Capri: The island drowning in a sea of rubbish

As the streets and picturesque piazzas are overwhelmed, local officials have taken the drastic step of demanding all tourists be banned until the crisis is solved. But the underlying cause of the problem remains a subject for heated debate, as John Phillips reports
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In one of W Somerset Maugham's most famous short stories, the anonymous narrator describes the joy of a visit to Capri: "There is a terrace that overlooks the Bay of Naples and when the sun sinks slowly into the sea, the island of Ischia is silhouetted against a blaze of splendour. It is one of the most lovely sights in the world".

"The Lotus Eater" was written in 1945. Sixty years later, a different scene awaits the tourist on arrival in Capri. Mountains of rotting refuse litter the otherwise picturesque streets and sun-drenched alleyways. Even the beautiful piazza is in danger of being overwhelmed by the tide of litter.

The mayor of Capri, Ciro Lembo, is at the point of despair: "Over the past two days, our streets have been invaded by the rising piles of rubbish," he told the Rome paper Il Messaggero this week.

Mario Staiano, mayor of AnaCapri, the other village on the island, is similarly exasperated: "We just cannot manage to get rid of the waste generated by 13,500 residents and 3,500 guests," he said. "Imagine what it will be like when we have to deal with the rubbish produced by the tens of thousands of tourists who arrive at the heart of the summer."

Not for the first time, up-market Capri, a playground for the beautiful and the very, very rich, is at war with Naples, the chaotic, working-class city that runs its public services. For reasons that remain obscure, Naples magistrates recently closed down seven rubbish disposal plants, including one at Giuligano, where Capri normally dumps the detritus generated by those living the good life on its gilded shores. There are rumours that the closures occurred because the plants were failing to meet environmental, hygiene and safety standards, but whatever the cause, "la questione rifuiti" (the rubbish question), is the political issue on all lips.

As the dustmen's trucks were turned back, piles of trash began to appear in the cobbled streets of Capri. As a result, relations between the posh island and its rowdy near-neighbour on the mainland have degenerated to an all-time low.

Now, Mr Lembo and Mr Staiano have decided to fight back on behalf of Capri residents. The two mayors have already pasted up posters around the island urging citizens not to dump rubbish in the streets. That's the home front taken care of.

This week the battle with the Neapolitans was joined in earnest. If Naples won't take the island's rubbish, then Capri, say the mayors, will be obliged to refuse the mainland's tourists.

As high season on the island gets under way, with an estimated 18,000 tourists expected to flood the streets each day to see sights such as the Blue Grotto and the Faraglioni Rocks, the mayors have fired off an indignant letter to the prefect of Naples, Renato Profili, warning their idyllic territory "is in danger of exploding".

The rubbish crisis at first appeared to be only temporary, they said, but now it had taken on an air of permanency, with no sign of the waste disposal plant re-opening. They have asked the Prefect, the representative of the Rome government responsible for public order in the Naples area, to rapidly introduce a decree allowing only the island's 13,500 residents to take ferries and hydrofoils to Capri.

The solution is drastic, but the only alternative the mayors say, given the continuing closure of the disposal plants, would be to allow them to set up a separate waste disposal plant on the island itself to process the rubbish. That idea has already caused apoplexy among Italian environmentalists.

"I certainly cannot allow myself the luxury of allowing tourists to arrive among the rubbish," Mr Lembo said. Remembering last year, most of his voters heartily agree. During a similar crisis last summer, Capri paid a fortune out of municipal coffers to private contractors, who disposed of the rubbish. But local taxpayers and voters would not tolerate another extraordinary outlay, the mayor cautioned.

"Capri's image is priceless to us," he said. "The garbage problem already struck us dramatically last year in high season. We were obliged to spend €150,000 (£100,000). "Imagine what it will be like when we have to deal with the rubbish produced by the tens of thousands of tourists who arrive at the heart of the summer. We have warned the police headquarters and the Government. But we have had no written communications from them in reply."

