In order to protect the environment, a set of regulations govern how businesses should dispose of their waste in the Italian province of Brescia. However, committing environmental crimes is relatively easy. Luisa Olivi studied how people in Brescia perceive the seriousness of these crimes. She uncovers five perceptual dimensions that mutually influence each other: environment, crime, violence, harm and vulnerabilities, and victims.
In this time of climate anxiety, when our attention goes towards climate change, floods, droughts, emissions reduction, and energy crises, environmental crimes still play a marginal role in the discussions. Despite the fact that the polluter-pays-principle underlies regulations and the markets that have the final aim of reducing pollution, seldom do we refer to pollution as an environmental crime. In other words, yes, we do talk about environmental crimes, but with other words. The concept of environmental crime might even be scary, as it entails forms of harm, violence, victims, and perpetrators.
The research I conducted aimed to study how people perceive environmental crimes and the elements that influence these perceptions. The study focuses on the illegal waste trade with mafia involvement — or, to be more precise, ecomafia –– which refers to crimes against the environment committed by mafia groups (Legambiente, 2019). Illegal waste trade is considered the most profitable environmental crime and includes all the activities of sorting, transporting, and disposing of waste that do not follow the regulations. The research does not differentiate the activity by type of waste, unless specified. The risks of being caught and arrested are minimal, so are the potential sanctions, whilst the profits and the demand for these services is high.
The study was carried out in the province of Brescia, Northern Italy, an area that is home to the leading businesses in the European steel industry. The province is a rich basin of natural resources and has a strategic position that makes it an optimal landscape for illegal waste trade (Bonzanni, 2019; Dalla Chiesa, 2016). In fact, the province has the highest density of landfills in the country, either legal or illegal (Forti, 2018). Illegal landfills are the result of exploited gravel and sand pits that, once drained of their resources, can be used for waste disposal of industrial materials. And, as they lay in private property, it is easy to hide them. Inspections happen only in case of accident, as demonstrated by the several cases of fires in warehouses where waste was stored or in landfills (DIA, 2019; CROSS, 2019).
The interest of the ecomafia in the area has been proven by several investigations (CROSS, 2019; Camera dei Deputati, 2012). Illicit activity can occur at different moments of the waste cycle: falsification and declassification of the type of waste (hazardous waste treated as urban waste), negligent disposal (for example, without carrying out the appropriate treatment of hazardous waste), or disposal in illegal landfills. In the province of Brescia, the ecomafia take part in the illegal waste trade partially through brokering, transporting, or disposing of waste. New actors are white-collar businessmen that decide to dispose of waste illegally, generally to avoid paying taxes or sanctions (DIA, 2019).
Against this backdrop, the research aimed to study how the inhabitants of the province of Brescia perceived the seriousness of the environmental crimes in the illegal waste trade (Warr, 1989; Shelly et all, 2011; Adriaenssen, 2018). The goal was to understand which factors are relevant in the perception of how serious environmental crimes are, and how these elements interact with each other. The study of the perceptions of environmental crimes becomes relevant to address policies and actions to prevent them or to prosecute the perpetrators.
The findings showed five perceptual dimensions that mutually influence each other: environment, crime, violence, harm and vulnerabilities, and victims.
The first dimension defines what is the environment (White and Heckenberg, 2014). Here, three perspectives were outlined: 1) the anthropological perspective, for which the environment exists in function of human lives; 2) the co-dependent perspective, where environment and humans are dependent on each other; 3) the nature-centric perspective, where nature is the focus and humans are just a part of it.
The second dimension studies the perceptions of crimes (Hillyard, Tombs, 2007). We can divide it into the legal perspective, which understands crimes as actions against the law, and an environmental perspective, where the actions damage the environment but are not necessarily sanctioned. Another element that influences the perception of crimes is the identity of the perpetrator: whenever the ecomafia is involved, the crimes are perceived as more serious.
The third dimension regards violence. Physical violence – or the lack of it – seems to be the first element that defines the seriousness of the crimes. Environmental crimes are less violent than other crimes because they lack physical violence. On the other hand, part of the participants addressed the role of slow violence (Nixon, 2011). The actions that damage the environment are more violent than other crimes because they are part of slow violence – invisible, continuous, and undetected. Yet, another part of the audience argued that it is impossible to compare these types of violence. One particularity is how mafia violence the environmental crime is perceived as slow violence. The typical idea of mafia violence includes physical harm towards chosen targets, yet this case is considered slow violence but seen as more dangerous because it affects the collectivity.
The fourth dimension dives into harm and vulnerabilities (Rosenmerkel, 2001). From an anthropological perspective, pollution creates indirect harm. Meanwhile, from a co-dependent and natural perspective, pollution is a form of direct damage to the environment. The dimension of harm includes the perception of social harm, which is affected by the spatial and temporal diffusion of the harm. Slow violence and harm enhance the vulnerabilities of the region’s inhabitants and of future generations.
The fifth and last dimension considers the victims (Hall, 2014; Skinnider, 2011). From an anthropological perspective, society, perceived as a whole, is the victim of slow violence. Related to the ecomafia’s involvement, society is considered a victim as well, but the identity of the perpetrator leads the crime to be considered more serious and dangerous.
The research shows how complex and intricate the study of environmental crime is and highlights the need for more research that considers the perspective of those living in affected areas. A positive outcome – or better said, an outcome that gives hope – is that it is commonly believed that community actions as social mobilisation and awareness, involvement of the citizens and institutions, are extremely useful to denounce and prevent environmental crimes.
* Disclaimer: the author’s current employer is not responsible for this article, which was written before she joined the organisation.
- This blog post is based on the author’s master’s thesis The Public’s Perception of the Seriousness of Environmental Crimes Related to Environmental Pollution and Illegal Waste Trade. A Case Study of the Province of Brescia, Italy, published in the Journal of Illicit Economies and Development, LSE Press.
- The post represents the views of its author, not the position of her employer, LSE Business Review, or the London School of Economics.
- Featured image by Bakhrom Tursunov on Unsplash
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