‘Land of Fires’ — dying of cancer in southern Italy

Dark skies over Campania

The Amalfi coast or the Pompeii ruins are just a few of the many attractions Campania has to offer. But while the picturesque Italian region gave birth to pizza, it’s also home to the “Triangle of Death,” an area between the cities of Naples and Caserta where people are forced to live amid garbage, breathe toxic fumes from burning landfills and drink poisoned water due to illegally disposed waste.

An invisible killer

Stefano Schirato began covering the environmental catastrophe in 2015, although he was reluctant at first. “The disaster has been piling up for the last 30 years, ever since the Camorra and national and international companies made deals with politicians to deposit the garbage here to cut down costs of legal disposal,” he told DW. “How do you deal with a problem when it’s buried underground?”

Unnatural development

Over the decades, millions of tons of rubbish were buried under the houses and villages in the district, and the local authorities even permitted setting up a nomadic camp on the site of an illegal landfill. “One of the first times I visited the area, I was surprised how the large amounts of rubbish dumped into certain areas turned into hills that hadn’t naturally existed before,” said Schirato.

Disposable generations

Schirato was eventually convinced by locals whom he approached during the initial research in this so-called Land of Fires. “I met kids who lost their parents and parents who lost their kids, even as young as 22 months,” he said and tells the story of Anna: “Her baby was born healthy but developed cancer at the age of 10 months. That was when I realized the problem was really big.”

Digging up the dirt

Schirato also recalls a 60-year-old woman named Rosetta from Terzigno near Naples: “When she was diagnosed with cancer, she realized many of her neighbors who lived near an illegal landfill had been diagnosed with tumors too. So she went from door to door asking people about their health and wrote down all the information. Her notebook then became the official cancer registry of Terzigno.”

Survival instinct

The region’s environmental and health issues have never been a secret, but it wasn’t until 2016 when the National Institute of Health officially recognized the link between the local waste disposal and the alarming rates of various types of cancer and other diseases, which in some cases are twice as high than in the rest of Italy. “It was like a bomb. People got angry,” remembers Schirato.

Staying put

Despite the pollution and the contamination of the soil, the inhabitants of the “Triangle of Death” don’t want to leave their homes. In today’s Italy, Schirato explained, the locals are unlikely to find jobs elsewhere, let alone an affordable living. “There’s another reason, too: People who were born here and have lived their whole life here simply don’t want to leave their homes.”

Ignorance is not bliss

Since the 2016 health study, the matter has become a political one, but no concrete measures have been taken. “People are now aware of the problem and want justice, so politicians can’t ignore it anymore, but to clean the area will be difficult and dangerous. I was at the uncovering of one illegal site by the State Forestry Corps and they even found radioactive material inside,” said Schirato.

Praying for a better future

Stefano Schirato is releasing the result of his three-year photographic study in a book that is now being crowdfunded via CrowdBooks (https://crowdbooks.com/projects/terra-mala). Developers are also currently creating smartphone apps that can identify illegal dumps and landfill fires and send location information to authorities. “For now, it’s the only thing we can do,” said Schirato.