This is a sorry chapter in a long-running saga of mistrust, enmity and rows. Each year a war of words seems to break out between authorities in Capri, a prestigious resort since the days of the emperor Tiberius, their allies in Anacapri, the second-largest village, and the nominal masters on the mainland. Past mayors of Capri have even threatened to declare independence to try to liberate themselves from the constraints of Neapolitan government.

In the 1980s a bitter battle erupted when the island accused politicians allegedly linked to the Camorra, the vicious Naples version of the Sicilian Mafia, of trying to sabotage a pipeline carrying drinking water to Capri from the mainland. The motive, they claimed, was to ensure that expensive water tanker services linked to the mob would remain essential for the island's survival.

In an attempt to help mediate the latest row, the president of the regional government of Campania, Antonio Bassolino, appointed a special commissioner for rubbish collection for the region, Corrado Catenacci, to deal with the processing crisis, which has also hit other parts of Campania. Critics say, however, that Mr Bassolino's "trouble-shooting" has so far had little impact on the burgeoning fiasco.

As the refuse turns pungent in the summer heat, some of Capri's best-known residents and native sons have tried to defend its reputation. "Capri is beautiful even in an emergency situation," said Peppino Di Capri, a popular singer whose dozens of songs about the island such as "Capri Moon," and "Champagne" have become nationwide chartbusters.

"These problems haven't stopped me inviting friends to my house this summer to pass the evenings singing together," he said. The singer, however, praised the mayors for raising the alarm by threatening to stop tourists landing.

" But I am still asking myself what will happen at the ancient Roman summer festival of Ferragosto, when there are usually many more tourists. Of course Bassolino cannot just wave a magic wand. I hope we find a definitive solution in a hurry. I have travelled a lot and I've never seen so much trash anywhere."

Roberto Ciuni, a popular Italian writer who lives on the island for five to six months each year, also was unruffled by the crisis. "In the end some 'saint' will open another waste dump, another 'saint' still will authorise the lorries to dump in other cities and in this way Signor Bassolino will be happy to say the problem is resolved," he said, shrugging.

Mr Ciuni is one of the most outspoken island critics of the centre-left regional administration run by Mr Bassolino, whom the writer regularly lambasts in a column he writes for the Naples daily Il Mattino. Unlike his neighbours, he believes there are deep and troubling dimensions to the piles of refuse, drawing a parallel between the crisis and the organised crime gangs that authorities have failed to curb in and around Naples. An escalating battle for lucrative cocaine smuggling and extortion rackets has dominated the headlines in Naples for months.

"The deafness of this ruling class on the rubbish question as on that of the crime problem causes a lot of public controversy," Mr Ciuni said. "But in Campania the regional government has a serious responsibility for preparing a waste disposal plan, with incinerators, stocking centres and whatever else is needed."

Hinting at the Camorra kingpins' well-known and longstanding interests in the waste sector, he said: "There seems to be a sort of taboo about dealing with the trash. This is a part of the world where change is measured in centuries. These problems with luck will be considered in the next century."

In Naples, where the Capri lifestyle is both envied and disparaged, a different tale is being told. The philosopher and pundit Luciano De Crescenzio shows typical intolerance of what he sees as capricious complaints from a spoilt and overly-indulged population. "If there is a waste emergency it is because we produce too much of everything," he said. "I remember that 50 years ago each household produced a really tiny packet of rubbish that was left outside.

"Above all one needs to try to produce less trash. Then the local administrations need to employ more people in the industry. Yesterday I was at a birthday party. If you only know how many ribbons, wrappers and sheets of paper were left lying around after all the presents were unwrapped."

Mr de Crescenzio says a more ecologically-friendly lifestyle is required, rather than the establishment of new rubbish dumps. "Local councils ought to dedicate more time to these problems. Perhaps we need a television programme to educate people about rubbish, given that they are used to watching so much trash.

"I believe that where we are dictates how we behave. Neither the Neapolitans nor the tourists are to blame."

Nevertheless, perhaps mindful of the growing eyesore across the water, after visiting Capri every summer for twenty years, Mr de Crescenzio has cancelled his annual holiday. This summer he will travel elsewhere with his friend, the veteran Naples songwriter, Renzo Arbore. If the mayors get their way, he will not be the only tourist forced to change his plans.

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