportionately high in the surrounding towns.

It’s led to a second nickname for the region, “the triangle of death”.

There are few prosecutions for the dumping crimes. With alleged links between the mafia and those in power, certain police officers may have been paid off – or intimidated – to ensure their silence. But this is not true for all of them.

In 2014 Transparency International Italy gave its annual Ambrosoli award to Michele Liguori, a police officer who dedicated his life to investigating fires and landfill sites, and exposing those who were behind them.

Now in its third year, the Ambrosoli award was created in memory of Giorgio Ambrosoli, an Italian lawyer who was killed while investigating the alleged corruption of an Italian businessman.

Like Ambrosoli, Liguori gave his life fighting for justice. In January this year, he died aged 58 as a result of two cancerous tumors. His blood tests showed increased levels of carcinogenic chemical substances likely to be the result of exposure to toxic fumes.

Speaking to journalists just days before his death, he stood by his decision to pursue those responsible for the waste dumping.

I could not pretend not to see. I have never liked cowards.”

– Michele Liguori, winner of the Ambrosoli award

Valentina Rigamonti, our Senior Regional Coordinator for Europe and Central Asia, interviewed Liguori’s son to find out more about the police officer’s work and his lasting legacy.

Michele understood the risks of investigating the fires and encountering the fumes. What do you think made him continue?

It was Michele’s determination to fight against illegal dumping and assist others affected by it. He only came to understand the risks of his work quite late, especially for his health. However, this didn’t stop him. When he was already bedridden, many of his contacts and friends came to visit him and asked for his advice. Michele answered all their questions and tried to help them until his last moment.

Michele succeeded in making some arrests of those connected with the scheme. Do you think there was one achievement he was most proud of?

Some of his investigations brought arrests, but these are not his most important successes. His main achievement was increasing awareness of the problem – not only among the locals, but also among the authorities and public institutions. Thanks to his job and his commitment, people started to speak out about the issue and the public authorities had to begin to deal with the problem and become accountable. Another important achievement was that my father was able to limit the problem. Unfortunately, he could not stop the illegal dumping completely, but was able to make it more difficult for people to get away with it.

Michele’s death was met with messages of condolence from many of those in power, including the mayor of Naples and the Italian president. What do you think will be the long-term impact of his work?

We hope that the legacy of Michele’s work will be the development of new projects for cleaning up specific polluted areas. But for this, we also need the support of the public authorities and public institutions. My father wouldn’t have wanted the land of fires to be forgotten as soon as the media stopped reporting on it. His wish was that people continue speaking out to seek possible solutions.

What do you think would be his message to others who are facing entrenched corruption?

My father’s message would be that individuals, firstly, should take responsibility for their communities. It should be the responsibility of everyone to report wrongdoing if they see it, and they should be able to do this without fear. Keeping silent does not help.

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