Standort: / Meldung: ""People Have to Wake Up!""

Chris Cummins

Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds.

8. 9. 2010 - 12:14

"People Have to Wake Up!"

Fighting back against toxic dumping in the Mediterranean Sea.

David Boardman, an Italian-born designer and researcher at the MIT Design Laboratory, has created a map of what he says is one of the greatest environmental scandals over our age. Over the course of the past 30 years, he says, ships have been deliberately sunk by mafia groups to cheaply dispose of tons of toxic, chemical and radioactive waste and make huge profits. The faked ship-wrecks have allowed the gangsters to defraud insurance companies, rid companies of rusting and decrepit boats and have saved businessmen the thousands of euros it would have cost to dispose of the dangerous waste safely and legitimately.

“As a stereotype we associate the Mafia with prostitution and drug dealing,” says Boardman, “but nowadays environmental crimes are more important than even that.”

Mittelmeerkarte, die gesunkene Schiffe und Giftmüll anzeigt

Last year, for example, the Mafia turncoat Francesco Fonti, from the Calabria-based 'ndrangheta crime syndicate, told a court that in the 1990’s he had used explosives to sink a ship off the Calabrian coast that was carrying 120 barrels of radioactive waste.

This is a scandal that has huge implications for the health of the Mediterranean Sea and therefore for the health our fisheries and ultimately for our health. And that’s why Boardman wants to confront more people with the dumping so that we finally “wake up and force their public authorities to take care of these problems.”

Visualising the Problem

To create more public awareness, Boardman has developed the website called that helps people visualise the problem. The project began with a journalistic investigation led by Boardman’s friend, Paolo Gerbaudo, who is a freelance correspondent of the paper Il Manifesto. Gerbaudo compiled a dossier from the records of the Lloyd’s Register of Shipping in London which showed that there had been over 70 suspicious ship sinkings in the Mediterranean Sea between 1979 and 2001, which the he says could be linked with toxic waste traffic. The team then supplemented that information with clipping from the archives of newspapers and the data collected by NGOs and finally displayed the database on the internet, making it free to download.

If you click on the web-site you can find information such as the co-ordinates of the “toxic sinkings”, the cargo on board at the time as well as the planned routes on the ships. Boardman feels that the issue is of vital importance to the public, both in Italy and abroad, but that people struggle to come to grips with this case because of its “sheer complexity” and due to the "high number of incidents" - hence the internet database.

As Boardman puts it: “The website allows you to make you own personal investigation into what happened in the past 30 years.” He says that nowadays it is important that individual Europeans take a personal interest in what is happening to their environment and don’t rely on the authorities.

Piktogramme mit gesunkenen Schiffen und Giftmüll

Both Boardman and Gerbaudo think it unwise not only to rely on the authorities but even to trust them. The team alleges that public officials in Italy have often turned a blind-eye to the dumping and at times have even colluded to facilitate it. Indeed Italian parliament member Leoluca Orlando asked CNN "Can you imagine that it is possible to happen without persons inside the system, inside the political system, inside the bureaucracy, inside the state, not being connected with these criminals?"

Boardman points to a complicated network of backhanders that ensures that many people have profited from this clandestine industry, from white-collar businessmen to government officials and even the secret-service.

The Italian government denies any collusion.

"Ecological Time Bombs"

Gerbaudo calls the sunken toxic ships “ecological time bombs” and says his research has shown that problem goes beyond the borders of Italy: “Many ships suspected of having carried toxic waste have sunk in international waters and off the coasts of other Mediterranean countries like Greece, Lebanon and Turkey.” He’s calling on the European Union, and the International Maritime Organisation to intervene on this issue, warning that “Inaction could cost thousands of lives".

Alarm bells are already ringing in Italy. Boardman says that health research has shown that specific cancers are spiking by as much as 12% along the Mediterranean. These include cancers of the pancreas and of the intestines, carcinomas which have been linked with the consumption of polluted water and fish stock.

David Boardman and Paolo Gerbaudo were guests at ARS Electronica 2010

The duo sees the “” project as a “work in progress”. Users and experts are invited to submit further information to add to the understanding of different incidents. Gerbaudo says that within 3 days of the launch of the Italian version the website received dozens of e-mails about possible new cases or providing new details on known incidents.

Piktogramme mit gesunkenen Schiffen und Giftmüll

Boardman is delighted with this participation and he says that there is the beginning of a public revolt against the Mafia’s control of Italian waste disposal. There was, for example, a loud public outcry after Italy's public health authorities admitted that high toxin levels in Italian Mozzarella cheese were probably explained by the contamination due to illegal dumping of toxic waste by the Camorra in Campania.

”Things are changing slowly,” says Boardman, “People are dying due to this dumping. They realize that they have to do something to fight back.”